Nick Pinkston is a manufacturing entrepreneur working to accelerate the pace of hardware innovation by building tools that push the bounds of productivity and expressiveness for engineers. He's currently the Founder/CEO of Volition (in stealth), and previously was the Founder/CEO of: Plethora (a self-programming factory), CloudFab (a manufacturing marketplace), and HackPgh (Pittsburgh's first maker community space).
Nick is also an active participant in policy discussions around industrial / workforce policy, human capital economics, and tech regulation. He also focuses on better organizing the tech community to contribute more politically in San Francisco and beyond.
I've always been into two things: technology and society. Growing up in the Rust Belt gave me a perspective on both. The region's deep industrial roots inspired me to try to be like the great inventors and industrialists of the past like Edison, Carnegie, and Ford. You could literally see and explore the rusting hulks of their legacy deteriorating around you. At the same time, I grew up seeing the poverty in the post-industrial world around me and wondering why the world looked this way.
My family would give me a personal view into both of these as well. My uncle was an engineer and owner of a tool & die shop in Michigan who taught me from an early age about mechanical engineering and the manufacturing trades. At the same time, I remember when the remaining big factories in my area closed: Universal Rundle, GM Lordstown, and many more - directly affecting my family and never allowing many of them to fully recover. The good days were definitely over.
I left my hometown of New Castle, PA for the "big city" of Pittsburgh for college. There I quickly learned just how sheltered I was before. It was crazy discovering the exotic in the mundane: Thai food, working on my laptop in a cafe, etc. It seemed like a world had opened up, and I finally felt a freedom that I never could before. I also met people that challenged me and really accelerated my intellectual development. In a few years, I went from a NeoCon Evangelical to Libertarian Atheist. This drastic change of worldview really impacted my sense of reality (thanks James Turnshek). I remember the last day of my faith as I watched the sun set and knew I wasn't a believer anymore. I would have to remake from worldview from scratch, but felt philosophically lost for years.
Even though it was college that brought me there, it was a major disappointment. I had never liked formal education since I had to leave Montessori when I was 4, and I waited from kindergarten onward for the "real" education to happen. Now that I was in engineering school, talking to the undergrad/grad students, professors, etc. that I realized that it was never going to be for me. I wanted to invent my own things, and it turned out my engineering school wasn't really about that. It was a hard realization that my entire life I thought I'd be a professor inventing new things, but instead learned that they never really did that, but instead there was this battle for tenure, publish-or-perish, etc. I thought about dropping out, but my parents insisted I stay. I choose business, my second favorite love, as my major and the easiest concentration: marketing, so that I could have time to actually do what I wanted.
Interestingly, even though I grew up loving tech, knew how to program, read Wired magazine, etc. I somehow never understood there was something called tech / startup scene. It goes to show you what kinds of privilege exist in this world. If I grew up in Palo Alto, I'm sure I couldn't help but hear about it, but I was lucky enough to learn about it from a classmate (thanks Brian Lash). I was also lucky to encounter a book that would that would start my hardware tech career: "Fab" by Neil Gershenfeld at MIT (thanks Ben Filio). In the book, I would learn about digital manufacturing, 3D printing, CNC machines, the whole open source world, and the maker movement. All of these blew my mind, and I couldn't get enough.
Further reading (and trying to formulate a new worldview and politics) led me to become a full on techno-utopian / singularitarian, and I saw hackerspaces and startups as a way of getting there. I would then go on to start Pittsburgh's first hackerspace (HackPgh) with Matt Stultz, which is still going today. After Brian had connected me with Innovation Works and the AlphaLab program, I would meet Dave Mawhinney who would encourage me to apply with my CloudFab idea to connect manufacturers together, which I would go on to create with Steve Klabnik. After building a couple orgs and becoming a tech community organizer (mainly running various tech meetups), I would reach the limits of Pittsburgh's startup scene (ie not enough funding or mentorship) and felt limited by the city's culture (ie too conservative / unambitious).
After exploring many US cities, it was eventually obvious that I had to move to San Francisco. From the tech scene, to the weather, to the open mindedness and creativity of the city, it was just intoxicating. I had to live there.
San Francisco has had a huge influence on me. Arriving as a libertarian atheist amateur tech founder, I was in pretty similar company, but it was the area's deep culture of social liberalism, in all its forms, that would win me over to the causes of the Left and acceptance of the positive role government could play in our lives. I dove into reading leftist theory from Marx to Foucault to Deleuze and beyond.
