There’s a point in any entrepreneur’s life when you get up in the morning and think: maybe this isn’t working. I had that moment in the summer of 2010, 6 months I closed Tinker. I’m having one of those days now. I’m hoping it’ll pass.
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I wrote a blog post 2 years ago about the Tech City announcement, then I wrote another blog post a year later. Because of this compulsion to write about Shoreditch and its transformation at the hand of the government and corporations, I was interviewed on Friday for BBC News as part of a piece on the new Barclay’s sponsored Central Working building on Bonhill St. To avoid giving the impression that I’m simply a grumpy bastard, I thought I’d elaborate a little on the point I’ve been trying to make.
Then & now
I love Shoreditch. When I moved to London in May 2007, I set up Tinker and sold Arduinos from my at-the-time boyfriend’s apartment (thanks Matt) for the first 6 months of the business. We were the first UK distributors of the platform that had grown from a platform for students designed and used in my MA course in Italy to a world-famous tool to easily learn how to tinker with electronics & programming. Since 2007, I moved around the area, constantly hanging around Shoreditch for meetings, vietnamese dinners and pints in local haunts.
Now, the things I love the most haven’t changed much. The vietnamese is still great, the few pubs I go to are still around and I still have meetings in the Book Club even if they insist on deafening their customers with their increasingly loud music (don’t get me wrong, the music is great). I get the most out of the area, professionally, by walking the streets at lunch, discovering new places and bumping into people all the time. If anything, the “Tech City” thing has increased the amount of serendipity in the area. It’s made my network very accessible and made the area very friendly.
These are all good things, and also why I don’t understand the construction of what I can only describe as innovation factories. What Google Campus and other such large buildings do is to cut people off from that serendipity. Places where lunch can be had at a desk because the café is downstairs and the coffee machine is only 3 steps away actively disengage people from the area they work in. Not only that, but it puts pressure on the environment to deliver “value”. They act as hot-houses for a particular type of business as opposed to help different types of businesses meet and knowledge sharing to happen.
The informal innovation machine
Back in 2008 when Dopplr started and Matt wrote about the Silicon Roundabout, the heartbeat of the area was the offices of Moo on the Old street station roundabout itself. Already quite large at the time, Moo had extra space in their offices which they rented to small businesses and startups. Both benefited from great press with the early days of the new Wired UK. A few years later, Tech Hub had moved into the same building, White Bear Yard had properly started and Moo moved to the building I have worked in for the last 3 years. They continued until recently to host companies like Tweetdeck, arguably the last great success of the area in terms of acquisition. None of these transactions, moves or relationships were formalised by calling any particular space an “innovation hub”. The pressure wasn’t necessary and the space was cheap.
Do the maths
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With its new building and desks costing £449 + VAT a month for single occupancy, it’s hard to think how Central Working will compete with the informal San Francisco laptop-in-a-café culture. The point of being a startup is that you have no money! The types of startups that will have the money for 3 desks ie around £1 500 a month won’t be the ones who are starting out, they will be the ones that will already have received funding and are looking for a second round. The ones that need help will still be in cafés, university libraries or at home.
This is typical of London’s approach to business and the corporatisaion of space and activity that can often be found in the way areas like London Bridge are getting turned into shopping malls or Spitalfields market in 2008. Once an area gains in reputation, corporate interest emmerges and prices go up. The cost of a square meter in our postcode has gone from £24 in 2010 to around £32 in 2012.
What to do?
Shoreditch is an environment that not unlike an unkept garden, benefits from a light touch approach. Concentrating on creating pedestrian areas, event spaces and allowing the creative people in the area to take over a bit more would help get people out of their ivory towers and foster the type of serendipity that makes things happen and allows artists, designers, coders and fashion designers to hang out and influence each other’s work. Because that’s exactly what makes Shoreditch so special.
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So with that, I think I’ll steer clear of the topic for a while. I’m busy with my own startup after all :)
So you have an internet of things startup? I have one, my friends have one, and Kickstarter is coming to the UK. But really, money is only one part of the entrepreneurial equation.
