Roland Osbone is a cofounder of Olark, which helps e-commerce businesses chat with their customers. But before he became a software entrepreneur, Osborne had a very different kind of passion. Osborne grew up in New Hampshire, in an old house that had “an accumulation of hardware and wood and raw materials from the 10 previous owners.” When Osborne was about eight, he recalls, he gathered together a bunch of such raw materials and cobbled together a model of the shrink ray from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
“I even took a Cheerios box and burnt a hole and blackened some cheerios to convince people it was working in some capacity,” he says. “I just had this desire to create things. It was very primal.”
Making remained a hobby through high school–building remote control cars, jury-rigging submarines out of two-liter soda bottles and propellers–but by the time college ended, “I was honestly doing less,” recalls Osborne. His world, like so many others’ today, had become increasingly virtual. Years passed. He fell into the world of software startups, and making faded from his life. In 2007, he and some friends began Olark as a side project; in 2009 they incorporated, and the company soon began to grow and occupy more and more of his time.
This was a happy outcome, of course–any founder wants his or her company to grow. But as Olark became more and more successful, that success drove Osborne back to his maker roots. “When I started working with more and more people, the part of me that’s an artist–that desires to control the process–came back a bit,” he recalls. “I couldn’t suppress that part of me that needed to take something straight out of my brain and put it into the world.” It started small: in 2009, he got a carving tool and began making wooden bowls. The next year, he designed a “chicken tractor,” a kind of mobile chicken coop. He was deeply proud of his open and airy design, which he thought was perfect–alas, the chickens themselves were less than enthused, feeling vulnerable to predators.
Meanwhile, as Osborne rediscovered carpentry, one of his cofounders, Zach Steindler, was discovering it for the first time. Strictly a software guy for most of his youth, Steindler had only dabbled in physical making, when he custom designed a computer case to show off at LAN parties. But as Olark began to take off, Steindler, too, felt a need to build physical stuff. He began visiting a place in Ann Arbor called Maker Works, and soon was designing and building a chair “to fit my body geometry,” he says. Soon he made a kitchen table, then four more chairs, then a sofa and a coffee table.
If for Osborne, carpentry was about not having to compromise, for Steindler it was more about physicality. “I needed something tactile,” he says. “I spend a lot of time in front of a laptop, thinking about algorithms.” He says that people who spend their day in front of a laptop screen, then go home to watch something on Netflix (he was one of them, once), are “missing out on a world that exists out beyond the computer.” And though he has created software that has affected countless thousands of users, there’s a different kind of satisfaction that comes from that handmade chair in his house or office. “It’s easy to point to that and say, ‘I created this,’” he says.
Funnily enough, though these cofounders shared a passion, they didn’t find out about the coincidence immediately. (Olark’s founders live in different cities around the country, convening for retreats and meetings sporadically.) At first, each only caught glimpses of the others’ projects. “I remember being inspired by a cherry bowl and spoon you were working on during a car ride,” Steinberg tells Osborne during our interview. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I want to learn more about that.’”
Ultimately, both feel that if you’re someone who works in software–or in any virtual realm that necessitates collaboration and compromise–then a trip to your local woodworking studio could be in order. “There’s something to be said for feeling like you’ve solved a problem to some sort of completion,” says Osborne–rather than merely optimized something to offend as few users as possible.
“The only way you can do that is to build something for yourself.”