All posts by Matt Webb

Week 456

Last week was good — our Cloudwash connected washing machine concept got some good press. The Guardian, Gigaom and PSFK all had great write-ups (thanks!). But the real warmth was on Twitter, and this was my favourite tweet:

The way we launched Cloudwash was a bit of an experiment for us. Low-key. No pre-briefings for journalists. Sober.

When you’re a consultancy, it’s all about launching fireworks. The work returns to the client after you’re done, so you need to make the loudest noise with the most perfect work possible. And with each project, you start from scratch (except with a bigger PR list). As a tech startup… it’s different. The work and the reputation sticks to us, and we can carry on working on (and learning from) the ideas once they’re out of the door.

So we have to learn a new habit: Learning how to build steadily, and build on previous work too.

That’s evident in how we’re rolling out the new website. Sections are being launched in the new design as they’re completed, rather than one big flash-bang of everything going up. An advantage of this is that we learn as we go. And certain things that feel intractable (e.g. what should our pricing be?) are easier to think about once you’re carrying less in your head and more decisions are made publicly.


Plus the new blog style launched. Looking smart!


Another new habit: We’re spelling the name as a word now, Berg. Not in caps like we have since we first adopted the name. And the company is the technology is the people, so Berg is what we’re calling the platform too.

Simpler.


A platform starts at ground level and gradually grows upwards.

Weirdly I’m reminder of a story I heard about the first city, Catalhoyuk in Turkey, founded in 7,500 BC, and characterised by not having any streets.

To give a bit of background, Catalhoyuk had a population of up to 10,000 people, and a few strange features like a religion that appears to have been based on fear (‘aren’t they all?’ said someone in the room). To me, the most interesting bit is that the houses were all squashed together. No streets!

To get to your house, you had to climb up on top of the city, walk along until you got to your chimney and climb down. You’d live in your couple of rooms, and bury your dead under the floor. Every so often, you’d knock the house down and build another on top of the rubble. And so the hive-mound rose up.

More here.

Not the most inspiring platform metaphor, but there you go.


Cloudwash is foundational. It shows where we stand, and we’ll deploy that work in every single conversation with every single potential partner, alongside Little Printer. That’s more important than a fireworks launch. This is work we can build on.

Still, we haven’t demarcated the whole territory yet.


Speaking of the platform: The APIs, our position in the consumer Internet of Things technology stack, and the public messaging all go hand in hand.

I wrote a list last week (shared on the studio@ mailing list) of what we need to do complete the new positioning… or at least get to the point where there are no loose ends and we can choose what happens next.

What I’d like to is convert this list into a collection of small, launchable mini projects. Self-contained “bricks” that

  • when they ship, we feel a sense of accomplishment
  • make sense to the public
  • we feel proud to add to the foundations

Too small or composed of too many parts, and these bricks don’t carry their own context in the public story, and we don’t feel like there’s anything been completed. Too big and the work is too heavy and complex for us or anyone else to digest.

At Amazon, the press release is written first.

For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.

(That link has a press release template.) That’s one route.

I’m also reminded of what I’ve heard from a couple of startup founders: Have a weekly rhythm to announce news. It doesn’t need to be much (tweaks to the design, some stats) but it should be something. Every week.

Maybe we should adopt that.


In a way, what we’re doing now is the Oldco Mag+ project writ large. First there was the world building of the design concept and film. Next came the insane technical build in the project we called El Morro, the kick-off for which resulted in my favourite weeknote ever. El Morro wouldn’t have been possible without the direction being set by the film. But El Morro was the execution, the work that meant we were the actual first magazine on the iPad, rather than the design inspiration for a bunch of others.

Little Printer and Cloudwash, world building projects both. Now our work is to put the platform in the hands of everyone, to make it possible for anyone to build these things for themselves.


So this week I’m trying to think of our bricks, and what our steady rhythm of public work is. I’ll probably bounce some ideas around on studio@ later today or tomorrow.

This week we’re also planning on changing desks, to all sit closer together.

