Often portrayed in the press as a renaissance man, Paul Budnitz is an author, artist, photographer, filmmaker, designer and serial entrepreneur. Budnitz is perhaps best known as the founder of Kidrobot, the world’s premiere creator of art toys. He is also the founder of specialty bicycle company Paul Budnitz Bicycles. We got down and chatted it up over Skype.
Paul: Hey there!
eepmon: Hello hello! How are you doing?
Paul: Good. Thanks for doing the interview. Eric, I really love your work!
eepmon: Well, thank you very much, Paul. Crazy timing because Nick and I so happened to have coffee at Ground Support. He started talking about what you were doing.
eepmon: Excellent. So let’s get started for our readers, please introduce yourself.
Paul: This is Paul Budnitz
eepmon: The theme of MOCO LOCO x eepmon is “Multidisciplinary”. I think it’s fitting that you would be included in this feature. But let’s go back a bit. You were quite the technologist back then, am I right? In school you initially were into Computer Programming? Engineering?
Paul: That was when I was in high school and then in college. I was a computer geek as a kid. So I was programming computers back when personal computers were just getting started.
Paul: I was writing engineering software for nuclear power plants.
Paul: When the Commodore 64 came out, they grab a bunch of us working on games…
eepmon: Commodore 64, that’s sometime ago!
Paul: It was very exciting at the time, you know?
eepmon: So you are technologically savvy, and I would therefore say that Japan appeared to play a strong influence on your entrepreneurial career. To start off, Minidisco. What was this about?
Paul: I was shooting film, writing scripts partially for a living. Making my own movies, getting awards at film festivals, but just discovering that small films don’t really make you much money, but it was really a blast.
Paul: To do sound recording, I hacked my own video editing system using a MAC in QuickTime 1. This back when systems were 100,000’s of dollars to edit video on a computer, and we were actually shooting in film. I had a 16mm most of the time, so I started recording sound on MiniDiscs and we also started hacking up our own microphones which we were using, so we could record and not have to worry about permits and stuff like that. So I was bringing all these MiniDisc players and selling these special microphones… cutting them and fitting them into eyeglass cases… we’d hide microphones in headphones so it would look like you were listening to music, but you are actually recording everything around you. We started selling this out of the garage and with a computer program I wrote… this was, I think, in ’97, right when the Internet was emerging and it grew into a bigger business. Which has kinda always been my pattern, I go into something I really love and it accidentally seems to turn into a larger business. Then I get frantic working on it for quite awhile and realize… hahaha
Paul: … I don’t like being part of a big business so I sell them and do something else.
Wow, incredible. So with Minidisco you actually hacked them, right? You actually opened them up, reconfigured, you programmed and did a whole bunch of stuff didn’t you?
Paul: You couldn’t get or go back/forth with the files on a MiniDisc because Sony had locked it. So we unlocked it.
eepmon: You know this is a side of you I never knew. You are totally into computers and technology. That’s pretty amazing.
Paul: I’m not doing that type of thing as much now.
eepmon: I’m sure a lot of your computer background has certainly trickled into your other careers…
Paul: Actually for Budnitz Bicycles I wrote the whole backend that runs the whole company, which we can put more investment into the bikes because we have a low overhead. We can talk with the people who work with us, and keep track of everything by using the software I wrote. The same was originally true with Kidrobot, I even wrote the original cash register systems for that company. At first it was like, oh this saves us, but actually to me it is part of the aesthetic exercise of the whole project.
eepmon: RIGHT! Totally agree with that!
Paul: I need to control the whole experience so the customer gets a remarkable product, that is what makes these things beautiful. To me, the whole company is the work of art, not just the things that we are creating and selling.
eepmon: I totally respect that because for me as eepmon I can relate to what you’re saying. You know, I’m an artist, freelancer, a bit of an entrepreneur myself…
Paul: Eric, you have REALLY beautiful work… you know, your lines are so clean.
eepmon: Thank you very much. And I try to keep it a tight ship too, you know. I also graduated in Computer Science and with my programming background I also coded the eepmon store, eepmon website and I try to do everything myself because it is like your baby… and as a brand you want to have as much control as possible to ensure that you have it all locked down to your vision.
eepmon: So I can really relate to what you are saying. We are certainly going to get to the Budnitz Bicycles in a second, but let’s jump into Kidrobot.
eepmon: You were the founder of Kidrobot. What did you see at the time that Hong Kong and Japan were doing that really inspired you to kick start that?
Paul: I have always been a comic book freak. Especially independent comic books which were really big in the ’80s and into the ’90s. So I was winding down Minidisco, it was Greg Blum and Jim Crawford who were working with me then and actually ended up founding Strangeco. I think Greg brought in a toy from Michael Lau into the office. I thought it was the coolest I had ever seen! My next trip to Hong Kong, I started exploring. You know there weren’t very many art toys being made. There were a few artists doing it and what they were doing were mostly taking GI:Joes, chopping their heads off…
Paul: … and molding new ones and selling them at comic book and toy conventions in China. Or in basements in these weird little stores in these weird little crazy run down malls they have in Kowloon.
eepmon: Yea. It’s the the real deal there!
