Simone Giertz is a ‘Maker.’ A ‘Maker’ could be described as a half-techie and a half-DIY-er. Or more simply put, in Simone’s own words, she “build[s] things to inspire people to learn about electronics.”
Simone agreed to meet me at a cafe in Södermalm late one afternoon. It was rainy, gray, and cold. Luckily for me, I was about to be wonderfully whisked away on a conversational adventure filled with oodles of exciting and captivating anecdotes. And unluckily for the people sitting around us, there was rarely a minute that went by when I wasn’t laughing at one or another of Simone’s stories.
Running in from the rain, I took my glasses out of my pocket and rubbed them off to find Simone standing right in front of me, about to order from the barista. As we’d never met, I only knew Simone from her comedic technical videos online. I wasn’t sure she knew what I looked like, but she did know that I spoke English better than Swedish. We were both a bit hesitant, so I immediately skipped my usual, ‘Hej hej – Jag pratar inte svenska. Pratar du engelska?’ and straight to English.
Björn Svensson: Hi – Simone?
Simone Giertz: Yes. Björn?
BS: Yes, hi! So nice to meet you!
SG: Hello! Very nice to meet you.
After a we ordered, we went upstairs, both in order to sit down, but also to get away from the noise in the main room so I could set out my audio recorder.
BS: Thank you so much for taking the time out to let me interview you.
SG: Oh, definitely. No problem.
BS: So, within the four days you and I have been in contact, you’ve had one video go viral online. And it’s not your first viral video. But before we get to that, what led you to this point in life?
SL: (laughs) I have a pretty gnarly background – not in a bad way – but I’ve done a bunch of different things. I worked as a journalist and an editor; I worked as an MMA reporter, which was pretty out there. I studied technical physics for a year. I’ve just been trying out a lot of different things, but I never felt any of them were a really good fit until I started to learn how to program [electronics and code]. I had a startup and I was really frustrated that I couldn’t program. I felt that I was in a wheelchair and I needed someone to push me in the direction that I was pointing. So I started teaching myself programming and then I just got all these ideas that involved hardware. And eventually that led me to the open source hardware community – and Arduino, [the open-source hardware & software company].
Arduino is really good if you want to control an LED or you want to read a button or you want to control a servomotor. It’s a super easy way to start building robotics and stuff like that. And to create different hardware products. It was very educational; there were many engineers but there were also many people there who weren’t engineers – like myself. I got in through that and through that platform and I was amazed by it. It felt so cool that you could build so many things. So yep – that’s how I got here!
BS: Amazing. So you have no educational background in programming?
SG: No, so I did a year in technical physics, but that was just algebra. But then I studied at this creative school called Hyper Island. Everything there is about learning by doing. They’ve got a super basic Intro to Programming course. And I was just amazed by it. And it was a great platform to just keep on learning.
RL: One last thing, before we get to your mastery of all things technical. I have to bring this up. You mentioned you have a pretty ‘gnarly’ background. You were in a Chinese sitcom!
SG: Wow! How do you know that?
BS: Magic. No, I’m kidding – brilliant journalism. And magic.
SG: (laughing) I was an exchange student in China when I was 16 and there were hardly any foreigners in the city. Foshan was a city of four million people and only had 100 foreigners. And all of those were in the university areas.
So they needed this character for a show; they needed someone who could play a Canadian wife. I was the only girl and they said, ‘Hey you!’ I couldn’t speak Chinese at the time and I was supposed to have two lines. I ended up having fifty-two lines. So it was a pretty painful experience.
BS: That is unbelievable. Okay, so to what you do now, you have a lot of videos online where you make things, like the Toothbrush Machine, the Breakfast Machine. What was the impetus to start filming your creative exploits?
SG: After I studied at Hyper Island, I really wanted to work with Arduino and with open source hardware; I wanted to build stuff. I emailed this company and I literally wrote –
Simone leans over into the recorder, smiling, and states very clearly, “which I don’t recommend to anyone” and then she sits back and starts the sentence again:
SG: So I emailed this company and I literally wrote “Hey! You build cool shit! I also want to build cool shit! Can I come and work for you?” And they were like, “Sure!”
SG: Then I lived in San Francisco and I worked in a company and I was the ‘Professional Maker.’ My job was to work with the platform to find different creative ways of using it. I was just inspired – and I was engaged by and engaged the community of makers. So that’s kind of how I began building things.
But pretty soon, I felt that I really wanted to build my own stuff. I wanted to spend time on that but obviously I couldn’t afford not having an income. But instead of forcing myself to have a job, I moved back from San Francisco to Stockholm. And now I’ve just cut down on all my costs. Of course I still need an income, but it’s a lot less than it used to be. So I can just spend time on building my own stuff.
BS: Now that you do create your own devices, how often do you actually use the devices you build?
SG: Never. I can’t believe people really ask me that. (laughs) I mean seriously, would I fall asleep with the Wake-Up Machine hovering over my head? No, I wouldn’t. I don’t think anyone would do that. They’re all crazy inefficient – and they’re not supposed to be efficient. They’re just supposed to be fun and entertaining.
BS: Speaking of the Wake-Up Machine, a small bird told me you were going to go to New York and be interviewed by CNN about your Wake-Up Machine. How’d that happen?
SG: Well, the Wake-Up Machine has just gained a lot of attention. It kind of spun out of control and has gotten way more views than I even want to think about. It’s such a weird feeling knowing that something like 80 million people have seen me get slapped in the face with a rubber arm.
BS: (laughing) Very few people can say that.
SG: Maybe I’m the person in the world who more people have seen getting slapped in the face than anyone. But yeah, the video went viral and I‘ve just been interviewed by a lot of different magazines.
BS: Besides this interview with me – which, I assume, is obviously the most exciting so far – what is the most surprising media attention you’ve gotten?
SG: (laughing). I think that it wasn’t an interview but an article in Time Magazine where they wrote about my Breakfast Machine. But it’s all over the place. Reuters, The Telegraph. I’ve been shown on FoxNews probably ten times.
BS: Really? That is wild!
SG: Yeah, it’s just weird. It’s something I just filmed in my work-shed.
I laugh pretty heartily at that one. We take a quick break to get another beverage before the cafe closes for the evening.
BS: So, in regard to your work-shed, it looks pretty bad-ass in your videos. Which brings me to one of the other interesting facts about you: You began your life as an MMA reporter. How the heck was that?
SG: (laughing) Well, it was pretty intense to begin with. But by the end, I got used to it and I actually got kicked out of an interview. And that was the last interview I ever had – I never did another one after it. I got kicked out because I asked inappropriate questions.
BS: Oh man. I would be really intimidated to ask inappropriate questions to an MMA fighter. I’m scared to even ask what it was. Did you have any favorite fighters?
SG: Um, but I think, my favorite fighter is Gunnar Nelsson, who’s an Icelandic fighter, because he’s just a weird dude. He has a constantly blank face but he has a really cool fighting style. I just got extremely tired with the typical fighter, because I basically got tired interviewing them. They’re always replying to the same questions; it was very hard to get them out of the autopilot mode. I just wanted to get to something different or interesting. And they were always, “My fight plan is this… This is how I prepared for the fight…” Blah blah blah. It was just not very easy to excite.
BS: So you can appreciate a non-linear, seemingly random path of inquiry then? (I pause for dramatic effect.) Like my questioning?
SG: (laughing) No, but seriously. This is a super fun interview!
BS: Thank you, thank you. Please – all credit to you! But I definitely agree. So, after living in San Francisco for a year, a city that’s sometimes considered to be the innovation hub of the world, you came back to Stockholm. But recently, Stockholm has been mentioned alongside San Francisco in terms of innovation as well. How do you find the tech world in Stockholm?
SG: I feel like I’m in such a weird little part of the tech scene, I don’t really know.
BS: What is your little part called?
SG: Hmm, it’s called Simone’s Part. (We both laugh.) No, I’d say I’m in the Maker Community. I mean, I have no interest in turning any of the projects I build into products. I don’t have any interest in hardware startups. But it really feels like in Stockholm that there are so many software startups – really a lot of app-development. But I think it’s definitely full of startups. And I think for Stockholm’s size, it’s amazing – really.
BS: So, the things you make would obviously be hard to market, but like you said, you simply don’t want to try to make them commercially viable. Why not?
SG: I have no interest in selling them in any way. And I don’t think anyone would buy them. So rather than the product in itself in the physical form, I think the part I’m more interested in is the documentation. It’s in the the videos I make, because that lives so much longer than the project itself.
BS: Even without selling them, you still invent and build so many things. What do you literally do with all of the devices?
SG: I have nothing – none of them. I almost always pick apart all the projects I build because I want to use the part for other things. Now I think I need to shy away from that, so I can build a little trophy room of just obscure projects.
Simone then puts her chin in her palm and considers the visual image of a trophy case filled with extremely unusual technological devices. Then she laughs and turns back.
SG: It’s like a perfect first date. “Hey – welcome into this weird room I have of really terrible contraptions!”
We both enjoy a good laughter break there.
BS: What’s your next plan for making something?
SG: It’s a secret!
BS: Is it really?
SG: Yeah, totally!
BS: Can you give any hints?
SG: Nope! I’ve been ordering parts today, and I still haven’t finished. It’s taken me a full day to decide what parts to order.
BS: But you know what you’re making?
SG: No, I’m just buying random parts and then I’ll try to put them together. I just put them in a bag and shake it and then something comes out.
Finally I get the thick sarcasm. Simone continues.
SG: I’m kinda like Jesus, but he turns water into wine and I turn random parts into beautiful products.
BS: Have you ever had people ask you to use your products? or even buy them?
SG: Yes, people ask to buy them sometimes, but more for jokes. But then I always say no.
BS: Make it yourself!
SG: I just think so many people are just really scared of technology in that sense, or really scared of programming or really scared of hardware. But I understand, because, yes, it is really intimidating in the beginning. I see my goal as inspiring people to learn about electronics, which sounds really messianic. But I really just want to put the tools of innovation into more people’s hands. You don’t need to be an engineer to do these things; I’m not an engineer. But yeah, like you said – just go and make it yourself!
And, after thanking Simone for a wonderful interview, and after receiving her kind thanks as well, we ended the discussion with a heartfelt high-five!
If you want to see some of the wild and crazy projects that Simone makes, you can check them out here!