(One of the things about getting smaller is that some processes and habits need to be removed. So there are lines of communication that we used to need – meetings, teams, etc – that now we can more efficiently do without. For example, we can sit round the same tables inside the perimeter of a single conversation. I think a bunch about what else we can improve by simplifying.)

Lastly I’m thinking about partnerships. While we build the platform, I want to extend our runway in smart ways. We should be looking for grants to develop more projects like Cloudwash… only more in alignment with the new plan (I’m writing applications this week). We could be doing design services, to help manufacturers figure out the future of connected products with actual prototypes. That would be good. We closed some work, just last week, with a Swiss manufacturer, to do just this kind of very early prototyping. But it won’t be public, and my ideal case would be public work. So both Jack and I will continue with conversations to bring in that kind of project. We’d like to line some up.

There were some interesting conversations last week too – a brief that should come in this week for us to look at, another (small) contract nearing the end of negotiation stage, a potential partnership with a manufacturer for them to make some Berg-enabled devices – but nothing’s in till it’s in.

Any more time we can get out of the runway is time that can go into building value in the platform, and giving it time to find product-market fit and get traction.


Something from over the weekend.

I posted my first article on Medium, my recipe for chicken pilau. Great authoring experience. Medium feels like a very complex product under the hood that presents itself very, very simply. Even a detail like the search page on mobile is utter perfection.

Yet Medium is plainly incomplete: There’s no authoring experience on mobile. Etc. Medium has that balance between self-contained, foundational bricks… and a product which is not done yet and still growing. Good. That’s how to build.


Denise just posted a pixel Little Printer with a wobbly hat. Worth a look and a laugh. Lovely.

Week 455

I’m in the office and back from Japan today. Attacking my emails. So I thought I’d share a few things that are on my mind.

Focusing

Berg’s slightly smaller than when I headed out. We’re focusing more and more on the cloud services piece — you can see that on the new website which started rolling out last week.

New strap: Cloud services for hardware innovators

It continues:

You’ve got the hardware. You’ve built the website. Berg does the rest. We’re the missing link. Message and manage all your connected products with our REST API, using familiar JSON. Add web connectivity to your device with our Devshields. Then move to your preferred wireless solution when you go to production with our client libraries.

We’ve also spun out Little Printer to its own site (and blog) where it has more room to breathe as a product.

So this is all in the spirit of getting our positioning really clear: What does Berg do? Hopefully the website is clearer on that point.

There’s a corollary to that positioning question. What doesn’t Berg do? Well, we’re about helping other hardware innovators get to market, and inspiring development; we won’t be bringing new hardware to market ourselves. We’re happy to lend a hand with design services for connected products, but no more iPad apps or strategy workshops. We’re about the cloud services, not the vertically integrated technology stack all the way from prototyping platform through wireless connectivity and mobile UX.

And that means a tighter team. It’s a smaller room than a couple of weeks ago, and there have been some sad goodbyes. I won’t pretend it’s easy (it ain’t).

But there’s a way we can really help hardware startups and the new product groups inside bigger companies, and this is it.

Fitting in

Another corollary to the positioning question is: What does Berg do in relation to others?

That’s an interesting one. In Old Berg – the consultancy – it was pretty clear: We slotted in and performed a design function usually during R&D or early product development, with enough skills in strategy and tech to link up with both.

That’s not the case now; we provide a platform. So fitting in now means a couple of things. First there’s Berg The Platform. That exists in a technology stack that enables connected products. (More about that below.) Second there’s Berg The Company, and the job of the company is to build the platform, attract attention to the platform, and do whatever work is necessary to help companies take advantage of the platform… whether that’s by doing faster prototyping work because we understand the issues, or by providing the outsourced infrastructure for a connected products line.

The platform itself… well, I remember trying to sketch this space 6-12 months ago, and there was no technology stack for the Internet of Things. Now, well, there’s something emerging.

Verticals

The verticals are emerging, still with fuzzy edges. This is my working model, as at February 2014.

