Even if you don’t follow Simone Giertz on social media or YouTube, there’s a good chance you know of her work. Originally hailed as the Queen of Shitty Robots, Simone’s early videos of questionable contraptions, such as the Toothbrush Machine and Hair Washing Robot, quickly went viral, birthing a variety of GIFs and shareable content that quickly took over the internet. But, nowadays, she’s shelved her bots and focuses her attention on more reliable projects, such as her highly successful crowdfunding campaign for The Every Day Calendar, and the impressive Truckla, a Tesla pickup truck that beat Elon Musk’s Cybertruck to the post when shared online in June 2019.
Alex Bate caught up with Simone Giertz (pronounced Yetch, not Gerts) to discuss how she went from unreliable robots and GIF stardom to bunk-beds made of leaves and office chair sidecars for needy pets, and why her openly discussed brain tumour helped to realign her business model.
A career of two halves
HS To me, as a viewer, it feels like your YouTube career is split into two halves. There’s Simone, the Queen of Shitty Robots, and then there’s everything post-surgery, like Truckla and The Every Day Calendar. Do you see it too?
SG The difficult part about YouTube, and also the good side of it, is that if you have a really long career, you grow up during that career, and you change and your interests change. And I don’t want to just play a role, I want to be genuinely excited about the things I do – you get sick of things, and you want to explore new things. So, in order to do that, I’ve really tried to be ‘theme agnostic’ for my YouTube channel.
And that was something that was really hard with Shitty Robots, because it was something that I knew that people really liked, and that I had a level of success with. But I was just not that excited about it anymore. And I think the brain tumour became a really good page turner for me, because I had such limited energy capital, you know, and I really just wanted to spend my time and my very limited energy on doing things that I was super-pumped about.
I think the projects I build now still have some elements of the stuff I did in my early days, but they’re definitely less GIF-compatible.
In the beginning, all I was thinking about for every project was a GIF. That was the main deliverable that I had in my head, and the main piece of content that I focused on, and then I kind of built a YouTube video around it, and around the process of creating this GIF. And I let go of that. Not every project needs to have a punchline. It can be fine. It can be a little bit more dull.
But, I still feel guilty about it.
SG Yeah. People are very sweet about it, but I still get comments with people being like, ’Oh, I miss the Shitty Robots.’ But, at the same time, you have to think, ’It’s my life, and I really want to do the things I want to do.’ And I’m also so drawn to my product business and wanting to focus on that. And the way that my YouTube channel can co-exist with that is for me to explore different products and make videos about them. And it’s actually becoming a pretty good tag team.
HS Talking about your product business, the biggest one to date was obviously The Every Day Calendar. 2300-odd backers, and over half a million dollars raised. How did you feel when your first Kickstarter just soared like that?
SG It was fun and scary. Because, as somebody who’s terrified of disappointing people, crowdfunding campaigns are kind of like the worst position to put yourself in because you really risk disappointing people. But, I don’t think we did. I mean, we were late, but I really just wanted to deliver a good product because it was expensive. And, yes, we raised over half a million dollars, but it’s not until now that we’ve actually broken even.
SG It’s so expensive. And so much of that is in product development. When it comes down to it, and you’re actually putting something out in the world, it’s just crazy how much it costs. And I mean, we probably didn’t do it in the most efficient way we could, because we were rookies. But, it was definitely very humbling and terrifying.
HS Would you do further products with Kickstarter? Or do you think you’re now at a point where you would just create a product and sell it, and not have to rely on crowdfunding?
SG We’re hopefully launching our store this summer, and we’re going to have four different products in it. And, I’m hoping that any easier products can be self-funded. And, if there’s something more complicated, like the Companion Chair, which is definitely going to be a bigger project, it might end up being crowdfunded because with funding, you also get market testing. You can get a lot out of it. But, that said, after I did The Every Day Calendar, I remember saying I’d never do it again. Every night at 3 am, I would just wake up and be like, ’Oh my god, what if we send out the calendars and then, in two years, all of them stop working! People are going to be really angry.’ I’m scared of that. But, I guess that also, even if customers are buying your product off the shelf, you are always going to live with that fear over your head.
The early days
HS It’s really interesting to go back and watch your earliest videos, particularly the first one in Swedish, and see how far you’ve come. Was it always the aim to start the business? To have staff and be opening an online store and selling your products?
SG I mean, no, I would definitely be lying if I said that this is some sort of master plan. There was no scheming where I had the large whiteboard – ’This is the trajectory of how I’m going to become known as the Queen of Shitty Robots. And then I’m going to pivot that into running a product business.’ I’m definitely not that smart.
But, I had an inkling of what I was interested in. And I mean, I really liked making videos. And I think that everything kind of happened in a very fortunate way. Because I had this job where I was a Maker in Residence at a US company called Punch Through Design. And my job was just to build different things. And right when my job there was ending, I posted the Toothbrush Helmet, and that started getting some traction. I was moving back to Sweden because my visa expired, and I just had this year of living with my mom again, and having very few expenses and I was like, ’OK, I’m gonna just make sure I work enough to get by, but then the rest of the time, I’m just gonna spend it on building these machines that I want to build.’
So I was very fortunate in the way that I could structure things so I was able to spend time on my YouTube channel in the early days.
But, it’s also so easy to look back and be like, ’Of course, all these things led me to where I am today.’ But when you’re in the middle of it, you’re just flailing. And my flailing, fortunately, landed me in a position that I’m very happy with today.
Commander Scraps the canine sidekick
[It’s at this point of the conversation that Simone’s three-legged canine sidekick, Commander Scraps, decides to join us. Those who have seen Simone’s build video for the Companion Chair or Lego-based Dog Selfie Booth will already know of Scraps. Those who haven’t, well, Scraps is adorable, so you should definitely check them out.]
HS Some online content creators are often stuck within a theme – wood working, electronics, 3D printing, and so on. But, for you, it seems that you’re the theme, you’re the brand, and you can get away with creating whatever content you want. Do you see that when you interact with your community? That freedom?
SG It’s something that I thought a lot about in the early days, like, how much is the channel about me and my life? And how much is it about the things that I build? And I think what I struggled with is that I’m not that interested in my life. Like, I really want to make videos that I myself would want to watch. I’m not really interested in vlogs, so I decided early on that while it’s about my life to an extent, it’s still centred around these projects I’m building.
In some ways, I’m pretty private on the internet, but also very open, like when it comes to brain tumour stuff. I was really open about it, and I wanted to tell everyone about it because it was a way for me to process what was happening. I remember having to tell myself that I had to stop telling waiters or Uber drivers that I had a brain tumour. ’Hi sweetie, how are you today? Well, I have a brain tumour, but other than that, I’m pretty good.’
When it came to talking about it online, it was a no-brainer. Haha.
But then there’s other stuff that I don’t talk about, like, I don’t really document my life. I don’t talk about my friends really, or my relationship status, or anything like that. Because you have to draw the line somewhere. And I always felt like documenting my life was just too intrusive.
Queen of Shitty Robots
HS When you look at your most popular videos on your channel, even though you’re known as the Queen of Shitty Robots, those videos aren’t actually in the Top 5. Instead, it’s the video of you in the zero gravity simulations, and Truckla, and locking yourself in your bathroom for 48 hours. It’s interesting that the thing you’re most known for isn’t the thing your audience is most interacting with.
SG Those Shitty Robot videos mostly did really well on other platforms, like Twitter and Reddit. Not so much on YouTube because it has its own metrics and algorithms.
The thing that is really useful for other creators who are getting started is to figure out what is your hook, or what is the very simple version of what you’re doing. Like, Queen of Shitty Robots kind of became the headline. And it was this very clear message, and it was something that was really easy for journalists to write about. It was a spearhead for branding.
This was not something I was thinking about at the time, but looking back, my fear then was to make sure I didn’t get pigeonholed, and that I could never move on from it, because that’s the problem when people only know you for one thing – you can’t really move on beyond that. It’s really nice to have that spearhead, and then you can broaden it, and that’s how you have longevity.
I didn’t want this to be over in a year. I wanted to be able to keep on doing it because I was really enjoying it. And now, I want to make sure that I have more legs to stand on, because when you’re going through health problems, you realise that if you can’t be in front of a camera, everything grinds to a halt. If you’re not well enough to work, or if YouTube changes its algorithm, it becomes such a fragile business structure. So, that was one of the reasons why I decided I needed to go into products.
HS I guess you can’t really be known as the Queen of Shitty Robots where everything you make doesn’t really do what it’s meant to do, and then expect people to buy serious products from you and trust they’ll work.
SG That’s definitely one of the things when we launched The Every Day Calendar – I was wondering how are people going to be able to take this seriously? But, I think that’s what’s really nice, that my audience has been around long enough and they’ve seen that there’s more to it than that – there’s actually, ironically, a lot of work that goes into making Shitty Robots.
HS I remember the first time I saw your work was when you collaborated with Adam Savage to make an automated popcorn machine in 2016. It’s a great video that really highlights how great collaborative work can be when two people focus on what they’re really interested in to make a final product. And you’ve worked on other videos with creators such as Laura Kampf. Is there anyone else you’d like to work with?
SG I’m really interested in people who are kind of beyond the community that I’m currently in. It would be really fun to do stuff with musical artists; I’d love to collaborate with OK Go. Or venture beyond that and work with people who make art, and fashion designers. People who are outside the world where I’m creating. And there are people that I just love and would always want to work with, like Laura. She’s the sweetest, most talented, down-to-earth and funny person. I really love working with her. I should really think of who’s on my bucket list.
Something I’ve really missed during the pandemic is just getting to spend time with people who are excited about what they’re doing, and having that excitement rub off on me. There’s nothing more inspiring than someone being pumped about something, even if you don’t understand what it is. In some ways, lockdown has been great for creating as I’ve had more time to loiter in the shop, but I definitely miss that input and just being able to talk to people.
Secret new ideas…
HS And are there any projects you’d like to build that you just haven’t gotten around to doing yet?
SG Honestly, I just want to build stuff for my house right now, which I know isn’t the most interesting answer. I still have the CEO Bouncy Chair on my list – I want to make this kids’ bouncy chair, the type where you’re almost in some sort of plastic diaper. But I want it to look like a mahogany desk with a Rolodex and it’s for grown-ups. And make some spoof commercial for it when it’s marketed as an exercise device, but there’s just some balding white guy in it. I think that’s the only one that I’m still eager to build. Let me look at my notes…
[Simone proceeds to pull out her phone and list project ideas from the notes app. Should I tell you what they are or should I leave them as a surprise? With great power comes great responsibility!]
HS Those are definitely some interesting ideas…
[I’m very responsible].
HS Going back to your audience, you seem to have been somewhat spared a lot of the negativity people receive in comments, and online in general. Why do you think that is?
SG I’m just always so scared. Haha. I’ve been spared from the trolls and the hate, and I’m just terrified of ruining whatever equilibrium is happening right now. That’s one of the reasons I post so seldomly. I was looking the other day and thought, ’Oh, it’s been 45 days since I last posted on Instagram!’, and I notice I keep getting DMs from people asking if I’m OK. I’m just always scared to overstep, or do something that would upset people, or cause me to fall from some sort of pedestal. I just never want to post something that doesn’t work for other people, you know?
HS I get it. The comments section of YouTube alone can be an awful place sometimes. Speaking of YouTube, are there any other makers at the moment who are inspiring you?
SG I love 3×3 Custom. She’s my happy place because she’s at a level of making that I’m just not at. Her jig work is just wild, and the quality she puts out. And I love Nicole McLaughlin. She does these really fun and weird fashion contraptions, like shoes made out of tennis balls. She’s very cool. She’s a level of coolness that I aspire to and never expect to get to.
But, one of the most inspiring things for me is time. And I know that if I run out of ideas, it’s because I’m overworked and I haven’t had enough downtime and time to just loiter in the shop. I try to enforce this on Fridays, where me and my teammates just work on whatever project, and it doesn’t have to be work-related. And some of my best ideas have come from that type of work, where I don’t know what my end goal with this is, but I’m just going to tinker with it for a little bit.
You can follow Simone on Instagram for behind-the-scenes photos of her project, and subscribe to her YouTube channel for new content. Also, because why wouldn’t you, you can follow Scraps on Instagram too!
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