#yearnotes

It’s been a hell of a year, peppered with great work with many clients as our consulting activities ramped up.

This year we’ve done many things:

– Helped finalise the outreach activities of Eyehub, a government funded internet of things demonstrator project

– Wrote a report (pdf) on what connected products businesses needed in the UK for the Digital Catapult. We then helped them test some of those findings by designing and running the Boost event last October.

– Wrote two research papers for Nominet R&D on various verticals of the internet of things.

– Helped a client of the Arduino group understand the types of maker projects that could influence the homes of the future

– Helped support the research efforts of trends and market researchers like Future Foundation, the Future Laboratory, Advantage research, The Futures Company, Sturm und Drang.

– Helped government departments like the Danish Ministry of Rural Affairs understand what makes the UK a great place for the internet of things

– Took part in design and research workshops run across the country and gave talks around the world.

– Gave a freely accessible webinar on the internet of things for RS Components after we helped them with content for their new design centre.

– Ran a paper wearables workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum to feed into Connected, a quarterly paper publication we launched at Thingscon.

– Spent the summer with BBC R&D North Lab and Adrian Woolard‘s team looking at how they approach #iot

– Helped support Tech City UK and the Technology Strategy Board’s promotion of a funding call for internet of things startups. We designed and ran a day of engagement for London startups to meet other potential partners and hear about the details of the competition.

– Just spent two weeks with Wintec Research, an applied research centre in Hamilton New Zealand who offer various technical and research capabilities which are very #iot focused. I’m happy to say we will be helping them grow a UK & European presence in the new year. More to come on that.

– Designed and ran a Demo Day to show off Intel® ‘s new maker-friendly platform Edison to a community of developers. If you’d like to meet the workshop attendees, join us for drinks next week in Shoreditch. We’ll have a tab behind the bar :)

– Ran our first Master Class for investors to understand the internet of things. The next one is up on December 16th.

– And finally this week, after 10 years of slow development, the production of the first batch of Good Night Lamp’s has started. There are still a few on sale, so buy now.

So what’s next? Back in May, I decided to give up our office on Scrutton Street. Shoreditch was getting really expensive and I realised that with all the client work we had, I was only really in the office a day a week. I wanted to experiment with working remotely with Ana and for months we both worked from home. It’s time to experiment with being located somewhere again and as of next week I will be starting a six month residency at the Digital Catapult’s Centre.

This is exciting as it will allow me to test out an idea I’ve been mulling over for the past month. What does a centre of expertise on the internet of things look like? Is it a member’s club? Is it a gallery? Is it a school? These are all models I’m interested in experimenting with and the Centre with great people like Marko Balabanovic and Maurizio Pilu is the perfect place to start to have those conversations. I hope you’ll come say hi and if you’d like to have conversations about these models, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime I hope you’ll join me over startups, mulled wine and mince pies at the Christmas edition of the London Internet of things meetup on the 16th. It’s a showcase event and I’ve designed a little treat for attendees. If i don’t see you then, happy holidays!

 

Making & the corporate office

(This was originally written for and published in last month’s in Andrew Sleigh’s beautiful zine Hot Glue)

make_zine

I’ve worked for all sorts of businesses: large, medium and small and they all share a common aspiration: to be more like start-ups. You can’t swing a cat without taking part in a meeting where organisations wonder how to become more agile, fun and disruptive like start-ups appear to be. The maker movement has created a whole new set of aspirations.

To make means to invent, to be engaged in the manufacturing of new ideas and products. It means to act in the world, with your hands and with tools which are cheaper and easier to access than ever before. This is such an important idea even Obama announced a National Day of Making. “Makers” describes the collective notion of people solving problems together but alone too. The ideology of making is very much about learning step by step, using new tools and trying things that have never been tried before. This makes a lot of business sense. By building a maker-friendly environment a business can increase their competitiveness, support employee training and identify talent among the various layers of management. It supports the idea of organisations as meritocratic environments of innovation and not political or bureaucratic ones. More often than not though there is a little bit of cargo culture happening inside already creative businesses who get on the maker bangwagon.