Wearables and appcessories have appeared as smartphone peripherals, enabled by Bluetooth LE (aka Bluetooth 4), relying on the iPhone or Android phone for connectivity, often single user devices.

Smart cities and connected buildings have their own tech vendors. Agriculture, industrial solutions, and medical all seem to be emerging as “Internet of Things” verticals too. I’m not super knowledgeable about these non-consumer spaces.

Smart home is an interesting one. Characterised by programmable, low latency platforms with commodity products, I would place SmartThings, Revolv, Belkin Wemo, and Philips Hue in this world.

Then there’s consumer appliances, which is still emerging and overlaps a little with smart home. Products for the home and office that tend to have shared ownership, have a persistent connection to the web (remote control is a feature), and where there’s potential for the services to be as important as the product. I would put Withings, probably Nest too. Definitely Little Printer. This is where Berg is, and the vertical I find most exciting.

There’s a lot of room for growth in consumer appliances. The services I see so far aren’t particularly imaginative — with most new products, it’s not clear why the product and associated service are joined at the hip. Recipes on a screen on my fridge, really, is that the best service for that product, or the best place for that service? An example of a well-integrated device is the Withings smart bathroom scales, which they position as a “Smart Body Analyzer”. It makes sense to do health coaching directly from the device that you use to make the measurements.

I see two routes to making order-of-magnitude better products in this vertical:

  • Help manufacturers experiment more easily, because that will lead to better services. At the moment they have to adopt a waterfall model of concept then develop (because embedded software is hard to build and their technology is tightly coupled). With a more agile platform using web APIs – which is what we offer – design and development can be iterative and agile, learning from customers without having to back to the drawing board
  • Help companies that *already* understand services to make connected hardware, because maybe it’s the service that’s the difficult bit. Web companies have brilliant customer-focused services. Look at Google Apps, say, or the tens of thousands of startups in Silicon Valley and London Tech City. These services are hard to build. So maybe – when it makes sense to have a physical embodiment of the service – it makes sense for the web company to extend into hardware. I’d love to have a Instagram digital photo frame, and I think that product would sell really sell. But I can’t imagine a digital photo frame manufacturer building an Instagram equivalent. So our platform – by giving web APIs to connected hardware – lowers the barrier to entry for web companies to start building, from prototype through to production.

The technology stack (“Horizontals”)

I’m still figuring this out, but I have some rough notes as to the technology stack for connected products in the “consumer appliance” vertical (or whatever we end up calling it).

The stack looks something like this:

7. Your UX
|
6. Your backend web service 
|
5. Device management + services
|
4. Cloud message bus
|
3. Hardware wireless solution
|
2. Connectivity APIs
|
1. Your hardware

Electric Imp is vertically integrated across 2, 3, 4 and works for prototyping and production. Spark is 1 (kinda), 2, 3, 4 and a complete solution for prototyping.

Berg was attempting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for prototyping, with a move to 2, 4, 5 for production. Too much; too complicated.

So with our new focus, we’ll concentrate the platform on 2, 4, 5. i.e., we focus on the high-level cloud services (message bus and device management), and you bring your own hardware connectivity. For prototyping and production, we’ll have ways to plug into common hardware connectivity solutions (more of that in coming weeks).

Our job is to fit in. To bring our high-level cloud services (easy web APIs, developer and customer services tools, and more) to wherever developers are creating connected products, and to provide those services so developers don’t need to build them from scratch every single time.

You can see the beginnings of this positioning on the Berg Overview page. Again, it’s just a start.

Figuring it out

It’s a new world. A tech startup isn’t like a design consultancy. Particularly, it’s not like a design consultancy whose raison d’etre was to be unlike any other studio out there. Now our jobs are clarity, fitting in, inspiring, and solving real problems really really well.

It’s good to know what our challenges are.

Yet… it’s early days. We’re a young company again. A tiny bit of Old Berg – a splinter, a seed – that is being allowed to grow into a whole new thing.