With the brith of IOTWorks last week in Boston, really, the only question is: why not in London? I have been living and working here for 5 years and the confluence of web development / product development and manufacturing expertise in the UK are a perfect mix for anyone wanting to start an internet of things startup. It’s also a type of business that has challenges that are unique but also predictable. Here are some challenges which I’m encountering which would make a good framework for a 1 year internet-of-things incubator:
- IP advice and support for ideas that cross the boundaries of product / web
- Training in Arduino for initial prototyping & pitching needs
- Training in more advanced electronics prototyping to prepare for electronics engineering support
- Training in using CAD packages and rapid prototyping tools for prototyping 1.0 (beyond paper prototyping)
- Support in finding local industrial designers to give you advice about engineering the product so it is easy to manufacture
- Support in finding local manufacturing partners for prototyping 2.0 needs (pre-production prototyping)
- Access to electronics engineering consultancy services
- Access to workshop space for light prototyping / light production for user testing.
- Support in making e-commerce decisions
- Traning in understanding the challenges of selling in retail environments
- Training in how to manage PR / press
- Help in making links to local retail environments like Selfridges
- Training in investment structures / processes
- Training in presentation skills for Founders
- Training in financial models
- Organisation of show and tell events with investors
This isn’t rocket science but a mashup of what the British Library IP Centre, Metropolitain Works and White Bear Yard might offer. The combination of support across business, product design and web development are really paramount and often founders will have strong links in one area and not in others.
I have no ideas how such a place would make money initially unless it’s sponsored by the government, a local university (yeh right) or a corporation. But the opportunity is there.
PS. If someone in government is still wondering what to do with those buildings in Stratford…take note.
I gave a talk last week at Made North in Liverpool. My point that time around was suggesting a way forward for “industry” in a time where economic growth is a key agenda item for Mr Osbourne.
I think that when we talk about industry, most people have a romantic view that ignores the reasons why we stopped “making things” in the first place. One of the reasons why industrial times was so successful was partly because we had no qualms about hiring children to work (something Lewis Hine documented very well). Eventually when that was socially frowned upon, we started outsourcing the work to other people’s children and developed better technology to do less work. Cheap labour is China’s competitive advantage and short of going back to slave labour, the UK cannot go back to “making things” in that sense. Sorry.
Stuck in the 20th century
Traditional manufacturing is not only losing out to China but also to the US which is inventing products that people want to buy, and offering services in new ways. When products like Scalextric and model trains are losing to digital toys (iPads and iPhones), we have to wonder not only what is happening to local manufacturing, but also whether demand for those products will ever be the same.
However, the manufacturing industry in the UK seems convinced that this digital revolution has nothing to do with them. The website for the UK’s Manufacturing Summit is the poster child of a cultural disparity across the country. With so much local talent in the creative industries, how could they possibly get away with a plain html website with no social media presence and a form to fill in to book tickets. We’re not in Kansas anymore and this isn’t 1995.
Creative people around the UK want to learn from UK experts and want advice about developing their products. But if a 20 something can’t find your business on Google, you don’t exist to them now. This is the kind of world we live in.
New ways of making
This should be a golden age for UK manufacturing. People are making things everywhere at various scales. In Hackspaces, studios, universities, at home, in their sheds. This is a nation on tinkerers after all. People are coming up with an idea using an Arduino, building a prototype, redesigning the electronics using Fritzing going to Tinkercad to build a box for the prototype. Then they will have the box made by a Makerbot, Ponoko, RazorLab, i-Materialise, Shapeways or other rapid prototyping manufacturers around the world who understand their users want to click a “upload” button and have something sent to them in the post.
That is a different kind of customer for UK manufacturing. It is a digitally-empowered one and to understand him/her, the industry has to adapt. Once that customer has a product they are happy with, they will look for funding through Kickstarter or sell their product online through Etsy or Folsky. (Most of these digital services were not developed in the UK, I hasten to add.)
New business models
The opportunity may no longer be in large scale production, but in pre-production and longer-term production support. The UK’s manufacturing expertise should be the ideal trampoline to enable local entrepreneurs to get something made quickly with someone locally who is exploiting their existing networks in Asia. UK manufacturers should be China’s agents in the UK and reach out with the latest technology to young entrepreneurs who need help.
This is a very exciting time for UK manufacturing if it accepts that their clientele is changing. If anything, the Uk government should be looking at helping all these companies digitise their services and really understand what an online presence can do for your business. This won’t mean as many large contracts but will mean lots of small contracts. If Newspaper Club has re-invigorated the struggling industry of newspaper printing, it’s possible for any industry to benefit from a more digital attitude. It’s only a question of faith.
