Fortune interview with Saul Griffith

Saul Griffith, photo by FortuneFortune has a very nice interview with Saul Griffith (see previous Radar profile), which, for the first time, discloses a bit about what his company Makani Power, is up to:

“Its plans are closely held, but anyone looking for clues should see Griffith tearing up San Francisco Bay, sailboat racing with catamarans powered by giant kites. ‘We can outrun anything on the water,’ he says.”

and elsewhere, in the body of the interview, Saul says:

“We’re still in the research phase, looking at high-altitude wind energy, and meaning above the typical 300-foot height of normal wind turbines.”

The interview also has some nice tidbits of somewhat unconventional entrepreneurial advice:

Learn to live cheaply. Learn to live like an animal. One thing we had going for us is we all spent a lot of time in grad school, and long periods of grad school teach you how to live well on a low budget. That’s good training for becoming entrepreneurs. It’s easier to have a high-risk tolerance when you know where the dumpsters with free food are. Also, I definitely think you need to focus on a specific project in the market that you’re going after….

We boot-strapped old-fashioned style. We slept in workshops, ate cheaply, and financed ourselves through consulting and other work while we nurtured our own sets of projects. As we “grew up” we realized that our own projects needed more funding and more focus. At that point we were ready to take venture funding and other financing sources to grow new companies from the technologies we underwrote ourselves at Squid Labs.

(Having enjoyed some of the fruits of said dumpster diving, I can attest to the fact that Saul wasn’t kidding about finding sources of free food. Saul’s friend Tim Anderson, whom I refer to as the homeless multimillionaire, is the master of dumpster diving, even though he no longer needs to do so.)

There’s also a nice little bit about the origins of howtoons:

howtoons book cover

When I was in grad school I came across these compelling books published near the turn of the last century with titles like The Boy Mechanic that taught children how to make gliders, and bows and arrows, and all sorts of cool things. But these books are not really transferable to the modern age because their instructions are like, ‘Find two eight-foot lengths of straight-grain spruce and four 12-inch strips of leather thong.’ Hard to find at Home Depot. So there seemed to be an opportunity for me to find analogous modern materials like soda bottles and bicycle inner tubes and chop sticks and show step-by-step how to build things like the Infamous Marshmallow Gun. The underlying philosophy is that it’s critically important in this technological age to teach kids to see the world for what it can be, not for what it is, to have them question why they can’t make the world better by experimenting, and to teach them not have a fear of the physical world. That failure is fun, and that the physical world is a really cool computer game if you want it to be.

Speaking of Howtoons, the book is out, and apparently doing very well. I just checked, and it’s currently ranked 211 on Amazon. Saul told me it hit a rank of 50 twice, once when it was first released and all the existing fans bought it, and a second time when he appeared on the Martha Stewart show last week. According to Morris Foner’s analysis correlating Amazon rank to actual sales (which is reasonably consistent with our own experience), these figures would indicate that the book is selling between 50 and 100 copies a day on Amazon alone. A good sign that our engineering culture isn’t dead yet!

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