Probably not coincidentally, I recently found myself on the Wikipedia page for the Toba catastrophe theory.

70,000 years ago, a supervolcano eruption in Sumatra reduced the global human population to as few as 3,000 individuals. The richness of millions of years of evolution distilled to the size of a village. It must have been a heady brew to distill; humanity hasn’t done too bad since.

These population bottlenecks, these reboots, these founder events have the effect of channeling genetic diversity and making a new population which has less diversity but is more distinct… and possibly better adapted to the new world.

So that’s what it feels like. A new world of connected products and a new Berg, coming into being right at the same time.

I’ll try and write these notes a little more often.

—Matt

Week 451

The problem with doing lots is not that it’s slow. It’s that you give yourself a million excuses to avoid doing what’s hard. To focus on what’s hard, do less. Easy to say. But choosing to do less, that’s no fun.

This week we’re trying to figure out how to do less. It’s not super fun. But to glimpse the core of what we’re doing, to know that it might soon be possible to focus on that – just that, that hard challenge – to work and work well, to have that singular purpose, to finish the transformation from BERG 1.0 to the company we’re becoming… that’s tough, but the prospect just about makes this week worth it. So. Week 451.

—Matt

BERG Cloud, Now Available For Everyone

Jack and I started our company because we had fun hanging out; because design and technology working hand-in-glove create magical things; to invent culture.

Over time that company became BERG, and it wasn’t just ours anymore — it became a studio of many people, and it’s produced awesome work there’s no way in a million years I could have even imagined.

Right from the beginning we’ve been into connected devices. Products feel different when they come to life. And we made our own product, Little Printer – an incredible team effort – and it’s a particular joy to me to see how people invite Little Printer into their homes and how they use it. We’ve learnt so much, and been continuously iterating the product since it launched.

I like to say that we don’t have customers, we have an audience.

Connected devices are so different.

So all our design thinking and learnings are baked into the technology underpinning Little Printer, and we call that technology BERG Cloud. BERG Cloud is our platform for connected devices — it gives devices an identity on the internet, web APIs, and adds developer tools and a great user experience. Using custom-designed hardware, we’ve also made our own prototyping stack. This allows us to prototype on Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and ARM mbed, but quickly switch to developing websites rather than embedded software so we can iterate quicker.

The way I think of BERG Cloud is that it’s best of our design thinking, baked into a platform created by our engineers so that our designers can be as expressive and inventive as possible.

Recently we had a realisation: If BERG Cloud and the prototyping hardware was good for us – this neat collaboration platform for our engineers and designers – maybe other people would like it too. And maybe they would like to take their products to market on our platform, using the same tested tools as we created and use for Little Printer.

Maybe we could make developing hardware as easy as developing for the web — and as fluid and creative.

But that would take focus.

It’s going to be hard reigning back our consultancy business to focus on building BERG Cloud and getting it into as many hands as possible. I’ve loved our work with Bonnier and the BBC, with Google and Intel and Samsung and so many others, and we hope we can carry some of these relationships forward on our journey into connected products.

Then I look again at where BERG began, why Jack and I started this thing rolling. We’ve not changed so much.

There’s an incredible team. I love being in the room with these guys.

We’ve created a platform that allows design and technology to work together, to be as creative as possible.

And rather than work solely with clients, we get to work with customers, to help others invent culture. So we’re looking to advance this exciting space as a Community, and in partnership with manufacturers.

To help along our focusing, we’ve made some business changes. We’re moving our home on the web — our old consultancy-focused website has been archived, and you’ll now find BERG at our new permanent home at the website of its platform, right here at bergcloud.com.

And we’ve brought more folks into the mix, people who can help us scale BERG Cloud and take it to its full potential. I’m proud that we’re today announcing investment from Connect Ventures, Initial Capital, and Index Ventures. It’s funny the convention is to write company names like that… Actually these are personal relationships, and Bill, Sami, and Saul are part of the team.