Someone buys 3D printers only to have them sit there being unused. They build “workshops” which are essentially a meeting room turned into a storage unit for the latest gadgets on Kickstarter. They run hackathons where more post-its get used than solder. They have curated showrooms to show other people’s work. In short they don’t end up making at all. Building a maker-friendly environment is a holistic exercise of redesigning your own internal culture. Here are some easy first steps to help you do this.

 

Building a maker space

You have to create a space that is going to be both useful and used often. This may be tricky when you may be running out of meeting rooms, but control the urge to make this anything other than a dedicated space for work that isn’t meetings. This space shouldn’t be “bookable”. It should be open for people to use whenever they like. If they want a meeting, they can go somewhere else. A lot of indirect value is derived by working next to someone building something quietly. Make sure this space isn’t anywhere near people working on laptops as the noise of laser cutters and 3D printers, sawing and generally making is going to be disruptive to them and you don’t want to create a culture that says that the noisy people aren’t working as hard as the others.

Buy tables and chairs on wheels that can be moved around easily. Have power sockets on the floor and avoid carpet (no one likes to vacuum random chips and cables). Make sure you have lots of natural light coming in (don’t set this up in the basement, this isn’t the 90s) and whiteboards everywhere. Add some lockers and shelves so people can leave projects nearby or stored safely out of reach. The visual accumulation of work is how progress is felt on a project and in a space. This is good. You can clean things up when you get to the end of a project.

When you’re not sure about what to put in your maker space, let people bring their own things, you might find out your organisation is full of secret tinkerers. Let your organisation shape the type of making you do, don’t let yourself be influenced by visual lifestyle maker culture. Most of the 3D printers you see in offices never get used.

 

Train & hire well

When you’re making a maker space, the first challenge is to not create a knowledge gap inside your organisation between people who don’t know how to make things and people who have been tinkering on weekends for years. Instead of creating ghettos of geeks, you want to train your entire organisation in using the tools you end up working with. You’d be surprised how many people can’t even work a power drill. If every new staff gets an induction in the space and gets an hour or so with someone who is using the space to make something, you are creating a link between your day to day job and the act of making. You’re allowing people with no technical experience to understand the creative and innovative potential of making rather than rule it out as “a waste of time”. You are also creating champions for the space whose work can be seen as it grows and changes. Keep the space really organised, and if you can afford it, have a technician take care of the space and ordering things as ideas emerge so you can keep the tools in the space relevant and interesting.

 

Champion the work

This could be out of a text book on social media, but championing the work you do inside the maker space has to start with very small everyday actions. A good way to start is having demo times once a week where the business comes together in that space and gets an update on what is being built. People can ask questions of the maker and propose projects they might want to work on to find collaborators. This meeting has to happen in the space as it gives it credit and says that this is part of doing business. Building a visual history of the work done is important. Starting an Instagram account for the space which people can post to and use the same tag is a great way to spread the word across staff and the outside world. Printing out pictures of new tools and posting them in the kitchen means people can share the progress and improvements at their own pace. Not everyone in your organisation is a maker but they should know what’s going on too. Avoid long newsletters, no one reads them now. If the work done isn’t mission critical, create a blog for the space which has a different identity to the rest of the business so employees can create their own voice through it and can gather interest from the wider community and potentially present it at tradeshows and conferences.

 

Making is as much about a process of interacting with space and tools as a way to produce new ideas. Ignore the people aspect of this and you end up with a glorified meeting room. Apply too much pressure on the space being worth the investment and you strangle good ideas before they have the time to blossom. These types of spaces are crucial to organisations who want to foster a renewed sense of identity, creativity and fun in their team, but they are hard work. On the other hand, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You’ll find that if your maker space is successful, new ideas will be brought forward, prototyped well and people will collaborate with each other more, a real maker community.

The cost and time to make things

So last week I launched sales for a limited edition of the Good Night Lamp. This is both an exercise in pig-headedness and a suicidal financial exercise. What prompted this? Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of this idea. There’s only so much time you can spend trying to turn lights on and off, but in those ten years, I’ve learnt a lot about the conditions that need to take place in order to make things.

So I’m making them with an M2M partner Eseye and Tom Cecil who has been making our prototypes since mid-2012. Noone else.

They are retailing for £279 which is shocking some but the truth is that making small batches of things costs a lot more than people think, especially when there’s wood involved which is why we’ll move on, if those 100 sell, to cheaper materials. Why sell 100? Well mostly to live up to expectations, PR during all those years, and for myself as a designer.

Financially, it’s a ridiculous exercise in a way. The average product on a John lewis shelf costs 25% of retail price to make. Retailers usually take a 50-60% cut to place the product on a shelf. This set of lamps is costing between 86% (for EU customers) & 96% (for UK customers) of the retail price in costs and doesn’t include any assembly time. Here’s a handy and honest breakdown.

gnl_100_profits

It’s pretty silly really, but I think they’ll make people happy and work really well. Yes I’ll be assembling them myself or with friends probably, but hey I started Tinker by selling Arduinos in the front room of a flat in Hackney in 2007. Been there, done that. It might become a collectable item, who knows. I’ve got 36 sets left to sell on that batch so tell your friends and head to the website for more details.

Boosting the internet of things in the UK


View IOT companies (UK & Europe) in a larger map

I’ve been putting a map together of internet of things startups in the UK & Europe since May 2012. It’s not that I don’t care about the rest of the world, but as I’ve written about before, there is a real opportunity for the UK to lead on great ideas and businesses in the consumer sector. Building consumer applications isn’t easy, and the support from the investment community in the UK has been limited as they tend to be more comfortable with B2B or industrial applications. But role of crowdfunding and open hardware have contributed to adding variety to the ideas that investors get exposed to after years of apps apps apps. Last week, when I learnt that Xively was to step down as the sponsor of the Internet of Things London Meetup, offers flooded in to replace them.  This is a sign things are changing for the better if you’re a startup in this area.

After helping Tech City UK promote the Technology Strategy Board IOT Launchpad competition last month, we heard that the the number of SMEs that applied was four times what they had expected. So people are willing to give government funding a chance which also implies that other sources of funding are not yet readily available. Hopefully, that too will change.

For those companies who are pre-funding though, we’re helping the Digital Catapult organise a day in Liverpool on October 3rd giving startups free technical advice from experts around all the topics you’d expect them to worry about: manufacturing, electronics engineering, marketing. No it’s not in London, because among other things, Liverpool has a wonderful community led by Adrian of makers & budding entrepreneurs and London will benefit from what we can learn there. So if you’re up for a day trip and need some help, really you ought to consider it.

I find us fortunate to be involved in shaping events like these as we try to bridge the many gaps for startups in the physical/digital world. Learnings from my own product development , we pour back into designing events people will find value in. There’s a lot going on in the UK and we have to celebrate it and nurture it before people get swallowed up by the West Coast like some have in digital startups. Not quite better together, just better here.

Berg (2005-2014)

This has been a strange day, mostly because some of my friends who have run a really great studio have decided to shut it down, 483 weeks in.

I met them when we were still students, Jack‘s class came to visit mine in Ivrea in April 2005.  The year after he was to design Availabot and I came up with the Good Night Lamp. I visited his RCA degree show which also included the work of Matt Brown (who would move on to work for them) and Andy (who designed most of Little Printer’s hardware) and became a great friend. I had met Timo at Ivrea while he was a visiting professor and remember being very inspired even then.

Almost 10 years on and with the help of Matt Webb, they worked up quite a team. People I admire, friends. Tinker had an office in the same building for many years and I always made sure to have lunch with whomever they’d hired because I knew they’d be smart. I also often hired them as freelancers when they left. They got what connected products could become and illustrated those ideas well. Interaction design, applied. Of their work, my favorites were the simplest projects, nice prints of a distorted New York (which i’m sure influenced Inception’s head of photography), simple yet powerful ideas about travelling and totally dystopian products like Little Printer which I rushed to buy. I used it with care and curiosity to remind myself of the few words of spanish I once knew, to get an etching of a butterfly every morning. Even when it seemed to stop working, I still have it now, next to my TV, unplugged, because it’s strange, it’s pretty and it looks good in my home.