Paul: I thought… this stuff is amazing! And then I went to Japan and was like… this stuff is amazing, too! It was really a subculture even there. I said to myself, man, I really gotta do this! We started doing our own toys and opened the first Kidrobot shop in San Francisco and moving between there and New York where we opened another shop. I started making toys with a lot of friends and friends of friends. Tristan Eaton introduced me to a lot of street artists and I’d known a few. It opened a lot of doors for me. I just fell in love with street artists as people at that point especially most were doing their work for no money…
eepmon: Of course.
Paul: … taking personal risks. Getting arrested, beat up. When you get that passion in your work, often the result is really remarkable.
Paul: I decided to started to work with street artists first and created Kidrobot. It was sort of my aesthetic combined with hundreds of people’s work, that is why Kidrobot’s art looks consistent. But I was working with the greatest artists and designers in the world so making great work wasn’t so hard.
eepmon: Everyone applied their passion and their artistic style. A lot of it on the Munnies, right?
eepmon: And you have done many collaborations under the Kidrobot brand. How was it like working with eBoy, Jon Burgerman, Junko Mizuno… how was it working with these guys?
Paul: 90% of the time it was very easy. In general, because it’s a weird medium and we would tell artists, “you’re not going to make your living off toys, take a risk.” That was great because we just let the artist just go to town, for better or for worse. Usually better. And sometimes it was a problem just had to make a certain toy, even if we are selling at a loss because it’s just too amazing.
And yeah, sometimes people are assholes. Sometimes there are prima donnas and egos get involved but, in general, I didn’t work with those people twice. It is just too exhausting. For example, I’d say Frank Kozik is very successful because he’s actually one of the nicest people I know and he is also one of the most professional artists I know. You can call Frank and say, “Frank, we need this drawing by tomorrow,” and he’d say, “No problem,” and he’d be staying up all night doing it and it’d be ready the next day.
eepmon: Absolutely agree. Talent is one thing, I also believe that a person as a human being… no ego driven, open-minded. Because in the grand scheme of things, the ego doesn’t achieve anything, doesn’t add any value to your career, persona… So I find it funny sometimes that I bump into people with this vibe and I’m like… “Are you kidding me?”
Paul: It’s offensive.
eepmon: If they are a really genuinely nice person, I think attitude goes a long way in making an all-around artist.
Paul: It just makes things easier.
eepmon: Of course.
Paul: I used to spend a lot of time telling people I was fairly talentless, actually. Haha, and I know that a lot of artists that I worked with would agree, … but actually over time I realized that it’s not true. I have a very exceptionally good eye. But there are a lot of things that I’m not the best at, but at some point you learn, “Oh! If I’m not the best at these things, but I have a good eye… then I can work with the people who are the best in their world. They’ll respect me because I understand why their work is so remarkable and I can help them to make their work even more.
That’s the thing, what we are inside is sort of irrelevant if we can show a way that we can be useful and make things work, you know?
eepmon: Yes. You were mentioning earlier if you don’t have that part of that skill set… then you know that I can work with people who are good at that. So you know, it’s about matching that vision, it’s like associating your brand with them because you guys understand the logistics, you understand what quality is…
eepmon: … What refinement is, you know… so it’s very important to have that eye and to look for these people to pair up with. Very important.
Paul: Since the Internet came, we all became brands. Everybody’s a brand. So if we think about our disabilities, things that we are not good at, then we can just ask someone to help me out. I think that kind of compensation has turned to an advantage for me. If I can look for people who can do what I cannot… and bring them in and ask them very politely. I think there is certainly a lot of space for success there.
eepmon: With those collaborations, you’ve also written books. I Am Plastic. It must have been an ambitious endeavour to research and build a comprehensive list of designer vinyls and collectibles. How did you manage about doing this?
Paul: I think I just said I wanted to make a book and then I approached Abrams who I believe made the best art books around and they said ok and gave us an advance and we spent the money making the book. I learned that the amount of money that you make from the book is exactly your advance!
We did a second one and then a kids’ one with Aya Kakeda, which was really great. Now I’m working on a book for adults.
eepmon: A bit more on that, what is this about?
Paul: I had this idea that I should write a book that would be about what I do creatively, so that people can learn to work the way I do, I got partway through and realized that I’m sort of insane! I’m way too crazy to be able to communicate how I work in a useful way. So it’s becoming more a book about using your disabilities to your advantage. I have Asperger syndrome, which is a kind of autism. So I’ve had to compensate for that.
eepmon: We’re all crazy, are we not? Well, a saying from Steve Jobs, I believe he said it on All Things D, was that rational, normal people would be smart not to even try to attempt such a task because it is insane.
