Intellectual Proprietor The creative fire burns bright in Paul Budnitz

The creative fire burns bright in Paul Budnitz.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

budnitz-lead_1115Paul Budnitz of Burlington is founder of Budnitz Bicycles; Ello, a social network; Kidrobot, and a slew of other creative endeavors.
Photo: Daniel Cardon

I’m an art major. They say we never make anything of ourselves, but they’re wrong.” “They” certainly seem to be wrong about the speaker, Paul Budnitz, a 40-something self-described “serial entrepreneur” whose inventions and bright ideas have carried him far. Last fall, he rose, not for the first time, into national prominence, with Ello, an ad-free, online social network he started with “a bunch of friends” that was initially intended as a site for creative types.

If there were ever a person who could be called truly unique, Budnitz would be in the running. The list of products and endeavors he’s launched is exhausting just to read.

Of note, besides Ello, are Minidisco, an audio player for film and sound recording on software he wrote, which became a $10 million business; Kidrobot, a line of toys that includes licensed products from pop culture brands such as The Simpsons, South Park, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the DC and Marvel universes, which was doing $25 million a year in sales when he sold out to his investors; and Budnitz Bicycles, luxury, lightweight urban bicycles made of titanium and CrMo (chromium-molybdenum alloy steel), which he launched four years ago, just before moving to Vermont.

On the surface, Budnitz appears to be fearless when it comes to chasing an idea, but he sees it differently. “I give a lot of talks,” he says, “and one of the things I hear a lot is, ‘I would love to do the things you do, but I’m afraid to do it.’ The reality is I’m actually terrified most of the time. I think the only distinction is that I’ve stopped trying not to be scared. To me the art of living is the art of being OK with how you actually are.”

“Paul is far, far smarter than I am,” says Michael Jager, a designer and co-founder/creative director of Solidarity of Unbridled Labour. He says he is inspired by how Budnitz “adapts ideas and shifts and bends perceptions and perspectives on things.

“He is an incredibly ingenious entrepreneur, a creator, and his expanse of knowledge is just incredible on every level. He obviously understands design and technology, and also the human spirit and condition. Every single time I’ve been with him in a collaborative session with multiple people, there’s not one situation where he hasn’t taken the conversation to an elevated level it wouldn’t have gotten to without him.”

Jager met Budnitz just under three years ago when he was newly arrived in Vermont. He rented space in The Karma Birdhouse building, which Jager owns, for his then-new business, Budnitz Bicycles.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., Budnitz was well-traveled before moving here. His father is a nuclear physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his mother is a social worker. According to his website, by high school he was coding safety analysis software for nuclear power plants, and creating video games for the Commodore 64 home computer.

He entered Yale as a physics major, but changed his major to fine arts. His summer job, he says, was working with friends designing artwork, putting it on T-shirts and other clothing, and selling them.

After graduation in 1990, he lived in Prague a while, taking photographs for a newspaper some friends had started, then returned to the States and launched a company with a friend buying used Levi’s and selling them to the Japanese. “We would buy used clothes from flea markets and thrift stores and would sell them for thousands of dollars overseas — real Levi’s and leather jackets. I once sold a set of Levi’s for $15,000.”

By then he was living in California where he started making movies, something he says he loves doing. “We would go to festivals — would lose money on it, but it was really fun. I was in my 20s so didn’t have to have a lot to live on.” His first two films won awards in Berlin and other film festivals and had worldwide distribution. Odd jobs helped keep him solvent.

Minidisco, founded in 1998, grew out of the filmmaking, he says, “because we were shooting all these films and needed to record sound. This was before there were a lot of digital sound devices. We discovered people wanted to buy some of our hacked mini discs. They were real popular in Japan.”

Hanging out in Japan and China, he became aware of “these amazing toys these guys were making for fun, taking old GI Joes, chopping the heads off, molding new heads and hands, new clothes, or making new toys completely out of vinyl. A lot of these were graffiti artists or fine artists, and I thought, ‘Oh, man, I want to do that!’”

