March 23, 2012
From Northwest to Nerdbots: Alumni use business, creative skills to create quirky robots
To learn more about the Nerdbots, visit http://nerdbots.myshopify.com/.
Watch a video about the Nerdbots, produced by MailChimp.
It started with Leotron.
Standing about 19 inches tall, his body is built with a radio, a Polaroid camera, flexible pipes and electrical cords. It turns out he’s also partial to lists, spreadsheets, diagrams, charts, comic books, Starbucks lattes and his graphing calculator – which he professes to operate with his eyes closed.
He’s the whimsical creation of Northwest Missouri State University alumni Nicholas and Angela Snyder who, since building Leotron in 2007, have assembled – and sold – about 300 creations somewhat like him. They call them Nerdbots.
“One day Angela decided, ‘You know what? I sort of want a robot for my desk,’” Nicholas recalled. “We thought, ‘Well, we can make one!’ We went ahead and found the parts and took the power tools that I had, made the one and still have him to this day.”
Angela graduated from Northwest in 2004 with an advertising degree and is a designer at Hallmark. Although the couple is separated by a year in age and met while attending Northwest together, Nicholas put off completing his business management degree until 2008 as he settled into a consulting role at Cerner. They were married in 2005.
The Snyders were a couple years into their marriage before the self-described nerds realized each other’s interest in robots. Then, as they introduced Leotron to friends and family members, the reaction was so positive they built more robots. They had created 15 when they decided to turn Nerdbots into more than a hobby.
The Nerdbots have since created a buzz that is spreading across the internet with a video produced by MailChimp and a Skype chat with Canadian blogger Martin Provost. The Nerdbots also have been featured in publications throughout the Kansas City region.
“I think the robots themselves just speak to a lot of people,” Angela said. “When we first started out, we thought our target audience would be people kind of like us – young, urban professionals. But we’ve grown to discover that all age groups seem to find something that they like about them, whether they see something in the parts themselves that they remember from their childhood or their parents had when they were little. The younger people just kind of think they’re cool.”
The one-of-a-kind Nerdbots come with names like Sparky, Bendix and Nudges. Often, their names are derived from one of their parts – like Exit, whose body is made from a salvaged exit sign.
Each ‘bot also comes with a quirky backstory based on notes Angela keeps in a notebook. There’s Eico, who enjoys listening to books on tape about dinosaurs and makes beautiful macaroni art. And Madge is a square dancing enthusiast who loves playing Chinese checkers but has an unhealthy fear of raisins.
“Whenever we’re out and about and we think of something really nerdy that strikes us as being funny, we’ll jot it down in this notebook,” Angela said. “As we’re building the robots we kind of talk about it together – like what we think its hobbies will be. We name it and just have fun with it.”
For the Snyders, skimming scrapyards for discarded parts is one of their favorite pastimes. They rarely go to a scrapyard with an idea for their next Nerdbot and enjoy the hunt for parts that are unique and interesting. They also take pride in their mission to give old, abandoned parts a new home.
“It could be something as old as the junkyard’s been there,” Nicholas said. “It’s just unloved and unappreciated and something that sort of has no purpose other than to be recycled or turned into a Nerdbot. We thought it was a great way to take the old and make it new again.”
The Snyders say their experiences at Northwest and the skills they learned as students were important to building Nerdbots as a sustainable business. Nicholas is heeding the advice of business professors who explained the importance of doing something that serves needs and attracts people, while Angela incorporates the marketing, design and creative abilities she learned at Northwest.
“The thing that led me to Nerdbots was there’s a need to sort of reuse all this junk, and it was a creative idea,” Nicholas said. “It was something that’s sustainable because everybody’s going to be throwing things away, and we’re never going to get to a point where people are going to reuse everything they have. So it was a sustainable business model in the sense that the materials are there, they’re inexpensive and it’s an opportunity to help out in the process. It had all the pieces that professors and mentors and counselors had always instilled that (the business model) has to have.”He added, “I think Northwest provided a good platform for each of us to do what we really felt comfortable. We both feel very grateful that we had the professors that we had at Northwest. We feel we’re both succeeding because of what we were given at Northwest.”
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