Becoming Californian was a trip. I started dating Rose Broome shortly after coming to SF, and during our many years together, she would be my cultural and spiritual guide to the Californian lifestyle. She introduced me to her friend group who were a part of a local sub-culture which we later ended up calling "The New Modality", which is a blend of tech and hippie cultures - equally at ease giving a lightning talk or dropping acid. This group really increased my openness to experience, and I learned a lot about my mind, body, and spirit as I explored with them.
It was also during this time that I would start my first real tech company, Plethora, building an automated factory that could program itself to produce the components that normally took highly skilled machinists and weeks to produce. It was like a self-driving factory. After a few failed attempts to raise funding, my cofounder Jeremy was able to build a working prototype we could demo to the audience at the Hardware Innovation Workshop, and on that traction we closed our first round of funding.
I was starting to build a life that felt like my own utopia. I was being paid and well funded to essentially make my childhood dreams come true, and it was going very well. Then I got a call out of nowhere. The reporter on the phone would be the first to give me the news: my Dad had been arrested in Florida (of course...) in a bizarre scenario. I dropped everything and took the next plane out. Fast forward to today, my Dad is serving a 20 year sentence without the possibility of parole.
The whole situation made personal the injustice of the justice system that I long had known abstractly. I now saw the effects and heard all the stories my dad told me of those on the inside. Even more, I was left wondering how this could happen when my Dad was a model father and citizen: generous, caring, and decent man, a US Air Force retired veternal, no previous history of any kind of violence or crime - just speeding tickets. It just reinforced the randomness of life and the unexplored depths that lie inside us all.
I had always been political, but more in theory than action. I felt it was all so broken that there was no way to engage with politics directly, and that instead I should focus on solving social problems through for/non-profits. This would all change with the surprise election of Donald Trump. It shocked me out of my political apathy and drove me to try to help at the national level. Elections do matter! I had been isolated to really know it. Rose and I went on to run some fundraisers to help Josh Harder win CA-10 to help flip the House back in 2018.
It was around this time that I would start dating Cathy Reisenwitz who was a political and feminist writer who had also come to leftism from the same background I had (conservative Christian Red Stater to libertarian Blue Stater). She was very active in local politics, and through many vigorous debates, she won me over to focusing on the cause of San Francisco, housing reform, and modern urbanism in general. Further, she would further bring me into the world of sex positive feminism which remains a key lens through which I view the world and relationships today.
During this time, my company Plethora was going through really hard times which put me through some of the deepest stress I had been through in my life. After getting the company to a good place, I knew that it was no longer the best way to achieve my mission of accelerating the pace of invention, so I stepped down in April 2019. It was the most serious company I had started by far with 80+ employees, $45M+ in funding, and I had learned so much. I took many months off to cure my burnout and process the whole 6 year experience.
At the end of my previous company CloudFab, I went through a depressive period and also existential crisis of sorts. Was I really cut out for this founder stuff? Were my dreams as real as my feeling of fate made them to be? It was hard to push through that and my initial failures to raise funding for Plethora. This time though, I was leaving Plethora as a company still growing, and even though I was tired, I felt battle-tested and had no doubt that being a startup founder was what I was supposed to be. I even knew what my next project was, but I needed to decompress.
The day after I resigned, I drove to LA to just get away from the SF tech scene. As I drove Highway 1 south, I felt a residual guilt that you have as a long-time founder. "I should be working" kept creeping into my thoughts, but I would then remember that I was currently unemployed, so there wasn't actually any work to do. By the middle of the trip, I was actually enjoying my time off, and in the months that followed I built back more resolve than I had ever had to again take up my mission to built the future I wanted to see in this world.
I told myself that I would start working again whenever I felt sick of vacation, and on a solo road trip back from Seattle, all my thoughts were about starting Volition and being bored of vacation. It was time. Thus began the next leg of my journey. Since then, I was humbled to have most of my past / favorite investors come back to fund Volition, and after even more humbled to be joined my Plethora cofounder Jeremy and bring on a great team made of some of my favorite and best teammates from Plethora.
One year in, even though as I write these words the world is amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, I can smell California burning, and our republic is in the hardest straights in many generations, I'm still feeling optimistic about humanity and our ability to make positive change in this world.
Thanks for reading my journey. I hope it resonates and in someway helps your own.
More soon <3