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The internet of things: There is no platform without products

Dr. Andrew Fletcher  Director, Thomson Reuters Labs™ – London

Dr. Andrew Fletcher  Director, Thomson Reuters Labs™ – London

The Internet of Things, or IoT for short, is a catch-all term for the phenomenon of more and more everyday objects becoming connected to the internet, and the blurring of the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds which that enables. Matt Webb, co-founder and CEO of BERG, started by explaining that he doesn’t actually like saying BERG is an IoT company at all. He finds it to be too nebulous and vague, like saying he works with plastics or electricity, and instead prefers to focus on connected devices.

Catch the full video (29:43)

So what is a connected device?

Well, you don’t really know what one is until you build it. In 2012 BERG built and launched Little Printer, a device which prints out whatever you ask it to: news headlines; crossword puzzles; favorite pictures from your social network; lists and messages. The device has a personality too. It has a face, which is on every strip that it prints, whose hair gets longer every day like a tamagotchi. BERG can also personalize it further at will, for example adding heart-shaped glasses to the face on Valentine’s Day. Has it been successful? They’re selling them as fast as they can make them. 3000 so far, which Matt describes as good but not great. So why was BERG listed in Fast Company’s top 50 most innovative companies in 2012 when it had only just launched a product?

Build a product and a platform will follow

It turns out Little Printer is actually a Trojan Horse. Until recently BERG was a design consultancy, and a successful one, working with global brands and creating products such as the first magazine app for iPad. Time was split between building stuff and consultancy, which Matt described as tearing the company apart. So in 2013 they chose technology, now consider themselves a tech start-up and took $1.3M of investment. The real aim is not making and selling as many Little Printer’s as possible, but focusing on BERG Cloud as the infrastructure of choice for connected devices. The goal is to make it easy to prototype using the BERG Cloud platform. But you can’t just build a platform; you have to to be product-led, getting your hands dirty building things before extracting the platform later on.

New innovations are often gateways

Matt’s journey began with the magic of the internet. At school he used to make and sell a magazine, producing it on a PC, photocopying it at a friend’s parent’s office and taking it to school. He started selling them himself for 3p each and then enlisted four distributors who he would sell copies to wholesale for 2.5p each. When the web came along the magic was in the distribution, having the direct connection to the reader. He likened the evolution of the web to the development of electricity, which started as just a means to provide light into homes before people figured out other uses later on. In the same way the internet is evolving, but at only 25 years old milestones such as distributing a webpage, like Matt’s magazine, and even the capabilities that not come through smart phones are only just the just at the beginning of our journey to figure out how to use the web. Availabot, one of Matt’s first connected devices in 2006 is similarly an early milestone taking us somewhere we can’t yet really imagine.

And collaboration is so natural it seems accidental.

Also part of the BERG story is Matt’s role in creating Tech City. He had been trying for some time to get more support for start-ups in East London and somehow ended up on a trade mission to India with the UK government where he spoke with Rohan Silva, who at the time was the Prime Minister’s technology adviser. Before he knew it, David Cameron had convened a launch event at the Truman Brewery in November 2010 and was declaring ‘This is Tech City.’ Up until that point, start-ups had been tongue-in-cheek describing the Old Street area as Silicon Roundabout. Through the initiative different stakeholders found themselves wanting it to succeed for different reasons:

  • Government wanted it to succeed to help grow the economy
  • VCs wanted it to succeed because it was easier to have start-ups clustered in one place
  • The companies wanted it to succeeded because it helped them to grow

The resulting ‘serendipity machine’ that was created brought the benefits of proximity. The people you meet in the coffee queue might be the VCs who are now in the area visiting more frequently because they have invested and are here for board meetings, the lawyers running workshops because the Tech City banner gives them confidence that it is real and worth their while.

Serendipity powering the BERG Cloud

This serendipity machine is now a key to BERG’s growth. They make kits available for others to build on their platform, and BERG Cloud comes with the ability to access metadata from customers who use your products. The ability to iterate as a result of this data is baked in and the costs of doing so are kept down. Like Google analytics for websites, this enables you to interact directly with you customers, and to layer services on top of your products, enabling whole new business models. So, a connected washing machine isn’t about checking the state of the spin cycle on your smart phone. Cleaning as a service becomes a viable business model. And BERG Cloud becomes the iOS for the connected washing machine, or the Amazon Web Services for connected devices. It’s easy for this ability to shift a product from cool to creepy. Staying the right side of that line is down to giving back more value than you collect, like Microsoft Kinect which if it didn’t give value would be seen as just a connected camera pointing into your living room.

As Kelsey Smith asked, what is the tipping point, or the ‘killer app?’ Matt’s honest answer is that he doesn’t know. But that he does know we won’t get there if the Internet of Things stays only in the hands of engineers. Designers have a sixth sense for magic, a way of thinking, critiquing and humanizing. This maker culture is alive and well in London and will get us to the tipping point where the internet won’t always be trapped behind glass. BERG Cloud plans to be at the center of things.

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About the series

Thomson Reuters Labs™ partners with Cass Business School to bring you EntrepreneursTalk@Cass in London. These interview-based evening events feature founders of successful start-ups from London and take place at Cass Business School. EntrepreneursTalk@Cass are designed to inspire students, entrepreneurs and anyone interested in tech.

The talks are hosted by Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-Large, Reuters. Prior correspondent experiences include: Reuters TV, Wired UK, CTV News, and CBC Undercurrents.

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