Tag Archives: weeknotes

Week 483

Folks, I’ve got some news about Berg to share.
We’re wrapping up for this incarnation.
Our partnerships and our services, they’re
done. A few things left, then hibernation.

Little Printer we’ll run till March next year.
A skeleton crew will keep it alive.
We’ll sell it. Or open the code. See here
for more. We’d love to see LP survive.

We’ve not reached a sustainable business
in connected products. But: There’s our troop!
Cultural inventions! I’m proud of this
British Experimental Rocket Group.

Thank you fellow travellers, in your thousands.
Behind the mountains, there are more mountains.

—Matt

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