Kidrobot, launched in 2002, was the result. “At one point we had about a hundred employees on three continents,” he says, adding, “Twelve of my designs are in the Museum of Modern Art.”

Budnitz moved often, touring with his films, but called New York City home for a large part of his life. He launched Super-Destruction Films there, which he ran for seven years while continuing to work with Kidrobot. By 2012, he had sold Kidrobot to his investors. By then, he had also met Sa in Montana in 2006. “She’s German,” he says. “I came to visit Montana and met her and said that was the woman for me.”

A year later Sa joined him in New York, where they lived for a year before she became pregnant. “We decided we didn’t want to live our lives in New York City, and I didn’t want to become one of those New York City people,” says Budnitz. “You get a little crazy if you stay there too long.”

Wanting to find a town with deep cultural roots, they headed for Bozeman, Mont., where they had met. “We were there for about a year and a half,” he says, “then moved to Boulder [Colorado], which was nearby, which I did not like.” They decided to try Vermont.

Vermont was an easy choice for Budnitz: His mother had grown up in Bennington, his father in Pittsfield, and an uncle attended the University of Vermont. “When we made it to Burlington, we finally made it our home.”

In 2012, while they were in Colorado, Budnitz had launched Ello. That same year, they moved to Burlington, but left the Ello headquarters in Colorado. “I had a real hard time finding what I needed here,” he says. “My programming group was out there. It’s a lot easier in Denver — it’s a metropolis. I’m hoping over time we will have a bigger office here. A lot of our funding came from Vermont, and the bicycle company is doing well here.”

The bicycle company, started in 2013, came from Budnitz’s life-long love of biking and a desire to create something beautiful.

“We were introduced to Paul in September 2013,” says Lee Bouyea, managing director at Fresh Tracks Capital. “We closed our first investment in Ello, it must have been October 2013.” Since then, Fresh Tracks has also invested in Budnitz Bicycles and helped Budnitz find a CEO, Jeremy Kent, to run the bicycle company so he would be able to dedicate more time to Ello.

“Jeremy was at Burton a number of years and ascended through the ranks,” says Bouyea. “He had been thinking of potential opportunities outside of Burton. When Ello got a lot of press [a year ago] and was taking more and more of Paul’s time, we thought Jeremy might be a good fit.”

Ello exploded in September 2014 when the national media got wind of it as an alternative to Facebook. Budnitz insists that a social network should be social and that Facebook has become an advertising platform. Stories in such respected media as NPR and Wired magazine took the number of new member requests from a trickle of creative types to, at one point, 50,000 per hour.

“The media frenzy was a challenge,” Budnitz says, “but a great opportunity. Having people go online and expecting to find Facebook and not finding it was a challenge, because we weren’t interested in Facebook. That’s not why we’re building it.”

Ello is still in beta, but the plan is to make money by eventually offering extra features and products to dedicated users.

Budnitz lives with Sa and their daughter in Shelburne. “I kayak, cross-country ski in the winter, and bicycle for exercise. I have a sitting [meditation] practice, and outside of that, play with my daughter, and we make stuff. She’s into making circuses.” He also has speaking engagements around the world and offers online classes in creativity.

“Paul is a serial entrepreneur who always has new ideas bubbling up,” says Bouyea. “I think, in the case of Ello, Paul can be the CEO and visionary and leader, and he has a team of co-founders who have focused on the product and engineering and finance, letting Paul think about the larger picture and focus on the vision.”

“Hell if I know!” Budnitz quips when asked, Where to from here? “I’ve got enough work in Ello and Budnitz Bicycles to keep me really, really busy; I have a family which I had to grow up enough to be able to be part of; and I have a book I’ve been working on in fits and starts.”

After a second, he adds, “I really, really, really want to open a hot dog stand. I think Burlington really needs a good hot dog stand — like 15 kinds of hot dogs.” •