What they tried to build was a real challenge. Middleware for the internet of things is tough. Reviving printing is even tougher. The market isn’t there yet, they’re too used to buying at Hamley’s things that can be explained easily. That isn’t what these guys do. Things are moving fast, but they started this journey a few years ago already. A little too early. That takes vision and courage. Too much of that exists out of sight, in large corporations, and they were small, imperfect, yet perfectly formed to react to today’s changing technological landscape. Because of that, I don’t doubt they’ll all find work quickly but I also hope they keep that spirit with them, the spirit of wanting to start small, perfectly, imperfectly formed companies. The internet of things needs that more than ever.

Berg team, see you soon, I hope.

Crowdfunding a hardware project: Tips & Tricks

I’ve been getting a lot of requests for coffees from startups who want to hear about crowd funding and the lessons I learnt running a campaign for the Good Night Lamp back in early 2013. I thought I’d capture what I’d say to them here and share it to a wider audience:)

1. What are you?

Before you take this on, have a think about what your product is. Is it a project? Is it a company? Is it a way to get PR for yourself/your consultancy? Is it a way to test the appetite for a corporate R&D idea?
Being self-aware is important in life and in business because it will help you deal with whatever outcome your campaign might have.

  • If you’re a project there might be a lot of value in aiming to do a very small run of the product, say 50-100 and raising money for that. Most successful campaigns sit at the $15 000 mark which is not a lot at all in the world of hardware. So think about what you could do with very small amounts of money.
  • If you’re a company, then see the next bull-it point. You really want to start building up the company pre-campaign.
  • If you’re trying to get PR, well good luck. Journalists are bombarded with requests to write about crowd-funding projects in ways they weren’t a year and a half ago. You may find it easier to reach out to small specialised publications but the audience numbers vary accordingly.
  • If you’re testing a corporate R&D idea, be clever about how you market yourself when smaller teams are trying to raise money on the same site. You’re probably not so fussed about the money, but they are and whatever you go after skews the market for everyone else if it’s too low. Try raising the amount of money that would cover your salary for eg. Also be truthful about your allegiances, it’s ok for you to be there, but let yourself known. A good example of how NOT to do it would be Samsung’s massively overthought lamp which only mentions Samsung in the smallest of print.

2. Talk to investors before.

Running a crowdfunding campaign turns a massive countdown timer on. Once you publish an idea in the public arena, you have a year to protect or patent it (this varies on what you’re building, but look it up) so you want to develop it as far as you can without crowdfunding and with external help: investors. Most early-stage investors (friends and family) will be happy helping you out with small amounts that will get you to the pre-industrialisation stage or past the rendering & prototyping stage. Once you go to crowd-funding, they will stick around and become your allies on what is often a long road to success. Meeting with investors pre-campaign is an important way to let them know you’re serious about the role of crowdfunding as a way to test the appetite for your product. Running a very successful campaign also increases your valuation (if you don’t know what that means go buy “Venture Deals” by Brad Feld straight away). So put a shortlist together and go meet the Partners (try not to waste time with Associates) before you go live and ask them for feedback. They might not want to invest early on but will be good to you if they like the idea. Be aware that making a project public also means potential competitors can learn from your success or failure. You are exposing yourself and your idea to the world with little protection against large corporations who might be looking at your product space. You are their guinea pigs. When LIFX came out with their wifi lightbulb, Philips came out with their within a few weeks. Not a coincidence.

You want to have very clear agreements with everyone working with you (in writing) and budgets planned. If you’re massively successful you need to know in advance how you’ll spend the money, what the timelines are for ordering parts, assembly partners, etc. These are not easy to find so you might as well do the work up front before you have hundreds to thousands of demanding customers waiting after your product.

