You probably know his iconic vinyl toy brand, Kidrobot, more so than the man himself. Behind the face of the Dunny and Munny is Paul Budnitz: cycling fantatic, bike maker, author, filmmaker, entrepreneur, coding geek and now, founder of Paul Budnitz Bicycles. As you can imagine, the dude is pretty damn busy so we were stoked to be able to get a bit of time with him, to chat about toys, riding bikes, writing his first children’s books and his dream of making a Brooklyn-hipsters-turned-man-eating-zombies French Nouveau film. Welcome to the extraordinary life and times of Paul Budnitz…
You’re quite well known for being the founder of Kidrobot, but you come from an amazing educational and entrepreneurial background. Did you ever think you’d end up being the founder of one of the biggest toy brands on the planet?
Yes and no. It kind of depends at what moment you’d have asked me. The process of starting Kidrobot was very chaotic. Some months it was fairly clear we were going to go bankrupt. But at all times I just wholeheartedly believed in what we were doing or else I wouldn’t have been doing it. It was usually both things at the same time – impending disaster and faith.
You were a bit of a coding whiz back in the day. Was there a defining moment where you had to make a conscious decision to choose either the path of a creative or the path of a computer geek?
When I was in high school I was writing video games and engineering software. Most of the other coders I knew were very intense social misfits. I loved them, but at the same time I realized that the using my mind that way meant I’d forget about my body, my friends, the outside world. I used to sit up for 24 hours straight and forget to eat or drink. I saw what was down that road and turned to art instead. I still write software now and then – right now my bicycle company is running off a database I designed a few weeks ago.
What was it that made the creative path more appealing to you?
I thought it would be exciting and I’d meet interesting people and have lots of exotic lovers.
What really happened was it was a lot of hard work and it didn’t help my love life at all. But it is fun to be able to invent things and fall in love with them and see them come to be.
Did you find the move from NYC to Boulder a difficult one? Considering the two cities are quite different in terms of vibe and aesthetic, why did you feel the company needed a fresh start?
I have a family now and it was either the suburbs, where I’d probably kill myself, or “somewhere else”. Boulder is an amazing place to get to live as I’m a biker and it has one of the most developed bike lane systems in the world. Plus I travel a lot and have friends everywhere so I get my city fix when I need it too.
What’s the state of the toy industry right now? Has it peaked?
I actually think it’s just getting started. But it’s time for “what’s next” as some stuff is getting stale.
You’ve taken a bit of a step back from Kidrobot. Why?
I needed to recharge my batteries and do something else. I have been working on my bicycle company and writing books for a while, and it is time for those things to come to fruition. Plus, I’ve got some other stuff in the works that I can’t talk about (Chinese Law of Secrecy).
It must be difficult to let go of a brand you worked so tirelessly to build. For you personally, what’s been the best thing about not being as big a part of Kidrobot?
You seem to constantly be working on something. Do you find it hard to balance your work life and your Life life?
What used to be tough for me was that I was really identified with my work. What I did was who I was. That’s a neurotic pattern you see in a lot of hard working people. At one point I saw that as a deadend and decided to make a change.
I went from doing to being, and from being to not even sure I exist at all. And now I’m back doing, but it’s a lot more fun. It’s not me, it’s just what I do.
To answer your question more directly – I work very quickly. Doing many things isn’t difficult for me. But I do tend to focus and it can be hard for me to transition from an intense creative session to dinner with my family or without a break in between.
You’ve made a couple of films, which were pretty well received– would you ever get back into it? What sort of movie would you make next?
I’d make a French New Wave film about aliens invading Williamsburg, Brooklyn. All the hipsters turn into man-eating Zombies and have to be killed by a team of loser computer geeks who find an army weapons cache behind a noodle restaurant in Chinatown.
Back in 2008, there was talk about making some kidrobot films. What happened with this?
Still talking. Hollywood takes forever. It’s amazing anyone gets anything done there.
Your first children’s book, The Hole In The Middle, was released a few months ago. How was the process for you?
Super-fun! Aya’s art is amazing. It was great having someone else make the books for a change. I’m so used to doing everything myself.
Last week you launched Paul Budnitz Bicycles with the two models selling out in about two seconds. Tell us a bit about that project. How did that come about?
Several years ago I began designing my own bicycles when I couldn’t find what I wanted on the market. I started ordering lots of books on bicycle science – people at Kidrobot must of thought I was crazy. I really obsess on things sometimes.
I am a long-term advocate of bicycling as transportation and recreation (as opposed to racing and sport!) and my experience is that if people’s bicycles were as nice as their cars they’d use them more. And maybe ditch the cars.
I eventually began designing my own bicycles and people would see them and there’d be this long pause, and then they’d say, “Can I buy one?” So I decided to offer them to sale, and they’ve done very well.
They aren’t cheap. One guy told me he sold his Honda to pay for his.
Do you think the Budnitz name has become a brand? How will this work for you? And how risky is it to put your name to ideas or products?
I used to hate my name as a kid. As it turns out it was awesome once Google came around, as it’s a unique search term. Putting my name on things is only risky if the things suck. I don’t make things that suck, so I figure I’m OK there.
How is it living in Amsterdam? It’s one of my favourite cities in the world! Why the move?
Actually we’re just back to the US. Went there for fun, really, and to study how people live with bicycles every day of their lives. Learned a lot.
You said before that you’re good at coming up with ideas. Can you describe your creative process?
Yeah, it’s kind of like this:
“Hey, I have a really stupid idea, what do you think?”
Then I ask someone, who usually says I’m right, it is stupid, and I move on.
The key is to not be afraid to be an idiot.
In the end we’re responsible for quantity, not quality.
Where do your ideas come from? You obviously have a huge bank of ideas and concepts floating around in your head. Where do you draw your inspiration?
I just like to look at the world and see what I can do to make something better, and have fun doing it. The little kid in me that just likes playing with real things never quite died. Doing things is fun!
You seem to be quite big on collaboration – why is this the case?
Because I’m totally talentless.
That’s not true.
My one talent is that I’m totally superficial. In a good way.
I can do a lot of things fairly well, but nothing very well.
So I usually hunt down someone who’s an expert and convince them to do something with me. It’s just so much fun to learn and do something new with someone who’s the best at it!
Maybe my other talent is being very, very convincing.
Who is the one person you’d love to collaborate with? What would you do with him/her?
David Bowie! Brian Eno! I always wanted to make music, but as mentioned above, I have no talent.
What’s one project you’ve always wanted to work on but haven’t been able to do yet?
Sing for The Clash.
Tell us about an idea that you’ve had that hasn’t worked out…
Can’t think of anything right now. Even disasters seem to turn into something useful.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned, career-wise?
It was really hard to learn to drop my ego and let other people do the work if they’re better than me. That’s my whole style of working now. It was hard to give that up at first.
And what would you say to all the budding entrepreneurs out there? What’s the best piece of advice you could give them?
Complete what you start unless the idea sucks. Go get a better idea and complete what you start. And ask for help.
What motivates you to push forward and keep doing your thing?
It’s fun. Plus I believe that making beautiful things serves the world.
What would you like to be doing in twenty years from now?
Haven’t thought about it.
What’s coming up for you? What can we expect from you in the near future?
Lots of surprises.
Stay up-to-date on these ‘surprises’ via paulbudnitz.com