Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

Archive for the ‘Nanodome’ Category

Hardware is apparently the new software (at long last!)

The New York Times just ran an article discussing all manner of neat hardware startups, a fair few of which I already knew well (Nest, Lytro, Raspberry Pi), but quite a few I hadn’t heard of before (Pebble, Bilibot, Electric Imp, LittleBits, Ouya, etc). The conclusion, of course, is that Hardware Is The New Software, and that Venture Capitalists are getting superexcited about this trend.

Well… it’s a great theory, but unless you’ve got an unbelievably sci-fi pitch (like Pebble, whose core idea of a totally programmable watch I remember first proposing to a VC friend a whole decade ago), building your company up to the stage that you can sensible go looking for scale-up funding [which is what almost all VC investment has now become] is a particularly hard trawl, with very few angels wanting to take that road with you.

However… it struck me while reading the article that even though the hardware development cost curve would appear from the outside to be trending towards zero, this is almost entirely as a result of a systemic realignment within the development / design world away from traditional custom dev systems and towards low-cost tools. For example, I shudder to think how many USB dev tools lie scattered around my workspace – oscilloscopes, logic probes, Bus Pirates, RS485 interfaces, wireless adapters, phone interfaces, etc. Hence this is not a zero-trend, this is merely shifting from an older development paradigm to another newer one. Hardware development will remain resolutely non-zero for a loooong time (and let’s not get into the issue of CE & UL testing, ok?)

As for 3d printing, people have been using this for prototyping for well over a decade now, but the big difference these days lies in the scale of the usage and the wider range of materials that are available to print in (i.e. not just compromised low-end ABS). Yet even so, the real world of plastic manufacturing continues to move ever further away – a typical industrial device (such as my security camera) uses a whole symphony of different plastics to achieve both functionality and reliability, and new materials are introduced all the time.

The real hardware revolution will start when we can print injection moulds in our garages… but though I famously pitched that to the Tech City LaunchPad1 competition, nobody seems interested (as my ‘Zoe’ avatar says at the end, “no chance – next time stick to social media, ok?”) It’s only a trillion dollar industry, why should anyone want to invest in anything so pathetically small? 🙂 But once again, the chances would seem high that I’ve arrived at a great party seven years too soon, as per bl&^dy normal… oh well. 😦

Incidentally, one of the NYT article’s authors is the very affable John Markoff, who also writes about historical cryptography, one of my parallel passions (in case you don’t already know).

Presenting to the 3Cs Community this evening…

This is what I’m aiming to avoid 😉

Unsurprisingly, the reason I’ve been rejigging my pitch deck of late is that this evening (17th January 2012) sees my first business presentation for a fair few months. It’ll be at the 3Cs community, by all accounts a nicely eclectic London-based group of entrepreneurs, techies and investors – it encourages its members to “Pay It Forward” by helping other people out, rather than merely being snarky and pouncing on opportunities etc.

Just so you know, I’m reliably informed that the “Connections – Commitment – Capital” tagline that appears on its website is actually a [much later] backronym – the name “3Cs” originally came about because it was set up by three guys called Colin. 🙂

I was very kindly introduced to the 3Cs by Mike Scase (who I met via Rosco Paterson, Redhill’s one-man network hub) and Alan Ferdman (who I met through KRTI): I’m therefore honour-bound to fill them with copious amounts of beer in the pub afterwards. If you find yourself near the Rack and Tenter from about 8.30pm (it’s super-close to Moorgate BR & Underground stations), feel free to say hi. 🙂

“The Secret History of Commodities”…

Next week will see my first proper Nanodome pitch following a fair old period developing stuff, so I’ve spent a bit of time this week revising my pitch deck, and even had a chance to run it past KRTI’s Bob Lindsey (who often attends 3Cs meetings) over coffee at the Surbiton Brasserie (very good hot chocolate there, by the way). After far too many iterations, my first slide ended up a really ‘left-field’ thing – titled “The Secret History of Commodities“, I thought it was interesting enough to deserve a blog post as well. So, here goes…

One of the biggest challenges when pitching startups-that-actually-make-physical-things (as opposed to pretty much any of the social media / digital services startups Old Street is currently awash in) is that perilously few angels have any experience of making money out of making things. To be precise, the large majority of the Home Counties angel investors you’ll ever get to meet will have made (and, in fact, will usually still be making) their money from relatively ‘pure’ financial service plays: by and large, most seem to treat angel investing as an extension of that financial services mindset. Hence most are basically on the prowl for scalable service model startups with relatively lightweight capital funding requirements.

