The Debrief: John Suozzi is breaking with suburbia

Who is John Suozzi? That’s a tough one, even for John Suozzi. Self-described as “someone who’s still being made,” he’s a 2011 Drexel University graduate with a degree in entrepreneurship and a businessman, having managed the Kickstarter campaign for his father’s homegrown gardening tool, The Ring Weeder. He’s also a champion of the maker community – Long Island’s only real economic hope, according to the Glen Cove resident and founding member of the Long Island Maker Space, who’s organized dozens maker meetups since 2013. He makes his case:

KICK START: I was kind of spinning my wheels, trying to figure out how to get started. Business majors don’t leave school with a skillset. You’re not an engineer or a med student or an industrial designer, or anything where you have skills that can get you immediately employed. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I decided to treat [The Ring Weeder] as my startup.

FATHER-SON: We worked together on the name, the design, the marketing, the materials, the photography, the product description … we worked hand-in-hand on everything you need to do to launch a startup. And it was a big success – we raised over 220 percent of our Kickstarter goal.

FAVORS THE BOLD: Some of that was luck; we came at an interesting time, when a lot of people were really high on Kickstarter. We also had an interesting idea and an amazing video that got picked up by a critical blog on Yahoo. So it was a combination of the things we did and things we had no control over.

LESSON ONE: The first business lesson I learned was to simplify things. When you’re hosting a dinner party, you don’t want to cook something you’ve never cooked before, but you don’t want to cook the same old thing, either. So you have to play off your strengths and add little twists that are new and surprising. You want to delight people without overselling yourself. That’s what we did with the Kickstarter. My dad knew gardening and I knew messaging. A lot of people try to shove everything they can into their Kickstarter. They try to do three dates in one. But we knew we were speed dating.

LESSON TWO: We’re constantly learning that you have to focus on the things that are in your control. You can’t worry too much about the things that rely on other people. Your action plan can’t be waiting on this email or that callback. It has to be things you can act on right now. No one is going to make you a success. You have to make that happen. People get help and miracles happen, but you have to do most of the work. Luck comes to people who help themselves.

SELF-MADE: I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, but I never had the skills or resources to actually make things. So when I turned 27, I said, ‘Hey, why don’t I learn?” I didn’t need to go back to school. I could learn on my own. So I started going to different maker spaces and slowly learning that I could reinvent myself. And that’s what the maker movement means to me: putting the power in your own hands. If you’re willing to learn, the knowledgeable will make themselves available to you.

MEET YOUR MAKER: A maker is anybody who likes to make stuff. You can be an ace in robotics or a painter or whatever. If you like to geek out about something, whether it’s geeky or not, and you like to share and learn new things, you’re a maker.

ON A MISSION: That’s what I’m trying to spread on Long Island – that maker mindset. This philosophy was formed at places like NYC Resistor in Brooklyn, a really high-level maker space. They have a motto there: Maker, Share, Learn. I want to combine those values with the culture I’m helping to develop with the Long Island Maker Space Meetups – a culture of curiosity, of sharing and learning from each other. The maker culture is alive and well in San Francisco and Boston and Manhattan, but nobody has spread those technical metropolitan values across Long Island yet.

LOCATION, LOCATION: We meet in Plainview at Howard J. Moore Co. – Harris Moore is the godfather of the Long Island Maker Space Meetups – and at Surface Groove in Oyster Bay. In Plainview there’s a 3D printer and in Oyster Bay there’s a laser cutter and a C&C machine, which is like a 3D printer but with a bit that cuts metal, wood and plastics. It’s a more traditional making tool.

FAMILIAR FACES: We get a very consistent group of six to 20 people at each meeting. I’d rather see a smaller number of makers complete difficult projects and really get the maker bug than see more people show up just to eat pizza. We have a tightknit group, and they’re all really smart and really nice, and it’s a surprising gender mix, which is important. Any organization is better when there’s a mixture, instead of just a bunch of dudes.

YESTERDAY’S NEWS: I’m not a historian, but I feel like a lot of older folks on Long Island are haunted by the past. People refer to the golden days of Grumman and aerospace manufacturing. I don’t think any of that will return. Long Island is left with the only resource that matters: creativity. People figuring out their own unique place in the world. And the more resources available to help people make their ideas happen, the better.

MAKE OR BREAK: Creativity is a renewable resource. What’s most important is for people who have ideas to have the opportunity to meet and mix and test those ideas. That’s what inspires amazing companies or inspires that incredible engineer. If there are no spaces for that, then people will remain haunted by the past … and there will be this illusion that Long Island is a backwater, just oversaturated suburbia, which isn’t true.

SPREADING THE FUTURE: What’s true is you can make your own life, if you take some risks and figure out what you can give. That’s what the maker movement is about – spreading that creative curiosity to other people.

Interview by Gregory Zeller

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