There are several paths to becoming a Circuit Bender. You can build a tiny lightsaber with a straw, an LED light, and some double-A batteries. You can assemble a contact microphone or an amplifier with other household items. You can try your hand with a soldering iron, too, as long as you’re working to “customize and hack technologies to do things they aren’t designed to do.”
Along with Cryptographer and Rocketeer, Circuit Bender is one of the badges children can strive for at joy-of-making website DIY.org. San Francisco-based startup DIY is trying to modernize the Boy Scout and Girl Scout model with dozens of awards, some conventional (Sailor, Woodworker) and others not so much (Open Sourcerer, Sys Admin). Once kids pick an anthropomorphic animal face as their avatar, create an alias (“Please don’t use your real name!” the site warns), and provide a parent’s e-mail address, they can earn the badges by posting a picture or video as proof that they’ve completed requisite tasks. The site also encourages them to form local DIY clubs and become ardent “makers”—Valley-speak for do-it-yourselfers. “We want to help kids reassess what they’re capable of,” says Chief Executive Officer Zach Klein. “When you’re able to do things yourself, parts of the world are unlocked for you.”
DIY says it won’t be collecting data on kids or targeting ads to them. The company plans to charge for a subscription service called Allowance through which members can buy premium features and physical goods from its online marketplace, including sash-sewable badges and hobbyist kits and tools to complete the site’s projects. The company is also beginning trial runs for corporate sponsorship of organized DIY activities that have some educational objective or tie in more directly with a corporation’s product line, such as with Home Depot. “The real question is, can you get a lot of people involved? In all of these social things, a big part of the value is the other people,” says Bing Gordon, a general partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “It has to kind of take hold and become wildly popular to work.”
DIY’s backers, which include Kleiner Perkins, describe it as an ambitious and pure-hearted effort at building a social network for young makers; critics see the venture more as a cynical attempt to sell branded swag. The company’s founders are living proof that the two need not be exclusive. Klein paid his way through college by running an online store for pets, then helped start CollegeHumor.com and the video-sharing site Vimeo. Co-founders Isaiah Saxon and Daren Rabinovitch built a self-sustaining village in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and produced an award-winning music video for Björk, while Andrew Sliwinski helped launch Detroit’s first hackerspace, a common-use facility for DIY experiments.
This eclectic group has a handle on cross-platform marketing: Their website includes characters from a feature-length animated movie that Saxon and Rabinovitch spent a year developing, in which a group of young, anthropomorphic animals use their ingenuity to defend their town from a soulless corporate tyrant. DIY says a major Hollywood studio—it declines to reveal which one—has been working for months to move the project toward a green light. “There’s the potential to create a myth on the order of Harry Potter,” says Klein.
So far, about 100,000 kids (average age, 12) have signed up on the DIY site since its launch last year. On each skill page, they find sample tasks to earn the corresponding badge, along with how-to videos and write-ups. On the site’s forums, children can help each other and coordinate gatherings. Mark Warsaw’s three sons have completed several hundred projects since joining last August, including building home computers and converting a regular table into a pool table. They’ve also created a DIY club at their local library in Cicero, N.Y. “A lot of kids are going to get exposed to these kinds of things,” Warsaw says.
Libby Walker, an 11-year-old from central Pennsylvania, spent years in the Girl Scouts before hopping over to DIY, where she goes by the name Evil Ladybug. “I never really liked the Girl Scouts, because you’re stuck with the same people for, like, 12 years,” she says. Through DIY, she interacts with kids from all over the world. Evil Ladybug’s dad, Bob, says that while the level of camaraderie isn’t quite what it would be in the Girl Scouts, he sees it as a good fit for digital natives. “It sort of joins two worlds, between the traditional activities and what kids are doing today,” he says. His daughter is currently pursuing the Photographer, Illustrator, and Entrepreneur badges.
The badges themselves are colorful, cartoonish works of art, woven in China. During a recent visit to DIY’s offices, the staff received their first shipments of hundreds of the badges, which they’re beginning to distribute to members. The staffers broke into cheers, then returned to their wooden desks. At the back wall of the office is a makeshift treehouse.
Home Depot is among the companies that have noticed DIY’s youth appeal, bringing the startup’s staff into its stores to host weekend challenges in which shoppers’ kids go on a scavenger hunt through the aisles and then try to make something. About 300,000 kids visit Home Depot’s 2,000 stores every Saturday. DIY’s Klein says Home Depot can become “a cathedral for making and not just where you buy bathroom tile.”
Like all the DIY founders, Klein speaks in grand terms about the company’s mission. The website Gawker poked fun at DIY, describing it as a way to “conscript children into the Maker Movement” and Klein as a Tom Sawyer figure who’s tricking others into doing his work. Klein’s other projects include a real estate Tumblr called Cabin Porn, which claims 600,000 monthly readers. Still, Walker, aka Evil Ladybug, says the DIY employees do a good job of connecting with people her age. “It seems like all the staff members are like big, smart kids,” she says.