So that’s today’s news! Design consultancy turns tech startup, takes funding. And BERG Cloud – which we’ve incubated ourselves and have been beta testing over the summer – is now on general release. Kits for prototyping will land in our shop on Thursday 31st October, available for everyone.

I can’t wait to see what happens.

—MW

Nobody knows what connected products will mean for their business, and with Sandbox we’re here to help

The mega-trend is this: The network is the new electricity. Connecting products is the new electrification.

There are leaders in this field. My personal favourites are the Amazon Kindle, for using connected hardware to put the shop inside the book. And, less well known but just as amazing, Vitality GlowCap for using the network to add behavioural economics to pill-bottle lids, to make sure you finish your prescription!

And of course, the connected products on Kickstarter are a massive future-discovery effort too. Inspiring stuff.

The difficulty is that, for a particular business, no-one really knows what opportunities you get from network-enabling hardware products.

And because there are so few great models to mimic, unless you try out your connected products while you make them, they’re not so great.

We’re all learning.

So we’ve created Sandbox: a massively multiplayer prototyping and research program to figure out the future of connected products, built especially for institutions and corporations, and based on BERG Cloud… the very same technology we used to create Little Printer. We’re just getting going, and we’re announcing our first Sandbox organisation today!

Let me tell you our story…

blog_coffee

* Exploring the future with prototypes

At BERG, we made the first magazine on the iPad with Bonnier, and we’ve prototyped videophones with Google. And I take one big lesson from our years of work helping clients figure out what big tech and social trends mean for their business: You gotta get your hands dirty.

When you prototype early, you test your strategy at the very point it needs testing most.

So we work through workshops. Prototyping, iterating, communicating… going from concept to version one.

But in recent years, companies have been asking us what connected products mean for them. Are there new features? New product categories? New business models? And what we’ve found is that it’s hard to prototype. It’s too costly – in effort, time, and money – to experiment, learn, and invent. There’s no scaffolding, no “get going quickly,” nothing like Ruby on Rails that let us validate and build quickly for the web, or iOS that let us do the same for smartphones.

In response, we made BERG Cloud.

* We built a platform for invention

Little Printer

First we made Little Printer, our own connected product.

(You can buy it now! Go ahead, I can wait.)

dev_board_boot

BERG Cloud

Next we extracted all the useful parts from Little Printer and created an operating system we call BERG Cloud — first you use it to prototype connected products, and then you take them to production, maintaining agility all the way. It’s soup to nuts, and we include everything

  • from the APIs to control and configure your connected product from the web (we love the web)
  • to a friendly mobile website for users to claim, share, and interact with products, making use of all of our design learnings…
  • to the actual hardware and wireless.

You can get going quickly using our new BERG Cloud Dev Kits, with dev boards that plug into common hardware prototyping platforms (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and ARM mbed). The first 3rd party on BERG Cloud is Twitter — we worked with them to make #Flock, a limited edition connected cuckoo clock that sings when you get a retweet or a fave!

BERG Cloud is especially good for autonomous, low power devices — products that are smarter than sensors, that shouldn’t require a smartphone to run.

BERGCloud_DevKit-01

Sandbox

And today, we’re launching Sandbox — for institutions and companies to figure out what connected products mean for them.

  • We first set up campus-wide connectivity using the BERG Cloud Dev Kits, and provide dev boards so that connected hardware can be prototyped and used exactly where connected hardware belongs: In retail spaces and corridors, stuck to the wall or water coolers, on office desks and in pockets (the dev boards can be battery powered)
  • Since a BERG Cloud product will run wherever there is BERG Cloud connectivity, with zero reconfiguration (we have a principle: the product is yours, the network belongs to everyone), we’ll provide the opportunities to link together Sandbox organisations so they can meet and share their learnings and code
  • We co-run product invention workshops, with the designers, Arduino programmers and web developers already in the organisation, giving them the ideas and skills they need to prototype and run workshops on their own and with their colleagues

We know that future products and future business models can only be figured out with prototyping, which needs both a platform for invention, and a culture of experimentation through workshops and easy tools. With Sandbox, that’s what we’re offering — the best from our the consultancy and product sides of our business.