3. Prepare yourself

The most crucial element of crowdfunding is email. You’ll be glued to your inbox for the duration of your campaign. I used to get up in the middle of the night to make sure I responded to West Coast requests in time for them to see it during their day. An important part of the crowdfunding audience is in America, so you want to cater to them a little. If your project page isn’t clear enough for a non-tech person to understand, you’ll get emails. If it doesn’t explain every single aspect of yoru project, you’ll get emails. You’ll get emails from companies who have chosen crowd-funding projects as a market (marketing, warehousing, manufacturers, etc). Depending on what kind of person you are, you may want to give this task to someone who has experience managing communities online. It’s not a particularly forgiving activity, but you’ll get real feedback on what you’ve put out, both good and bad.

4. Make it easy for the press

If you happen to showcase your product somewhere (we had a booth at CES on campaign launch) while running the campaign, you might meet some journalists who might want to write about what you’re doing. Make it easy for them by having a press link, with a dropbox link to a press release (in .doc format and pdf) and some high resolution (300 dpu) images of your product with a white background. This covers 90% of what journalists need, whether it’s going online or in print. The remaining 10% is interviews you may need to do either online or face to face and those are generally fun. They’re also a good way to practice your elevator pitch which you will learn to repeat like a parrot on crack for months (or years in my case).

5. Money isn’t the problem

Out of all the things your product needs to come to life, money is only one of them. The industry is still quite young and finding talent is difficult. Retailers are starting to get it (John Lewis launched an incubator recently) but technology investors in the UK are still only really interested in investing in businesses already generating revenue. If you’re in the US, you’re in luck (as usual) in that respect but a very limited number of funds are investing in this space. The general public is starting to see interesting connected products hit their Christmas wish lists, but if your product retails for more than £100, you might be in the luxury goods market for now. Connectivity is still expensive and pricing a dark art (usually retail price of RRP is 4 times what it costs you to make the product).

It’s difficult but not impossible to be successful. All you have to do is pace yourself and not expect your campaign to solve all your problems.
Good luck.

Introducing #iotangels

There are many reasons why the UK is a great space for internet of things startups: access to the creative industries, manufacturing, advertising, technologists. Funding isn’t one of them sadly as I highlighed in a talk at a Policy Connect event last week at the Design Museum. Which is why I’ll be starting an angel fund specifically focused on supporting internet of things startups.

If you’d like to help, please join us for dinner.

Gonzo Products: how crowdfunding is changing the internet of things

I gave a talk about this at Future Everything last week. As usual the shape of the talk only really came together an hour before (this drives conference organisers nuts) and I thought I’d write it up. If you come to IOT Forum in Cambridge or Thingscon in Berlin you can ask me about this some more.

The dust has settled after an eventful start to 2014 (CES was full of #iot, Nest’s acquisition, SXSW and last week’s OR acquisition) and it’s time for the Milan furniture Fair (which I used to go to when I lived there and in the Tinker years). You couldn’t find an event less in touch with what’s happening in the world of connected products: chairs, ceramics, tables, lampshades. Design in those circles is as artform catering to a rich clientele where the highest form of self-aggrandising for a designer is to complain about technologies they weren’t involved in. None of those products are connected and most of them are designed by professionals with no interest in the internet as a transformative space or set of technologies and principles. It’s a shame because whatever conversation could have happened between product designers & technologists has now been made redundant. In 2014, we are experiencing a new era of product development, what I’m now calling Gonzo Products.

What is a Gonzo product?

Born on a crowdfunding platform The team of people working on the product exists solely for the purposes of catering to the campaign’s needs, not necessarily to create a bigger business or more products.

Raising the money it needs to look successful, not the money it needs to make it. Lots of smart products on crowdfunding platforms are trying to look successful to investors first, not necessarily raise the money needed to make the product viable. Any product looking to raise less than £50K to manufacture a product from scratch is basically either very well supported with existing partners or catering to a completely different audience: investors. This is counter-intuitive as crowdfunding was initially developed to help support the early stages of a project. In this case Gonzo Product teams are using crowdfunding as a marketing, market research & finally market validation tool. It’s easier to find angel funding if you’ve got a successful campaign than if you don’t which means crowdfunding is a new way for investors to manage their deal flow for hardware startups.

Not businesses, projects. Gonzo Product teams will potentially only ever work together to achieve one product only and disband after (see Air Quality Egg).

Selling the #iot dream, not the reality. Most very high profile Gonzo Products primarily show what the internet of things can be and should be. Selling the dream, not the realities. This is problematic as making a product people can buy, that can be supported and is sold in John Lewis should be the real criteria for success when it comes to #iot. Most gonzo products will be closer to design fiction than they will be to commercial reality and this might influence investors, journalists and other entrepreneurs in the same space but more importantly consumers.

Is this good or bad? I don’t think it’s either. It’s a new product and business space. How much power will Gonzo Products have on the way in which the internet of things develops this year? Plenty. But people like me who are keen to make real businesses and products just have to hold on and learn from them.

The process of Connecting Products

Connected Products Studio workshop

Last December, I was asked by the Connected Digital Economy Catapult to help them out scoping a possible Connected Products Studio. This is great fun for me as I have tangible experience of building connected products for installations, industrial applications and now the consumer market.

The first thing Maurizio Pilu, the Catapult’s Director asked me to do is put together a consultation workshop where, instead of working in isolation, we would reach out to the possible audience or contributors to such a dedicated space. We ran this workshop last week at the Royal Society of the Arts and were extremely lucky to have attendees from the entire landscape of #iot in the room. I reached out to many friends of course and so did Pilgrim Beart who is helping shape the feasibility report with me.

Consultants (Tom Armitage, Ben Ward, Lee Omar, Graham Hitchen, Georgina Voss, Nick Hunn, Paul Tanner), startups (Radfan, MyJoulo, KNRY, BleepBleeps, bergcloud), incubators (Bethnal Green Ventures), maker spaces (DoesLiverpool), SMEs (PAN Studio, Codasign, Sodabody>data>space, Flexeye, 1248.io, AlertMe, Xively) and corporations (Intel, Cisco, BBC R&D, Ogilvy Digital Labs, SapientNitro) came together and very generously spent the day with me teasing out what the key pain points were in developing a connected product. We then took those and tried to offer possible solutions with the skills in each of the teams. I’ve been to quite a lot of these workshops back in the days of the IOT Special Interest Group  and wanted to live up to the work Graham and Rachel Jones had done.

Pain Points

Maurizio, Pilgrim & I worked on a shortlist of pain points that someone would encounter if they were building a connected product and we put this to the community in a questionnaire via the usual social media channels. They were:

  • Coming up with an idea
  • knowing what hardware to use
  • paying for that hardware
  • knowing what software to build with
  • paying for that software
  • connecting the software and hardware in a scalable way
  • developing a web/mobile service for the product
  • access to space
  • access to prototyping facilities
  • developing a proof of concept
  • doing user research
  • reaching out to potential customers
  • finding co-founders
  • finding corporate partners
  • finding manufacturing partners who can help with small quantities

Through the a morning session conversation the top 5 emerged as:

  • Connecting hardware & software
  • Developing a proof of concept (specifically access to the right expertise)
  • Doing user research / reaching to potential customers (access to experts in user research was also part of this)
  • Finding corporate partners (this related strongly to being to plan the route to market)

The crux of this landscape of pain points felt like it was a lot about meeting the right people at the right time in the process of commercialising a connected product which got me thinking about what a typical process looks like at the moment. I’ve also highlighted the opportunities that were brainstormed that day that felt like they might be totally new and not trying to replicate existing services. All these thoughts will go and feed the report I’ll be writing up for the CDEC in the next month or so. Fun times.

designswarm_iot_process

Update: The full report is here.

Making, speaking, meeting.

I had lunch last week with some of veterans of the now defunct Special Interest Group on the Internet of Things and we were discussing the taxonomy problems around hackdays, hackathons and other similar events. I drew something inelegant on my sketchbook which I thought I’d cleanup and share.

In the case of this diagram “stakeholders” might be the organisation putting on the event,the sponsors or anyone really who is looking for an ROI on the event itself. This is based on having run all of these kinds of events (except an incubator). I think the interesting tension and frustration of hackdays comes from the completely polar expectations of stakeholders and attendees versus other types of learning, meeting and speaking environments. If someone has had some experience they’d like to share wrt this, ping me on twitter. I’d love to hear it.

designswarm_meeting