Paul: Exactly. It’s sort of the same thing of saying about if you’re a jerk, just keep being a jerk but you don’t have to act like one. If you have a disability, it can make certain things incredibly difficult, but instead of worrying about it, just figure how to ask for help. Make things work.
eepmon: Let’s jump to today. You are starting a completely new venture. A shift away from vinyl toy market and into bicycles. These are certainly no ordinary bicycles. How did it all start?
Paul: I’ve been biking for years. When we were still living in New York City, my weekend way to relax was to take my bike and ride it up all the way to the George Washington Bridge from the Village, where I lived and then ride back down Manhattan, down Broadway as fast as possible in traffic.
eepmon: Wow. Traffic here is something not to be messed with.
Paul: I never really could find a bicycle that I really wanted or loved and always wanted to make my own. I started making my own bikes and people kept wanting to buy them.
eepmon: The idea of you building… That spanned all the way since high school when you were building things for the Commodore 64. This trickles into what you today – it’s amazing!
Paul: I guess you’re right! Yeah, I didn’t really think about it…
eepmon: Yes, stuff that caters to your taste, you know? It can only be customized.
Paul: Every detail has to be right… Kidrobot was also a way for me to make things just perfect. These bikes are immaculate. We make our own frames, handle bars, stems, seat posts that are titanium. Now we have cro-moly steel bikes too.
Next week we are introducing a few new colours. They are really beautiful. We are making city bikes not racing bikes. We are making bikes for everyday use because I believe that bikes are really transformational when you start shifting to them as your main mode of transportation.
Paul: You can get anywhere you want real fast on a bicycle. But to me they had to be beautiful too. I got invited to a reception at the French Embassy in Paris, so I made one for that and that is now called the Honey Edition.
eepmon: By looking at these bikes, I see your meticulous attention to quality. Attention to detail, craft on every single piece. Yes. The Honey Edition really caught my eye. I really like this one.
Paul: Thank you. We are using belts instead of chains because I hate getting dirty. Also we only sell direct. I refuse to wholesale, which means for the same price, you are getting a bike that is 5x as good as a similarly priced at a bike shop.
eepmon: Right. If you don’t mind me asking, where are the parts being sourcing from? What place / country?
Paul: The chromoly frames are made in Washington State. Our hubs are made in California. Our brake arms are made here in Denver. We have our painting done here in Colorado. The tires are German, and the reaction cable housing is made in Japan.
People look at our bike sometimes and have a lot of opinions, of course, like, “I can pick these things up for $300!” I’m like, yeah, right! haha… and btw, I love $300 bikes. I love flea market bikes. Some of them are tremendous.
eepmon: I see that totally.
Paul: Kidrobot was about making limited editions… a lot of things that were made in a lot of different … stuff released over and over. With the bicycles I thought, what if I made a company where every model was perfected before I put it out? I wanted to make models that were classic, that were simple and that would look good for decades. In 10 years from now, a Budnitz Model number 1 is going to look like a number 1 and we will still be selling it.
eepmon: Certainly. I see this as a work of art.
Paul: Thank you.
eepmon: That is exactly why I wanted to ask you where most of these parts are being sourced from because it’s important. Having not met you personally I can tell already you are careful about the sourcing. It does play a role in establishing your vision and the aesthetic of the bike itself.
eepmon: You’re making sure you are getting the best of the best.
Paul: Yes and in every case.
eepmon: How many years have you been developing Budnitz Bicycles?
Paul: I’ve been working on them for about four years now.
eepmon: I can tell that you put in a lot of passion and care into the bicycles itself. Pretty amazing.
Paul: Thank you.
eepmon: You’re welcome. Future plans with Budnitz Bicycles? What are your plans down the road?
Paul: We are currently looking for a store in New York City.
eepmon: Nick Santora mentioned about that and I suggested that you guys should hit up Monocle.
Paul: We love Monocle! But I can’t get through to Monocle. Do you know anybody there?
eepmon: I don’t know. The Monocle shop in New York… I think you’ve probably seen this too, but they have their Monocle bike in front of their store.
Paul: For sure. I am a big fan of Monocle.
eepmon: They are certainly on brand.
eepmon: When I was in Tokyo last April, I checked out the Monocle CafÃ© in the Hankyu Men’s department in Ginza.
Paul: Yeah, right?!
eepmon: …and I walked in there and I was like…”Are you kidding me?”
Paul: It’s crazy! Hahah
eepmon: The magazine is well done and that vision translated into a physical space is quite a feat.
Paul: They have a clear strong vision, you know?
My ideal thing is our own little shop where I can create the whole environment. At the same time, there is no rush. It will be a slow evolution.
eepmon: Well, that covers my questions to you. Thank you, Paul for taking your time with this interview.
Paul: Thank you, Eric!