Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Seb Potter

Publishing & Media

We spoke to Seb Potter, CEO of Hackaball, a throwable computer that teaches kids to code.

Back in March, we wrote about Hackaball, a throwable computer that gets kids coding while they play. The ball is fitted with motion-detecting sensors that track whether it’s moving, or else being dropped, bounced, kicked, or shaken. It also houses a gyro, accelerometer, vibration motor, LEDs, memory to store sounds and a speaker. Wirelessly connected to an app – on which kids can invent and program their own games — the toy lets users “hack” the ball, combining physical play with coding skills.

The product went through an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign, doubling the team’s 100k goal in the span of a month, allowing for two additional stretch goals. We talk to Hackaball’s CEO Seb Potter, who has worked for the BBC, the creative agency Mindy Candy, and the innovation consultancy Made by Many, to find out about the importance of employee autonomy, why he decided to work with technology education, and what he’s learnt from building his own company.

1. Where did the idea for Hackaball come from?

Hackaball began as a Made by Many summer intern project to design a connected device related to play and kids. A designer and a developer worked together for several weeks exploring concepts and prototypes, and the result was a connected ball with programmable games called Rule Ball. We’ve come a long way since then, but the basic idea has remained the same.

2. Can you describe a typical working day?

I start early – I’m typically a night person but in the last year I’ve tried hard to shift my day forwards. Before breakfast, I like to catch up with my emails and suppliers in different time zones. I do the school run with my little girl every morning, then the rest of the morning is free for time with the team and dealing with issues that have come up during the day. Afternoons and evenings are for creative work — anything that needs uninterrupted time.

3. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on Hackaball?

Spending time with my family is a great antidote to a tough day, one of the few times that I can just stop thinking and relax. When the weather’s clear I have a telescope that I like to drag out to take photos of the universe. I love the technical discipline involved, and it’s something I can spend time on whilst everyone else is asleep.

4. What’s the most important characteristic for being an entrepreneur?

I think it’s probably determination. For all the other important aspects of being an entrepreneur, it’s the drive to face an impossible challenge that keeps you going when anyone sane would give up and go home.

5. What drove you crazy when building your business?

Knowing how much we can do to improve the product, but not having the time and resources to tackle it all at once.

6. What motivates you to keep going? What do you do when you hit a block?

I believe very strongly that we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it, and to help our children do the same. By building on a child’s creativity and problem-solving skills, Hackaball can help achieve that goal, and that’s enough for me to put all my energy into it.

7. Did you have to pivot or change your business? What have been some key learnings from building it?

I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is the power of giving teams real autonomy. Hackaball’s incubation at Made by Many came about because the founders were willing to fund a side-project and let the team run with it without interference. That in turn provided for a huge success, that means we can launch as a viable business.

8. Do you have any habits or routines, which help you in your working life?

I’ve recently started using Evernote to keep track of everything that I used to keep in various lists, email, and notebooks. Beyond that, an endless supply of tea gets me through the day.

9. What book are you reading, or writing now?

I like to have several books on the go. I’m halfway through a Chinese sci-fi trilogy by Cixin Liu called The Three Body Problem, and I’m working my way through Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc when I’m on the tube.

10. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

Selling a wide range of delightful, playful, connected toys that have a real impact on creative technology education for children. We know we’ve got a potentially huge commercial opportunity with Hackaball, so the challenge ahead is to grow our amazing, passionate team and continue designing and innovating closely with kids, parents and educators to make the best products we possibly can.

11. If you weren’t working on Hackaball, what would you be doing?

Probably inventing something like Hackaball, because I don’t know enough rocket science to work with Elon Musk.

12. Tell Springwise a secret…

I don’t have secrets, they’re too time-consuming.

13. What do you think made for Hackaball’s extremely successful Kickstarter campaign?

I think with Hackaball we’ve found a set of overlapping needs that strongly resonate with kids, parents and teachers. Our big strength is that Hackaball is simple to understand and fires the imagination. And of course, it’s a huge amount of fun.

14. How do you feel about your journey ahead and do you have any wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Starting a business is an inspiring, terrifying, fascinating journey. Almost everyone who considers doing it won’t even take the first step, so if you really believe in what you’re doing, take that leap.

Listen to advice whenever it’s offered, but remember survivorship bias is everywhere in business. Most of all, make sure you trust the people around you to tell you when you’re wrong.