Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
In science and technology there is a wide and persistent gap when it comes to who is innovating. According to recent data assembled by the National Girls Collaborative Project, while women make up 50 percent of the workforce, they only account for 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
Though these fields can seem intimidating and the statistics daunting, Ayah Bdeir is on a mission to help everyone, regardless of age, gender or technical know-how get excited about what is possible in the world of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).
In 2011, she founded LittleBits. The company makes color-coded and magnetic electronic building blocks that allow users to create their own invention — everything from musical instruments to robot pals.
She developed the concept while she was at graduate school at MIT and the first prototype for LittleBits had its debut at the World Maker Faire in New York.
Six years later, LittleBits has raised $62.34 million in funding and created nine different kits. The New York City-based company has a presence in over 20,000 schools and has a staff of more than 110 full-time employees. It has won more than 25 tech and education awards — including a spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Bdeir’s TED Talk about her philosophy behind LittleBits — called “Building Blocks that Blink, Beep and Teach” — has been watched more than 1 million times.
Recently, LittleBits, in collaboration with LucasFilm and Disney, released a Droid Inventor Kit. “We want to start a droid inventor movement,” explains Bdeir. “We want kids everywhere to join, participate and lead a movement of droid inventors that’s really founded on creativity, technology, STEM and STEAM and fun.”
We caught up with Bdeir to ask her 20 Questions and find out what makes her tick.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
1. How do you start your day?
My mom and one of my sisters live in Beirut and my other sister is in London. So, usually when I wake up, I already have a hundred messages on WhatsApp, if they’ve been arguing about something. I usually start my day by reading through whatever they’re discussing and jumping into the conversation [to stay connected to them].
The other way I start my day, if that’s not happening, is I go on Twitter and Instagram and look through the LittleBits hashtag. I love to see the stories from around the world.
2. How do you end your day?
My husband and I are both entrepreneurs, so we end up working pretty late — and so we end up watching one series before we go to sleep. We watch for at least a half an hour or an hour, just so we can think about something else that’s not work.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. I feel like it is a really good visual guide to try to be inspired by different business models across hardware, software, service, as well as different marketing ideas. It’s really kind of doing a collage of the ways you can grow as a company and as an idea.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
I would also put Business Model Generation in this category, because sometimes I think entrepreneurs tend to want to reinvent every wheel, and it’s good to remember that inspiration is also about bringing things together from different ideas that have already existed. I think that’s really useful to be reminded of that.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
It seems really simple, but just numbering the list of things you have to do. Just taking a few minutes to put the things in order that you need to get done is a very focusing kind of exercise. Then if in the middle of the day something becomes number one, moving that up on the list is actually a very active focusing agent, because then you’re like OK if number one doesn’t get done, then the rest doesn’t matter. It really helps you zero in on what’s important.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an architect. I was good at math and science, and I also liked art and design. I felt like architecture was kind of a combo. I didn’t become an architect for the silliest reason. My mom said, well your oldest sister is already an architect, we don’t need two architects in the family. And I was like OK, then I’ll become an engineer. It was a very quick pivot, but now I’m happy that I did engineering.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
I learned how important it is to love going to work. [There was a time] we weren’t busy, and I was losing my mind, because I was so bored. I went to the kitchen, and I remember [my boss] saying, “I haven’t done anything in weeks, I’m so happy.” I realized that this is the worst way to feel about work, at least for me. It’s not so much about loving your job, it’s more how important it is to have an internal drive and curiosity and not accept boredom at work.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
My mom; she was always a career woman. She was just endlessly inspired by things around her. She would always learn from different things and people and try to think about how it applies to her work.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
My sister, who was the architect, was doing her master’s degree at MIT. I went to visit her when I was doing engineering one summer [when I was in college]. I happened to walk around the campus, and I fell across the Media Lab at MIT. I fell in love with the Media Lab, and I decided I would go there for my graduate school. It completely changed the trajectory of my life.
10. What inspires you?
I’m really inspired by scientific discovery [and the] continuous pursuit of the truth.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
I had my first business idea when was in high school. Me and two friends started The Kids Workshop. I grew up in Beirut, and a lot of the activities for kids were around carnivals. I remember my friends and I were like, why can’t it be something more creative than just tossing the ball on a bunch of bottles?
So we ended up doing The Kids Workshop, and it was different arts and crafts stations that kids would sit at, make something and then take home. We did it two years in a row. The first year we had 300 people show up, and the second year we had 1,000 people. I realized it was going to become a career, and I had to finish school, so I stopped.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
I did an internship at my now brother-in-law’s company. He had a design and tech start up. I learned how to learn new software. It was just great — that ability to learn new tools as you need them. It’s endlessly useful today.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Be very selective in the investors you take on. I’m really glad I took that advice, because we have very good investors and an incredible board that’s so useful. They’re all entrepreneurs and are genuinely helpful with the business.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
That the most important thing is revenue. It’s really important to have vision. I think creating real value for people is more important to focus on first, and then the revenue will come. So, we spent the first few years of LittleBits learning what is the best possible experience we could offer. Now we see that it gained momentum and traction on its own, as opposed to just shoving products down people’s throats.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
I just write stuff down. I don’t know about other people, but I have a bad memory. I will write something down as soon as I think of it. If I don’t, it’s just gone forever.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
My husband and I have a big blackboard. About every two to three months, we redraw the giant calendar. We put all our travel dates on there. Otherwise it’s impossible for us to stay coordinated, and we miss the things that are important for each other.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I will tell you when I achieve it. I’m not quite there yet.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
I think long weekends are really good. They are a very good way to recharge without having to commit. When you’re busy, and there’s a lot of stuff going on and you can’t afford to take a vacation, just simply taking a Friday off, having a longer weekend and having one extra beat actually makes a big difference.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Often, just walking around the office. There’s a lot of really inspiring things happening in the office that I don’t get a chance to see. So sometimes, I just walk around, sit down with the engineering team, chat about something new and ideas start to come.
20. What are you learning now?
I’m learning more about what it means to be agile as a company and how we can apply that to hardware. There are complexities in how to marry agile methodology with more traditional hardware development. We’re trying to learn how to apply the best of both.