INDUSTRY

BY ALEX MILLER

Yarrow Kraner is a natural curator. Like an ancient alchemist, he blends the right people, ideas and spaces to create magical moments — the ones that make the hair on your arms stand up. I learned this about Kraner in our first meeting. It was a mid-October evening in Bozeman, Montana.

The plan was to meet at a wine bar downtown to talk about his life, his work and his passions. After some back-and-forth texting, though, the venue changed.

Kraner travels often, usually for his company, Hatch, which is somewhat of an engine for Kraner’s curation practice. Before departing his hometown again, he pined for one more sunset on his porch overlooking the city. Who could say no to that?

I convinced my station wagon to ascend the winding road up to Kraner’s home on the edge of Bozeman. Flanked by chest-high grass, the gravel driveway is like a scene from Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator.” The sun had just begun to dip, its last light giving the grass a dazzling golden glow. Kraner was sitting in front of a window and waved as I pulled up. He greeted me at the side door with a sturdy handshake.

A filmmaker turned tech mogul turned think tank guru, Kraner’s journey has allowed him to rub elbows with acclaimed celebrities and top-tier scientific minds. But on that crisp autumn night, he was just another guy on his porch, being asked again to tell his life story.

The smoky, sweet smell of mezcal drifted from a pair of clay cups, and music pulsed from his wireless speaker. A sunglasses-clad Kraner checked his cellphone, simultaneously rubbing the belly of his four-legged companion. Though a last-minute change, everything seemed perfectly in place — curated. The details were immaculate; It was a magical moment.

He placed his phone down and leaned in.

“All right,” Kraner said. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

Everyone’s a Superhero

Next to curation, Kraner carries another obsession that’s been formative in both his life and work: superheroes. Not the cape wearing, gadget wielding variety, but instead the superhero dormant inside everyone.

To be clear, Kraner does not think of himself as a superhero.

“When you ask someone to view themselves that way, it sounds almost arrogant,” he said. Despite the humility, he’s steadfast in his belief that everyone is in fact a superhero.

The first hero he met was his mother. Kraner was raised in Bozeman by a single mom who, with very little money, made the move from Minnesota to Montana to escape an abusive relationship. He remembers her working several jobs at once, pushing herself through college to earn her family’s first degree.

“She was sort of someone that I initially held up as, like someone that was beating all the odds,” Kraner said. “You know, like, someone that really had a lot of things stacked against her and us, and was so persevering that she just made impossible things happen.”

When Kraner was young his mother gave him a camera. Behind the camera, Kraner shaped the lens through which he observed the world, eventually growing to understand that life is layered with perspective.

He became fascinated with little details, like the patterns of a blade of grass or textures on leaves under a zoomed-in lens. Kraner brought the camera with him everywhere, taking photos of the lilac bushes on the way to school and shooting portraits of the crossing guard shepherding children across the street.

When he looks back on his life, Kraner points to the “aha moments,” the lightning bolts marking waypoints on his journey. One of the first was behind that camera, he recalls, when the photo just clicked.

One of the next lightning bolts Kraner tells me about happened on a deck in Los Angeles. It was the ’90s, and a 20-something Kraner was fresh out of Montana State University’s film school and eager to escape his hometown to make a living behind the lens he held so dear. He perceived L.A. to be the epicenter of creative genius and craved inspiration from the city and its inhabitants.

One night, Kraner went to a party. Everyone appeared to be cut from a glossy red carpet photo: polished, beautiful, successful. What am I doing here, and are these people in this room the inspiration I’m looking for, he wondered. He went outside to stand on the deck alone.

“Where are they,” Kraner asked to the dazzling skyline of the city, hoping to find the figures he’d been searching for that would inspire him.

Then a voice came from the dark, and a person materialized from the shadows. The two struck up a conversation and the stranger, a composer, told Kraner about his work teaching deaf children how to read and write music. Kraner was transfixed. The next day, he met a scientist working to stitch the ozone back together piece-by-piece. The interactions struck a chord, and helped change Kraner’s perspective on what it means to be a superhero.

“And that was a moment when it sort of clicked,” Kraner said. “Superheroes are all around us, and in all of us, and so when you know the question, like ‘what makes a really a superhero?’ Being human. And I think that everyone has this capacity within them that sometimes is untapped.”

Releasing the Inner Hero

Imbued with new perspective from that fateful L.A. night, Kraner believed so devoutly in the superhero inside everyone that he couldn’t keep his revelation to himself. He turned his philosophy into a career.

In a leap into the unknown, Kraner stopped focusing on film and dove headfirst into an inspired new idea: an online platform, Supernating Superdudes, where everyone could see themselves as a superhero, a sort of beta testing ground for his newfound superhero ethos. That pivot came with its own hardships. At one point, Kraner was homeless, living under a desk in his office.

Superdudes was an online flash game where Kraner said people could “hero-ize” themselves by uploading their faces onto a virtual trading card. The game unintentionally became a precursor to social media, allowing users to interact and connect with each other online.

