Sunday, January 4, 2009

Reflections on "ThinkGeek: The Interview"

If you haven't been listening to my rantings on Twitter and [insert social network here], I've been working on a very special interview for several months now.  While many of the top websites have been contacted by the press and had their guts spilled all over the internets, one of them has been all but silent to the world: ThinkGeek.

This is not entirely by happenstance.  ThinkGeek has a pseudo-policy of shunning the world, partly because they want to maintain an air of mystery about themselves and partly because that's really what geeks do, shun the world.  In any event, this stance has made them into a fairly mysterious company and getting in an interview was tricky.  I, along with my campus news website, tried to contact them several times, but their desire to remain an enigma ruled the day.  Then, I got a break...

One of the sites I write for, GeeksAreSexy, published an article on one of ThinkGeek's new toys, the Van De Graaff Levitation Wand.  This thing is kind of amazing and I pause here for a video of this awesome toy (I promise this is not just geeking out, it's also relevant to my story).

As it turns out, our story was picked up by Reddit and we sent over 40,000 hits to ThinkGeek's video.  After this, Yan, the owner of GeeksAreSexy, contacted Shane, from ThinkGeek's PR and Marketing Department.  Shane was happy with all the free publicity and Yan mentioned that he happened to have a "field correspondent" going to school not 3 blocks from ThinkGeek HQ.  Yan asked if it wouldn't be too much trouble to get an interview.  Shane said it would be his pleasure.

That "field correspondent" was me.

Now on my end, I had long been aware that ThinkGeek was based in Fairfax, VA (and cruelly close to my University), but I had never been able to get in for any reason.  The Mason news website, Connect2Mason, where I have done some freelance work, had been trying for many months to get in contact with ThinkGeek for some kind of interview.  Unfortunately, where the major tech press failed, so did our puny student organization (luv you guys!).

One day, back in November, I recieved an email from Yan.  His message was actually a forwarded note from Shane that filled me in on all of the publicity we had created with the Van De Graaff video.  It also included Shane's permission to do an interview (which could be video-based if we wanted).  I just about fell out of my chair!

For the next month or so, I played tag with Shane to get this thing worked out.  I made a deal with Yan to cut in Connect2Mason in return for their A/V support: namely beautiful cameraperson Natalia.  She's been behind the camera for all my Jimmy Chows Down videos, so I figured if we were gonna do an interview, she should be my wingman...or winggirl...or wingwoman...or whatever.

Finally, the date of the interview arrived.  Natalia and I packed up our gear (most of it borrowed from the school's A/V repository) and headed a couple blocks down the road to ThinkGeek World HQ.  The building itself, as we would later learn, was an old elementary school, so there is a playground and baseball diamond right behind it.  It's not exactly an imposing sight from the exterior [pictured above].

Upon entering the building, we were met with quite a few "No Place Like" doormats and some cardboard cut-outs of Boba Fett.  There beyond, it becomes hard to describe.  ThinkGeek items are absolutely everywhere - not in a disorderly mess, but in a well-organized arrangement.  This isn't their warehouse, so everything is either in use by the staff (for testing or for playing) or is a return waiting to be dealt with.

As we prepped our equipment, Natalia informed me that we had absolutely no audio!  After changing batteries on things and trying out multiple headphones, we decided to call it a day and apologized profusely to Shane.  We had to go back to Mason with heads hung low, planning to come back next week.  Even so, both of us were afraid that our hard work would never pay off and that this interview was doomed.

We did go back though.  The audio problems, which we did not experience again, were probably fortuitous - the staff was much less busy on our second trip.  The first thing we did was take a little tour of the offices.  Each little room was different.  The T-Shirt Gals had their own area with tons of t-shirt designs on the wall.  There were customer support, tech support, and the areas for getting and testing new products.  On one of the office windows there was a huge idea space, where the staff collaborated on the next blog post.  On another wall, Darth Vader reigned unchallenged.

The crowd was by and large fairly camera shy, so we decided to settle down with one of the friendlier geeks, John Frazier, a ThinkGeek buyer.  He was deemed the best man for the job because he actually procures the company's awesome products.  John was extremely enthusiastic about our little project and really bent over backwards for us.  He's also a Jedi model (for ThinkGeek anyway).  That's him on the left!

John's interview made up most of our final video.  He answered questions about the ThinkGeek "origin story," where they get their products from, and what it's like to there.  Some of the stuff that didn't make it into the video was also very interesting:

-John used to work in a computer store with the guy who now runs the group inside of Google that manages Google's infamous white board (containing their master plan).

-During the taping of my interview questions (we only had one microphone), John still gave answers (fake ones) but they mostly involved how most of ThinkGeek's ideas and apparel come from homeless people.  Dumpster diving also appears to be a large portion of his work (hopefully this will find its way into a blooper reel some day).

-That funny flashy thing in the video is a coaster that blinks differently depending on whose drink it is.

At the end of our interview, John took us on a surprise tour of the rest of the building.  We got to see where they make the ThinkGeek videos and photograph the products.  He also introduced to a lot of the ubergeeks up in the office that manages the site's backend.  One of the coolest places was the break room, where just about everything screams geek.  The refrigerators are labelled "Can Haz" and "Can Not Haz," the cutting board is actually a Space Invader, and there is an original Tron: The Video Game cabinet in the corner.  We taped for about 20 minutes in there, but sadly, not a lot of it got into the final cut for reasons of length.

Overall, it was an awesome experience.  I hope everyone will enjoy the video, but I wanted to write up this account to share some of the excitement I have about the place.  It's probably, as John says, "a whole lot of work" in order to keep things going, but I'll bet it's also one of the coolest places you could ever work.  

Bonus Video:

After a long day of walking around and taping the geeky wonderland that is ThinkGeek, then coming back and reviewing said tape, Natalia and I needed to take a mental break.  What follows is the result of that break:

It's been a great experience making "ThinkGeek: The Interview."  Make sure you check it out over at on January 6th, 2009!


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The content of this page is completely the creation and opinion of James Rogers. He is affiliated with Connect Mason and formerly Broadside Online but the relationship only governs republication, not content.

Further, in the interest of full disclosure, this author holds minor financial investments in Apple, Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices.