What I learnt from running an internet of things pop-up shop

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Today was the last day of Works(Shop) which I’ve been running in my office on most Fridays & Saturdays since end of August. It’s been a very interesting experiment in what the retail experience of consumer internet of things products is about. We went on the road too, showing the products to the British Computing Society, in the Science Museum during an event organised by Flexeye, one of my clients and at Thingmonk where I was a speaker. The clear winners in terms of sales were Little Printers, Bare Conductive kits and a late comer Moistly. Here’s what I think they did right: cute & often self-explanatory packaging or demos. Selling is an emotional exercise. People often buy for others more than they buy for themselves. I used to work in a local art store in Canada as a student, I know.

Bare’s packaging is exquisite. People didn’t care much for what they were buying, they just bought them because it felt instantly that this would be fun and something good for the kids. They’ve thought about this a lot it’s clear and it pays off.

For Little Printer, I’d selected specifically non-geek content to showcase as I knew the people who might buy it would be interested in giving it to someone else or convincing a sceptical loved one of its value. Showing them a publication that showed the current value of bitcoin wouldn’t have helped in that case.

The “For Dummies” books weren’t popular strangely. I think it might be that the brand doesn’t appeal to a geek audience even if the books are awesome (my friends wrote most of the ones we sold). Someone also remarked that if they were going to get their daughter involved, to buy a book “for dummies” wasn’t very encouraging. I agree. Maybe Wiley should have a sub-brand for kids, same content, just a different cover or something.

Finally pricing was really key in the success of Moistly. It was cheap. £13 for a little bit of intelligence when it comes to your plants. Easy. No brainer. It’s hard to do when you’re a startup but it works.

All in all, I’m happy to have done it and allowed products to find new audiences and learn about what I should be doing to get Good Night Lamp to be presented in the best possible light. And it was fun to work with SuperNova studio on this as they designed an awesome brand for it.

From Tech City to City Gardens: the slow death of Shoreditch

About 2 years ago, I was making jokes and designed a tote bag when the government announced its Tech City program. I didn’t imagine that what would actually happen was that we would start to see the type of confused political interest that has led to proposed changes in planning laws.

Maybe it’s because during the Olympics politicians were invited to an area of town they wouldn’t have been caught dead in previously. Maybe on those trips to Old Street they realised it’s full of nice post-industrial buildings that would make for the types of fantastic loft spaces they experience in New York. Maybe it’s because they compare Shoreditch to the City and think that housing would help liven it up during weekends. Maybe if they’d lived in Hackney, they’d understand why they should just leave it be and stick to the initial plan to support startups and a tech community not give bankers a chance to live 10 minutes away from work.

One of the many reasons why Shoreditch works for startups is precisely its crap, badly heated, badly connected post-industrial buildings that don’t cost a fortune. That’s why there was an industry there in the first place right? And also everyone’s here, for now. (I’m already starting to hear of friends and colleagues relocating south of the river or even more east, where prices aren’t crazy.)

Clean Shoreditch up and you end up with the cultural desert that Old Spitalfields Market suffered after it was renovated in 2005. Building for the sake of building is all very well for the rich, middle eastern investors or bankers, but really for startups, your lowest overhead should be rent, otherwise, well you’re not a startup.

I won’t even mention other tenants of Shoreditch in the arts, design, fashion houses, fashion schools, illustrators, galleries. I thought we’d established that fashion alone accounts for 1.7% of GDP and creates 800K jobs. Do these political men and women think fashion happens in residential areas? Didn’t think so. I wish Sam Cameron would pipe up on this issue if anyone should as a supporter of fashion and creative industries. Anyway, I digress.

That the area is getting international interest is great, for that to affect real estate was always going to happen, but really in these proposed planning changes, the only people that will suffer are precisely the companies the government wanted to support.

Thanks Dave & Eric.

Love, Shoreditch.

On Shoreditch & informal innovation


View Working in London in a larger map

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


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: the price of a desk in a larger map

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.


View A New Shoreditch in a larger map

So with that, I think I’ll steer clear of the topic for a while. I’m busy with my own startup after all :)

Tech City UK: one year later

So it’s been a year since I wrote my long rant about Tech City UK. Someone asked me the other day what I thought about things now so I thought I’d write about it again.

Silicon Roundabout / Tech City: it’s not about location
Since November 2010, things haven’t changed much in Old Street, except that the Silicon Roundabout thing went from a joke to becoming a marketing vehicule for Shoreditch. Companies moved in the area and started waving the flag around. I started to track activity around the expression on a Tumblr site. Journalists from the US came to visit, companies from the world of advertsing, PR and others are organising tours, walking around trying to understand what is happening behind the converted factories. Local companies had a football match, organise recruiting events and shared food recommendations. I use the past tense as activity has diminuished over the summer as London snoozed. I’m curious if it will pick up again, or we’re kindof collectively over it. If anything, I predict that Tech City will replace the tongue-in-cheek moniker, and Stratford will stay isolated. Right now, the idea of a technology & innovation hub makes sense in Shoreditch, not Stratford. Google’s choice of (sales) offices south of Old Street means they’ve understood that too even if becomes just another TechHub. I’m not sure where the Olympic legacy fits in anymore. It’s even dissapeared from public discourse as Cameron finds himself with other fish to fry.

Show me the money
Having a bunch of startups in a city means you have to build an investment ecology around them. What’s changed the most in the past year is how many of those startups started to turn to government for funding. VC & angel funding isn’t quite there yet but The Technology Strategy Board, a governmental funding body started putting out calls for more web & tech centric topics after years of catering to industrial manufacturing only. Their call on “internet of things” for example generated a lot of buzz, as did the Tech City call that fueled Makielab. It would be useful, instead of bullying corporations to open offices around here, for the government to get them to invest some money in start-ups funds, not unlike the Awesome foundation. I’m sure this sort of scheme could count as social corporate responsibility. Of course if most of these startups end up being acquired by US businesses, you could argue this isn’t doing our economy much good on the long term, but as we all know governments aren’t good at long term plans anyway.

So I’m not sure if I’m excited or not yet. And I guess that’s the problem.

Mapping creativity in London?

Was intrigued by the accusation that the council of Barnet was going to be the only council not to invest in Arts by cutting funding to Artsdepot. The whole debate in the Evening Standard article a few days ago made me want to know where exactly does “creativity” happen and if you can start mapping it geographically and investing on that basis only (as per my previous post on the Tech City idea). A first step in that general direction was for me to pick up the weekend’s Guardian Guide and map out the exhibitions listing. It was interesting to see that for that particular week, things are quite “central london” if that means anything. Not much south of Southbank. Not much West west. Not much north. Lots in “the west end”, Soho and Shoreditch.

I grant you this isn’t very scientific (I’ll try to update the map every week to spot any changes or new additions), but it shows London as a creative beast all over, with no real clusters when it comes to enjoying art / visual arts / creative industry outputs.


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: Guardian exhibitions list in a larger map

The politician’s handbook to East London

A few weeks ago, I was chatting to Korinna who told me that the big trend in construction, post economic downturn, is refitting old buildings. I was reminded of this when reading that the Olympic Park Legacy Company was looking for ideas on what to do with the Olympic Media Centre if the decided not to demolish it. And then the fresh-faced PM comes in with his big ideas about a “Tech City” in “East London”. East London is a curious creature and in order to avoid massive misunderstanding and misinterpretation of both the natural phenomenon of creativity in East London and the role of the creative industries in it, here are some pointers for all you politicians out there.

1. Stratford isn’t near Old Street.
Right now with the current infrastructure, it takes 20 minutes to get from Old Street Station to Stratford station by Tube. It takes less time (13 minutes) to get to Oxford Circus from Old Street. You’d never say that Soho was East London would you? That difference will shape who goes to set up shop in Stratford. Maybe you should call it East of East London. East City squared? Anyway, the point is that most business in the “Silicon Roundabout” are in close proximity to each other and to Old Street Station simply because it’s as East as you would want to go to if you were living in Kensington and not East enough to get mugged. I’m sure you’ve not actually taken the Tube since getting into politics, but try it. Stratford will be “too far” for most creative people and they won’t go there. Or as often as they go to the O2, which is to say never. When people go back East, it’s to go home, not to go work. The CrossRail might help, but not if it’s full of people in suits, which it will be now that you’re moving the Eurostar away from King’s Cross to Stratford. Creative people don’t like to hang out where the suits hang out. It makes them nervous.

2. Creative people are poor
Hackney is indeed full of RCA graduates, artists, and world class designers. Because they work too much and don’t do 9 to 5 it’s important for them to live near where they work. So they moved to Hackney because it was cheap. They live in Stoke Newington, Hackney Central, Dalston, Finsbury Park. On the edge of the transport system because it’s cheap. Cheap means getting a work space for less than £200 a month. The price of your average thursday evening lobster meal. That’s how poor they are. If you fill East London with people like Google, Facebook, Intel, etc the value of property will rise, and all the creative people will move to emerging creative areas like Bermondsey and New Cross.

You don’t think this matters I know, but it will because those creative people make the latest fashion trends happen, design the latest furniture, are the next important fine artists and generally make London THE place to be in the world if you’re an artist or a designer. People in tech know this, and like the things that the designers make happen, so the tech people and creative people hang out together and sometimes collaborate. If you have tech people without the designers, then you have White City, Media City UK and other “high tech” ghettos where creative people are nowhere to be seen.

3. Creative and tech people like their food and coffee
The best cups of coffee can be found in East London along with award-winning schemes like the Dis-loyalty card. Creative people and tech people like East London because they can get a fantastic meal for less than £10. There are a thousands reasons why you would want to work for yourself or even start a business or a tech start-up and I think in the top 10 there is “being able to stop eating horrible shit food at shitty corporate canteens and the crappiest coffee made from an automated machine”. Pret, Benugo and Shizu are cheap but the food is cheap too so when your property developers look for businesses to offer catering services for the suits from Google, I can only hope they would think outside the box.


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: The London Coffee Map 2010 in a larger map

4. Silicon Valley can’t clone iself
One last thing I think. The reason why Silicon Valley was set up in America wasn’t because you weren’t able to provide the same financial infrastructure, tax benefits, etc. It’s because it’s America and there’s lots of cheap land. This isn’t California. (Purely in terms of numbers, California are 36 million people and London has 7). You should be very very proud of that. I’d be ready to bet that the UK and London has more culture, museums, advertising agencies, artists and designers than all the US put together. The best art colleges and schools are here too. So relax. Creating a competiting Silicon Valley with Silicon Valley businesses makes no sense at all. You’re not competing, you’re begging for them to set up sales offices. Empty shells. That’s what Stockley park is there for. The people who want to live the American dream will do so, there’s not much you can do to prevent that. Get over it. Force banks into lending to creative people again. Give local SMEs tax-breaks. That would be smart. Help them fund their strange tech or non-tech ventures. Take care of your creative people, they will thank you more than corporate America ever can. And they can vote.

I know it’s not a perfectly formed case I’m presenting to you, but perhaps it would be better to consider leaving the Olympic site as a series of museums to the folly of the Olympic bid pre-economic downturn instead of investing time and effort in a pointless program that fails to understand what makes East London and the creative industries tick. In short, leave the East alone Dave.

Love and kisses,

Alex.