It was a surprising hit. Superdudes shattered engagement expectations, or “stickiness,” as it’s known in the tech world, with users flooding the platform to such a degree that Supernating Superdudes overtook AOL in stickiness. But that wasn’t the point.

Kraner said a feature of the game allowed for players to enter their zip codes, and a suite of ideas and options to engage with the community would appear, whether it was picking up trash or volunteering.

Letters poured in from teachers, child psychologists and parents. The game was helping kids to define the best self within them, he said. That was another lightning bolt moment for Kraner; his online game had transcended the digital world and was creating positive change on a ground level—both within communities and inside of players.

“The very act of asking this young person or these young people to define that best self within them, like all the molecules in their body, began to conspire to actualize that inner hero,” Kraner said. Players would go so far as to create the real-life version of their online superhero identity. Kraner recalled meeting CEOs at parties dressed as their Superdudes persona. One of the CEOs, whose Superdudes character was known as “The Mayor,” showed up to a party in full costume with custom-made keys to the city he ran in the game. He would hand out the keys to people he deemed special. Kraner still has his key.

The high wave of Supernating Superdudes would eventually crest and fall. Fox bought Kraner’s company, though the choice was not Kraner’s. Soon after, the same company acquired MySpace, and all but gutted Kraner’s platform for its tech, leaving the game to wither.

Though gone, there’s proof that Kraner’s first attempt to unearth the hero inside of everyone was working, and creating real, lifelong connections.

“Twenty years later, there is still a Facebook group that is active,” Kraner said. “People have gotten married. People have, you know, they’re still in touch. They’re also still wondering when it’s gonna come back.”

Heroes Unite

My cup of mezcal was on its last leg when Kraner suddenly looked up and whistled.

“Finley,” he bellowed across the yard. “FINLEY!”

A flock of birds had flushed from their grassy resting place, and Kraner suspected it was because of his roaming dog, known to the neighbors as Free Range Finley. He checked his phone for news of Finley’s whereabouts from neighbors, apologized, and returned to his story.

For Hatch, Kraner’s next business, to be born, Supernating Superdudes had to die.

“I mean, looking back on it was probably the most important and pivotal decision,” Kraner said. The first testing ground of that belief was with Superdudes, which showed Kraner that if given an outlet, there was an audience hungry to affect change in the world, or at least in themselves.

In 2004, five years after starting Superdudes, Kraner founded Hatch, a venture he described as an evolving organism that moves in response to what the world needs, be it a meeting of the minds to address climate or equity in society.

If that sounds vague, it’s because it is.

Hatch is a collective that exists at the nexus of a Venn diagram of the defining ethos of Kraner’s life: where unearthing people’s self-fulfillment, their superhero powers, and the needs of the world, collide to create an opportunity to affect change. Kraner said when you explore the components of that Venn diagram, you tap into your latent superpowers.

Hatch isn’t specific because all of these defining factors that Kraner has brought together are fluid. It morphs to be relevant; to stay inspired.

Hatch is like Superdudes 3.0, according to Kraner. The idea is almost the same, but on a grander scale. In a way, Hatch has become the ultimate marriage between Kraner’s obsession with curation and his quest to reveal the superhero inside of everyone.

Perhaps among the clearest manifestations of this are Hatch conferences which convene people from a wide range of disciplines doing incredible things, from climate science to Oscar-winning films. These innovators come together to share ideas and perspectives that push them ever closer to finding the superhero inside of themselves.

Kraner’s role in all of that is to do what he does best: to curate connections that fuel innovative change in the world and in people; connections that are diverse and layered in the same way he learned to view the world through his camera lens as a child.

For example, Hatch curated an ocean plastic leadership summit that sent industry leaders from companies like Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, and Unilever, and non-profit members of World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and Ocean Conservancy to observe and inspect plastics accumulating in the Sargasso Sea—a region of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by four gyres, or slow-moving whirlpool-like water currents. The expedition produced a report with commitments from various industries to work on solving the issue of plastics accumulating and breaking down in the ocean to create microplastics.

Kraner’s work with Hatch continues to expand, but it doesn’t stray far from his original intention: to tap into human capacity and potential.

Back on Kraner’s porch, the sun had set and the cups were empty. Finley had returned and the sunglasses were off.

Through our conversation, it was clear that Kraner was not the immovable stone in the river, but instead a person following the flow of his passions. He was willing to change and roll with the punches in life to better articulate what he was looking for inside, and how to share those threads he had so deftly woven together. The idea is for others to take those threads, and weave their own webs. It’s not one person reaching that inner superhero; it’s everyone that would make a difference.

“It’s less about … individualism and more around collective intelligence and collective potential,” Kraner said. “So the definition of a superhero for me is everyone.”

Alex Miller is a native of Mississippi but grew up on the East Coast. Miller is a graduate of the University of Montana journalism program, where they somehow gave him a plaque for writing. He covers politics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.