When Amanda Peyton first got together with Aaron Henshaw and Joe Lallouz to start a business, they had huge ambitions. Comic-book huge. “We said, ‘Let’s build Jarvis from Iron Man!’” Peyton recalls. Seeing as they lacked Tony Stark’s billions, this turned out not to be sensible. “As we started working it out, we realized we’d need so much money,” Peyton smiles. But Grand St., the online tech retailer the trio developed instead, turned out to be just as ambitious.
Grand St. sells things you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, often things you’d never have dreamed existed. One week, members might have the opportunity to buy their very own flying drone; a few days later, a personal thermostat, or a hackable clock. From 10,000 feet up, Grand St. looks similar to many new e-commerce enterprises. After signing up, members get access to a storefront stocked with a carefully curated batch of goodies. It runs on a flash-sale site model: Said goodies change every few days, so customers need to act fast.
But if you dip beneath Grand St.’s basic business model, you’ll discover something very different. Peyton and her collaborators all see how quickly our relationship to technology is evolving, and they want to accelerate that. “I don’t think people actually care about specs,” Peyton says. “I think that in the next five years it’s not going to be about the next best phone or the next best camera. It’s going to be about this smattering of products that touch different parts of our lives that hadn’t previously been touched by an ‘on’ button.”
That’s a good sales pitch, but Peyton and the rest of her team aren’t just looking for gizmos that will alter our lives in a passive way. They’re seeking out, and sometimes helping to develop, products that can change the way we use technology: objects that connect to other objects; serious tools that can be used for fun; toys that can do something serious. That’s why Grand St. has a hacker-in-residence, Nick Steele, a RPI alum who sits around toying with ways to add new layers of utility to products. “We sold this thing called Mindwave,” Peyton recalls, “and [Nick] basically built an app for it. And at this developer’s conference, people were coming up to us and saying, ‘No other retailer would even think of doing that!’ It was unfathomable to them.”
In some ways, Grand St. is way out in front of something; there are still plenty of folks who can barely reset the clocks on their coffeemakers, let alone hack a clock using an open API. But Peyton knows digital fluency is bound to increase. “A few years ago, only a handful of people even knew what an API was,” she says. “But now you have more and more people who are moving into this developers’ ecosystem. I think the same is going to happen in hardware.” And until the rest of us catch up, Peyton wants to nurture the people at the bleeding edge. “People are making this mind-blowing shit in their garages,” she says, “and they have a prototype two weeks later. That’s awesome!”
Maybe the next prototype will be even better than Jarvis.