“Innovation at its heart is problem solving. It’s how we’re going to fix this problem using technology we already have.” – James Hobson
James Hobson is the creator of “The Hacksmith” YouTube channel which has over 8 million subscribers and 700 million views. As CEO of Hacksmith Entertainment, he runs a team of innovative engineers that take fictional ideas from movies, comics and video games and turn them into real working prototypes. While the prototypes are not commercially viable, their innovative process of creation has inspired many youth looking to pursue fields in STEM. Previous projects by The Hacksmith YouTube channel include things like pneumatic exoskeletons to Captain America’s shield, from Thor’s hammers to real life lightsabers, batman gadgets to James Bond spy tools to even hydraulic mechs! The Penn Innovators in Business Network asked James to share some of advice he has for undergraduates today, especially those looking to go into technology and entertainment.
What did success look like for you during your undergraduate years? And now?
“I don’t want to scare you guys, but everything’s a lot simpler when you’re still in school. I found at least when I was in school, I had a singular goal and that was to graduate and get a job. And when you put it down that simple, it’s a very simple attainable goal. However, it’s when you get a job, that you realize you might be interested in other roles and you keep moving around, making things a lot more complicated once you’re out of the school system. So enjoy it while it lasts. But I wouldn’t get too hung up on things like your GPA. There’s very few companies out there who are like, “Oh, we’re only hiring you if you have this specific GPA”. Really what companies are looking for when they’re interviewing you for a job is your actual experience and projects you’ve worked, not just your grades.
If you think about people who are successful in the business world, usually it’s those who have very strong social skills. They’re able to communicate well and take direction. So, don’t sweat getting a 95% in a class because the big thing that’s different in the real world is that you’re never going to be assigned a grade again in your life. When you’re working on a project for a company, it either works or it doesn’t work. There’s a big grey area in there. You’re never going to get that same level of feedback where you get a score out of a hundred of how well you did on this project. So it’s funny that we keep pushing in the school system when the reality is the actual deliverables and milestones are so much different than say handing in a paper and getting A+. You need to pass, you need to get decent grades, you need to learn as much as you can while you’re in school. But, I wouldn’t sweat your actual grades too much because there will be so much more in your career that doesn’t depend on what mark you got back when you were in school.
My vision of what school really teaches you is how to study knowledge and apply that knowledge to solve problems. So this whole four years is teaching you how to be a problem solver and how to take knowledge and apply it to your job or your life.”
Take us through your career journey. What were the phases that you went through in order to get to where you are currently?
“One of the most important things for starting a business is trying to create your project on the side. I call it having a ‘side hustle’. There’s a reason that 95% of entrepreneurs fail in the first year. That happens because people just dive headfirst. They’re like, all right, let’s just do it. They drop everything and go. Sometimes that works and if it does, that’s great. But the more practical and safer way of doing it is to start planning it out while you still have a job and have money to pay the bills. So, what I did for my YouTube channel was I started doing it on the side. I picked up a part time job writing for hackaday.com and kept all the money from that job into a business account.
I started building up some of the resources for my business before I even started the business. And if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have succeeded, especially with YouTube, which is a very hard platform to succeed on. It really is important to do it on the side.And I think the same goes for pretty much any business or big project. Everything can be broken down into small steps. So if you can do those small steps while you’re still working for a company and you’re still employed, why not? What happened for me was I kept doing Youtube on the side for almost two years while I was still employed. And then finally I got to that point where I was spending almost as much time at night on my YouTube channel as I was during the day at my job.
I realized something has to change now because I can’t support both my job and my YouTube channel. I’m going to have to choose. Not wanting to let go of my job security, I asked my boss if I could work part time. While some managers wanted me to stay, ultimately the HR department and the VP of engineering said they couldn’t make any exceptions. They told me it’s either full time or nothing and that’s actually what led me to just straight up quit my job all together. I’m actually glad that happened because it was the push I needed to really go full time into YouTube.
From there, I just kept building it slowly, piece by piece and I surrounded myself with a team of other very intelligent, hardworking people and we’ve been able to turn it into something pretty incredible! We have over 8 million subscribers now and 700 million views.”
Could you walk us through the steps that help you turn your fictional ideas into reality?
“So it does depend highly on the project, but everything starts with an idea. One of the most common questions we get on YouTube is how do we come up with our ideas? And to me, ideas are very rational. I see something in a movie and I’m like that looks really cool! How would I do that? And usually the first step in creating my project is thinking well what kind of technology is similar that already exists. That’s a big thing for innovation and invention. There’s not much stuff really invented anymore. Most of the time it’s more of an innovation of existing technologies. If we were to teleport back a few hundred years, then yes, you’d have to be inventing these things to actually make your solution. But we have thousands of years of human development now going into technology. So all it is is a matter of taking those little pieces and pulling them together in a new way and that’s really what I consider innovation. We use this approach in our projects when turning our fictional ideas into reality.
Are there any future projects you are working on?
Right now a project we’re working on is a full metal iron man gauntlet, which is pretty cool. But what’s cooler is iron man’s abilities. He’s got a few, he’s got the rocket launchers, he’s got a laser and the repulsor. Which of those is actually possible? Well, the laser is almost possible but not the way they portray it in movies. That’s just way too powerful. But there’s a similar technology out there which can do the same destructive damage as a laser and that’s a plasma cutter.
This is a tool used to cut through steel in a manufacturing process. What we thought was if there was a way to buy a plasma cutter, convert it to be battery powered and then install it inside the iron suit. So I could walk up to a steel door, place my left hand on the door and bring my right hand up and literally cut a circle through the door. The reason we’re able to do that is because we can take those thousands of hours of product development that some company spent making a plasma cutter that works well. And then we can take out the components that we need and use it to create a project in a new innovative way!”
How does Hacksmith Industries define innovation? What are some of the key perspectives that help to shape a culture of innovation?
“Innovation is at its heart problem solving. It’s how we’re going to fix this problem using technology we already have. Anyone is able to think of an idea and think of the technologies that exist and know how by combining technologies, we might be able to solve problems. Depending on the field you’re in, you just need to get the people to actually put it together.”
How do you market your “brand image” and establish collaborations with organizations like 20th Century Fox and Casper (what is the process like)?
“The way we establish collaborations isn’t quite the way most other businesses would have to do it. In most cases. You need to do a lot of outreach to be able to work with other big companies. But because we’re a YouTube channel with already a very large established audience, typically those brands actually come to us.
However, when starting out in the YouTube world, you need to know how to network. This does not mean meeting hundreds of people and handing them your business card. You would have as much chance of finding a connection as winning a lottery. You need to focus on one person, who knows hundreds of people, that is working on a project similar to yours. This will allow you to build a much greater connection as you can share a lot more knowledge. So, make sure you’re focusing on finding the right people in the right businesses to work with. Not just casting a big net and seeing which fish bite.”