FABRICA-Workshop

* Introducing our launch partner: Fabrica

In the spirit of learning through doing, we sought out a first Sandbox organisation to work with closely — where we can create the required tools in response to what we see is needed, and practice and improve our workshop patterns.

With Fabrica, we have the ideal partner.

Fabrica is the communication research centre of the Benetton Group. From their headquarters – a seventeenth century villa in Italy – they research communications, new products, and retail experience for a range of clients. They’re experimental, forward-looking, multi-disciplinary…

…and they’re going to be covering their campus in BERG Cloud connectivity, using the dev boards to prototype and learn about connected products for themselves, and with their own clients. We’ll be co-running workshops, and figuring out the future together.

As we do so, BERG will be learning from Fabrica’s feedback — developing and improving Sandbox so that we can work with even more organisations on their own products and ideas – on the cutting edge of the Internet of Things – creating a global collaborative prototyping and research program.

It’s exciting.

Talk about really getting your hands dirty.

fabrica_blog

* Join the Sandbox program

If you’d like to become a Sandbox organisationget in touch. We’re learning too, so we’d love to chat, and we can bring all our product invention expertise to bear on your particular challenges.

And to follow the Sandbox and Fabrica story, watch this space. We’ll cover the installation, the first workshops, and what we learn.

Let’s electrify the world.

Read the press release here. (Includes press photos!)

Read Fabrica’s announcement here.

Read about developing on the BERG Cloud platform.

— Matt

Two days in

Wow. We started taking pre-orders for Little Printer on Tuesday and what a response! Thank you everyone who is adopting one of these little fellas! We’re super excited that Little Printer will be in your home before too long. It’s a privilege.

If you’re new here, read about Little Printer and how to pre-order.

A little round-up:

We had some awesome articles from The Verge (“Paper lives: Little Printer and the rebirth of the hard copy”) and Fast Company (“It’s Finally Out: A Little Printer That Delivers A Tiny, Custom Newspaper”) who had access before we opened the doors. Thanks guys!

And – just to pick some favourites from the rest – an online piece in the Daily Mail, a round-up in the Huffington Post, a real-world newspaper piece in the Independent (the photo above), and some very smart observations about the strategy with BERG Cloud (Frankie, you’re pretty much spot on). Dan Catt blogged his insightful commentary too.

We’ve read all the comments, and we read Twitter avidly. Commonly used phrases? The two that jump out for me, reading the huge volume of tweets, are

  • adorable ♥
  • too expensive!

Certainly a love-it-or-hate-it response.

So let’s talk about the price, because that came up a bunch! We wanted to create a beautiful product that has a different place in your life than “printing.” Something able to do work for you, and to bring unexpected delight. For publishers and website owners, something that will best frame their design and content.

The product must reflect the experience, and you’ll find that in the magnetic clasps holding the body together; the over-the-air updates that always bring Little Printer the latest software; and the character design of Little Printer in the object and in the web app. We see a future where the Web and character fill every product in the home, and the products we want in our homes should delight and be fit-for-purpose all at once. Little Printer is our particular starting point.

And we are just getting started. Products get cheaper the more you make, and while I’d love to have the high volumes of Samsung or Apple, we’re not there yet. I’m inspired by the Web, where lightly-staffed blogs and massive publishing empires have equal access to audience and tools. The world of manufacturing is also moving in that direction, and one day the small product companies will be on an equal footing with the Mattels, Mujis, and Microsofts. The way we achieve that is to start building, and I’m proud that a lot of people – ourselves included – are making a go of it.

I hope that gives a bit of insight!

For those people who did query the price: I hope you check in as our product gets into people’s hands and houses, and I hope you’ll find that Little Printer is much more than you expect!

For those who said adorable ♥ — I totally agree, thank you, and thank you from the whole team :)

–MW