An Interview With Ross Atkin
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me this week! Please tell the readers about yourself and the work you do.
Ross Atkin: Thanks for your interest! I’m a product designer based in London. I work as a design consultant, mainly on work to make products and environments work better for disabled people, for UK manufacturing companies and municipal bodies. Those projects move quite slowly and it can take many years to get innovations out into the world and in use.
I’m also passionate about introducing kids to making and STEM activities, so in order to help with that, and to work on products that could get out into the world quicker, I started a business called The Crafty Robot that makes kits made up of cardboard and electronics, that allow you to build robots and then reuse the parts in your own creations.
How long have you been into robotics? How did you get your start?
Ross Atkin: For the last twelve years or so much of my work has involved combining electronics, programming, and physical products and environments in new and hopefully useful ways. Because of this I’ve needed to keep up to date with the latest electronic components and have always been doing little experiments to see what you can do with them.
The first robot product I made grew out of one of these experiments that started out as a Christmas card for my consultancy clients. It was a little paper reindeer that you assembled by folding it up and had circuit board which you’d plug into a USB port, would charge and then make the reindeer run around when you unplugged it.
Everyone really liked them so I licensed the design of the circuit board to an educational technology company that sells mainly into Schools. The boards (Fizzbits) were selling well in schools but not to families because they weren’t much of a gift without something you could put them in right away.
I realized that we needed to make a cardboard kit so I designed one of those and that became the first product made by The Crafty Robot. Those little robots give lots of opportunity for creativity but are too simple to call robotics. I wanted to do something that had the same ethos but was properly programmable and worked with smartphones and tablets.
Projects like Smartipresence and business, in general, take a lot of time and energy. What do you do to stay productive?
Ross Atkin: It’s really hard to keep all the balls in the air and I always feel like I’m a few steps behind on everything. I feel like I’m OK at prioritizing tasks and I think that’s the only way I’m able to keep things running. I think that may be an underrated skill but I think it’s a very important one, that people who are always very on top of everything they are doing sometimes don’t have.
What are your biggest obstacles when it comes to your business? What are you doing to overcome them?
Ross Atkin: As my previous answer implied, I struggle to do all the things I know I need to do to grow the business properly. Last year we did really well with making content, mainly cool and fun examples of things you can do with our products, like a radio-controlled blimp or a gingerbread house robot, but that came at the cost of new product development. This year I’m trying to focus more on that and release more expansion kits.
Outside of The Crafty Robot and Smartipresence, what do you do for fun?
Ross Atkin: Whilst it’s stressful and a huge amount of effort, working on the Crafty Robot is definitely fun. As I mentioned at the beginning I also work on design consultancy projects, which I also enjoy as I get to work with and meet some really nice and interesting people. Outside of work I mainly look after our son, who is two and a half and is really fun to hang out with.
How do you foster your own creativity? Do you work at it, or wait for inspiration to strike?
Ross Atkin: I find I’m always thinking about design problems and I usually solve them in the shower or cycling to work. In terms of creating new ideas I feel like I always learn something new every time I make something, so one idea just kind of leads on to another. The toddler has also started suggesting things some of which have turned into project examples we have published.
Problems are also frequently a starting point, definitely for most of my consultancy projects, but also for the latest thing I’ve released as The Crafty Robot, which is trying to solve one of the problems that have been created by the virus situation.
Running a business is often a collaborative process between management, staff, and customers. How do you foster relationships and approach the collaborative process?
Ross Atkin: I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve met some really fantastic people who I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done without and who I really enjoy working with. It’s those kinds of relationships that allow you to make things happen. Finding people like that is hard and in my experience, they have almost always come through my network, so working in different places and getting involved in different projects has been central to meeting them.
Once I had met them I think the key thing to building and maintaining a good relationship is mutual trust. So many managers don’t trust the people who are working for them, so if you do trust them, people will often want to work with you. I try to maintain the same approach of trust and respect with our customers. To be as honest and possible and explain whenever things have gone wrong, and do my best to sort out any problems.
I also base much of our new product development on trying to help our customers more easily do things they are already trying to do. It’s always great to receive emails asking for help and advice on something someone wants to make with one of our products because it’s often showing something we need to make next.
What advice can you give to people who want to start their own company?
Ross Atkin: Start with something small that you know you can make a profit-making and then build up from there. I’m really horrified when I see people raising loads of money to make something they’ve not proven in the market at all and might not even get to work. Also, try and work out where you think you have unfair advantages over other people who might be making and selling things that would compete with you and focus on those areas.
For me with the Smartibot, because in the consultancy work we’d done so many Bluetooth devices with connected apps, and because all the robot kits in the market have such awful apps, I knew we could make a much better app and would have an unfair advantage there.
Do you have any upcoming events or releases you would like to discuss?
Ross Atkin: We’ve just launched a new product called Smartipresence, which is a little robot that tries to keep you closely connected to folks you can’t be physically close to because of the virus situation. It holds your phone and displays the person you are speaking to, just like a video call, but they can control the robot and drive themselves around your space, choosing what to look at and where to go.
It’s not the same as being somewhere but it’s much more like it than a regular video call. We’re running a Kickstarter to put it into production and you can get one for £50 ($65).
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me this week. Where can the readers find you and your work?
Ross Atkin: You can check out the campaign to get Smartipresence into production over on Kickstarter. See all The Crafty Robot products and all the project examples at our official website and check out the consultancy work I do at my personal website.
Check Out Ross Atkin and Smartipresence
A huge thank you to Ross Atkin for taking the time to chat with me this week and talk about Smartipresence. Make sure to check out Ross’ projects at the following locations: