There are many benefits to attending, or participating, in events like RoboGames. Of course there's the chance to experience exciting robot competitions up-close and personal, and to be inspired by robots that you could never begin to imagine sitting in your easy chair at home. But, in our opinion, the most important and valuable benefit is the opportunity to meet others that are just as passionate about robotics - to make new friends, share opinions, laugh at each other's jokes, exchange experiences and information, and establish strong lasting relationships.
RoboGames 2007 last month was no exception. Finally we got to put faces with the names, and forum nicknames/handles, of people we knew from online robot forums like RoboSavvy. And, we got to make a lot new friends that are as devoted to advancing and promoting robotics as a hobby, and as a career, as we are. A great example is Johnny Williams from Boss Robot Hobby. Johnny was kind enough to explain why he's so dedicated to robots, and to his customers.
Johnny founded Boss Robot Hobby in 2003 to provide an alternative to other stores offering video and card games. He and his family had been actively building models, kits, and R/C vehicles for years. They wanted to introduce others to the fun and personal satisfaction that comes from building something with your own hands, the joy you experience when it actually works, and the learning and sense of accomplishment that can go on for years.
There were two things that immediately impressed us about Johnny at RoboGames. First, he wasn't sitting behind a table trying to hawk his products to the crowds. Instead, he was 'out there' with all of the participants, actively engaged (and engaging), helping, coaching, and supporting. He was 'in the pool' with the rest of us, an active and very welcome member of our ad hoc community.
Second, Johnny never seems to stop smiling - a big, friendly, from the heart smile that welcomes and encourages everyone he meets, friends and strangers alike. It's immediately obvious that Johnny really enjoys what he's doing, and his positive spirit and enthusiasm is infectious.
No doubt about it, we needed to learn more about what makes Johnny tick:
Johnny's energy, enthusiasm, and smile are impossible to resist.
Lem: Could you give our readers a quick overview of yourself and Boss Robot Hobby?
Johnny: Sure, I would be happy to. I am the owner/operator of Boss Robot Hobby located in Berkeley, California. Physically, our shop is very small and we work hard to bring in the best possible items for our customers. We sell several types of products, and one of my favorite types are the Robot kits.
We take great interest in offering very refined kits and pre-builts to the public. For example, we were among the first in the country to carry the Hitec Robonova-1. Our customers are always enthused to walk in and see this kits like that on the shelf.
Lem: Where would you position Boss Robot relative to competitors, researchers, or hobbyists?
Johnny: While we are probably not on the cutting edge of robotics "know-how", I believe that we are on the cutting edge of robotics as far as retail is concerned. As robotics become more popular and nearer to the mainstream, more shops will be comfortable carrying these high-dollar kits.
I firmly believe that as technological advances make robotics more user friendly, the public will respond in turn by purchasing these products. Companies that spend their resources to make a solid product, and offer support, make it easier for customers to see the value and viability of these robots. Smart consumers buy smart products !
Lem: Being in Berkeley must provide access to a lot of technical and student customers because of the university and start-ups. How would you describe your average customers?
Johnny: My customers are typically people who, like me, are interested in developing a long lasting, interactive relationship with their R/C vehicles or robots. To us buying an expensive item based on this premise seems like the logical thing to do, as it will be used long term and modified as desires for increased speed or function come into play! A good starting point is just as important as the ending result when trying to create the perfect hobby!
The Boss Robot Hobby store is small in size, but huge in spirit and support.
Lem: So they see the robot kits as something that will provide lasting benefit, learning, and enjoyment over a long period of time.
Johnny: Exactly. Most of my customers are well educated in their 20's and up, and very interested in learning and growing in new areas. Many are engineers or scientist who do a lot of important work in the "virtual word "and come to my shop hoping to get their hands on something real that they they can build and possibly use.
I have a few regulars who build complicated kits and then donate them to kids organizations. Recently however some of these builders are finding their way to the competitive playing field, like RoboGames, to test their skills as they find the allure of R/C and robotics hard to resist! Is it more fun to build it or use it? That is a hard question for hobby oriented individuals to answer.
Lem: It must be very personally fulfilling to help customers get started with robotics.
Johnny: I love to help people build kits or figure out how to do things and I love to play too! A good percentage of my robot kit customers are parents who buy Robonova and/or Mindstorm kits for their children(11-17 in age). These parents are by proxy buying for the same reasons as the other adults. They feel that a cutting edge robotics kit is a fun learning tool for their child and is worth while purchase. A good investment for their child's future.
Robots are the future! and in a lot ways one of the more bright and interesting parts of it. The great majority of customers who purchase the more advanced kits, like Robonova, are intending to use it as a platform or starting point for modified uses or projects. It is great to learn as you go, but where you start determines when you will achieve your goal. Nothing beats a good solid platform! Smart customers know this! They see the number of possibilities and they appreciate them.
Lem: How did you first get attracted to robotics? Was there any particular robot, like Robbie the Robot, that made a strong impression on you in your childhood?
Johnny: Robbie the who ? Was he in lost in Space? just kidding !
I was born in 1967 and the idea of fantastic mechanical things was as much of my childhood as candy, soda and model kits. I used to race home to watch Speed Racer on TV after school. The car Speed Racer drove, the Mach 5, had a lot of Super Robot like gadgets and that was more than enough to hold my attention.
Twelve years ago I learned that Speed Racer was actually Maha GoGoGo a japanese show ! I was totally shocked and began to wonder what other Japanese animation there was out there from that era. My interest in robots really took off with Mobile Suit Gundam. I love the Japanese Super Robots! I love the idea of a kid piloting the ultimate robot! M azinger Z and UFO Robo Grendizer (it is important to say the whole name because sounds really cool) are also favorites of mine.
Johnny and his son in Japan with one of their robot friends.
Lem: Was the primary influence Japanese robot anime? Also, does the rest of your family share the same passion?
Johnny: I also have grown to appreciate the classics as well and see the importance or robots like Robbie and Maria from Metropolis. My wife and I both really like Tetsujin 28 and Astroboy. My son grew up on Japanese super robot toys from the 70's and he had a blast!
Lem: Many people that get hooked on anime robots will build models, or do anime style drawings and sketches. You seem to have strong interest and skill at the mechanical side as well, and are motivated by actual working robots in addition to the static models.
Johnny: When I was a kid I looked at things and I wanted to know how and why they worked. I always saw mechanical things as fascinating. I was a kid who could take something apart and once I understood why the pieces needed to be in their places I could put it back together. I have always liked to see the functional necessity of all components involved.
In my teens I became very interested in classic automibiles. When I graduated from high school my first job was at a small classic automobile parts shop where I quickly became manager. At this point I believe that my childhood curiosity served me well, as I applied the same desire to understand things mechanical to the operation of a business.
Lem: So, you started applying what you learned to operating the business.
Johnny: To me a business is very much like a machine and I find it very challenging and exciting to compete in the business world. The lubricant for a business is personality and sincerity, both of which will make it flow smoothly. This combination I believe translates into good customer service, strong relationships with suppliers and "Good Business."
At RoboGames 2007 last month
Lem: I'm sure your customers really appreciate, and respond to your positive approach. I know I do. Thanks a lot for spending all this time with us, and introducing us to Boss Robot Hobby.
Johnny: You're very welcome. It's my pleasure.