Last summer I reviewed Open Design Now and Leonard Reviews have just published it. If you’re into the same things I’m into, you should read it :)
As part of RIG, I worked closely with Phil, Andy and Amanda (an absolute pleasure, you should hire them, seriously) to launch FRSTEE a few weeks ago. The most interesting thing about this project for me was the opportunity to work with rapid prototyping in a way that made economic sense. To build a micro-business in the heart of the Silicon Roundabout. That’s what Tech City is about no? I was told in 2000, while at my BA, that those technologies were the future of manufacturing. 11 years later, that’s still the message, but I’d like to think our little contribution gets us closer to that objective. Realistically though, rapid prototyping is still incredibly expensive when you want something that is beautiful, of variable size and made quickly. Qualities that DIY solutions don’t cope well with so far. I’m sure that’s only a matter of time mind you.
The design of businesses and the business of design
Building businesses is the kind of design work I find myself doing. It is a design activity in a strange way and my design background along with the experience of running Tinker has been invaluable. The most important skills I think I’ve developed are predicting future problems and handling money. 2 things I wish they would teach in design school to make young people a little more ready for industry. So here are some quick things I learnt in helping build FRSTEE.
Things you need to remember when building a micro-business
1. You need someone to do the boring work
There’s a ton of boring work in a business. In this one, it’s about collecting the orders once they’ve been rapid prototyped (round the corner on Curtain Road at Inition), checking them, tying a festive piece of string through them, looking at orders, putting the right one in bubble wrap, in a box, printing out the address and stamp (using online stamps by Royal Mail) on a label and finally walking over to the post office to send them. Because each piece is unique, that pretty much prevents us from using smart fulfilment solutions like Amazon. All of this incredibly tedious work is done by Amanda. She is a star.
2. You need to worry about the smallest numbers.
Something to remember is that all of this costs money. Amanda’s time, packaging, stamps, boxes, bubble wrap, tape. Stuff you have to buy and cost out for every package you send out to make sure you’re still making some money somewhere down the line. Tricky when you can’t drive the cost of rapid prototyping much lower than it is, again because of how unique each is. Tricky also because charging too much for a bespoke product starts to feel like luxury and in these economically challenging times, that’s not a good idea. A glass ceiling in a way.
3. Never drop the ball
Not unlike launching a web service, you have to constantly be in touch with people. In our case that means our suppliers and customers. I live in a constant flow of emails, ordering supplies and keeping on top of everything. We send out orders every week so far and that feels good, a rhythm is setting in even if it’s a seasonal product.
4. Always work with awesome people who understand technology
Phil implemented a design that was initiated by Ben. He also built the connection between Andy’s ability to script designs in 3D and Paypal. Andy made the rendering easy and connecting it to Inition a breeze. Magic as far as I’m concerned. When you’re working with people who just understand the technologies they are working with and are willing to learn new things, things just get done much faster. After all these years I value a “yes maybe” much more than I value a “no but”. It’s an attitude that gets you through a lot in a business even a small one.
Just a little public note to announce that among the many various little and bigger projects I’m working on, I’m also helping Mozilla as Local Producer for their upcoming London-based Festival on November 4th-6th. It’s gonna be about media & freedom and in light of the recent public debate around the role of media in politics and society, there will be lots of good conversations to have. Ear-mark it people, you should come.
I am incredibly lucky, I’ve worked with fantastic people and had so much fun. I am also doubly lucky that Paola Antonelli, when she came to see me and Russell at Tinker last autumn, really liked the Homesense Kit and the Big Red Button because she’s decided to include them as part of the Talk to Me exhibition that opens tonight. If you’re interested in the “Internet of Things” go see it.
Homesense in general would never have been possible without the help of Edouard & Charles at EDF R&D who supported our efforts from the get go. The project would have been literally impossible without Georgina‘s strength and tenacity. The kit which is on display, was the work of so many people but I want to specially thank, Natasha and Richard both terrific designers who came down from Lancaster to try to package up technology tools into a fun toy-like kit. I’m incredibly proud of the work and results of the project. Please go and have a roam around.
The Big Red Button was the brain-child of Russell who came upstairs and said “what about it?”. We first had a bespoke version in mind, but in the end, it was Daniel who took up the baton and makes them on order. You should buy one. They’re fun.
So yes. If anyone goes to the opening, send me some pics!
The Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) for the Creative Industries ran a workshop where participants were invited to think about the barriers to SMEs to apply for TSB funding in their numerous calls. We also discussed and mapped out concerns around how to develop “internet of things” business and market opportunities in the UK. They invited me to come and speak and I decided to focus on looking at the different businesses that end up developing iot projects. I thought this might be useful in identifying their needs, motivations and hurdles.