Another issue is that there is a widespread perception of manufacturing as a stagnating, overoptimized segment – as if by merely saying the M-word you are necessarily invoking the slothful ghost of British Leyland and its awful ilk. In reality, few people (even those in government who like to espouse manufacturing as the way that UK plc will turn its fortunes around) realize that the nature and practices of manufacturing have dramatically changed over the last ten years: and one of the key reasons for this lies in what I call the secret history of commodities.

My secret weapon to help me make this visible is a 20-year graph of commodity indices from May 1992 to May 2011 collated by the International Monetary Fund’s economists, corrected to notional 2005 dollar values (hence all the curves cross at index=100 in 2005).

For me, this tells the secret recent history of both commodities and manufacturing. For a start, it’s notable that the dotcom bubble leaves not a butterfly-flutter of a trace on the graph circa 2000: there was essentially no overlap between the physical and Internet business worlds back then. I’ve also divided the chart into three sections to make it absolutely clear how I read it:-

  1. 1992-2001 – the “steady-state optimizing” phase. Supply (and improvements in supply) generally outstripped demand for most commodities. Margins were tight. Some supply chains were tightening up thanks to an influx of MBAs, whose fat consultancy fees were paid for by savings from the JIT (just in time) regimes they designed and put in place.
  2. 2001-2005 – the “uh-oh” phase. Something not really seen during the 2oth century happened: demand for a whole set of commodities started to accelerate faster than supply. Manufacturers responded by outsourcing (particularly to the Far East), extending their JIT arrangements, and integrating yet further with distribution and customers. Fragility of the system started to ramp up.
  3. 2006-present – the “OMG” phase. Just look at the relative volatility! Demand continued to accelerate faster than supply, but – far more importantly – almost all commodities started to be actively traded by speculators looking for the next gold bubble. What’s more, widespread trading in commodities derivatives and futures magnified and amplified any micro-trend until it became a macro-trend. This has led to a succession of short-term price booms and busts as waves of fashion interest moved into steel, nickel, tin, aluminium, lead, ABS plastic, wheat, corn, whatever (apart from onions, but that’s another story).

I think that without extensive and wide-scale government intervention into the futures / derivatives market (and you may be surprised to hear that many governments are actively considering this!), (3) is what manufacturers are now stuck with… forever. Hence this level of price volatility affects the raw cost of every physical thing you buy.

From the point of view of a manufacturer, this price volatility of physical stuff is like a dark, dark shadow hanging heavily over how you design things. Nobody wants to design defensively for price volatility; nobody in the twentieth century has really had that as a dominant factor guiding their design strategy; typical manufacturing design strategies revolve around engineering an appropriate balance between scale and demand. All the same, I suspect this mad (and maddening!) price volatility will rapidly turn out to multiply the strength of the many pro-green arguments by a major factor. Engineering devices as platforms for long product life, reduced resource consumption, etc are now the starting point for Manufacturing 2.0 – whether or not you want to call them “Green” doesn’t matter.

But what hardly anybody seems to have noticed is that really long life products are actually more of a service than a product. Which (I think) means that the next wave of mega-manufacturers will surely go completely vertical and sell long-life services directly to end-users, destroying every shred of value chain between them and end-users. Ultimately, it seems that the upshot of a “Green” manufacturing economy is vertically integrated service providers masquerading as manufacturers.

When I put this point of view to my ex-Reuters friend Martin, his response was: “so, you’re basically saying the mobile phone contract model will take over industry?” And in many ways, I think he’s right: manufacturers may aspire to be Lean and Toyota-like, but their real future is Orange. Who’d have thought it, eh?

100th post: the mystery of manufacturing…

Journalists & editors love centenaries and plausible-sounding round number anniversaries: it’s an easy way of making press out of something that happened ages ago, and with the logistical advantage of being a date in the (near-ish) future you can prepare for in advance.

And so it goes with blog posts: only there, the longstanding tradition is to celebrate the 1000th post / 1,000,000th visitor / whatever by posting something really great. In practice, however, this is typically no more than a long list of links to various non-sucky articles you’ve posted, presumably hoping that by so doing they’ll get some kind of celebratory PageRank boost from Google. 🙂

Anyway, the (otherwise totally meaningless) milestone here is that this is the 100th Funding Startups post: and following a thoroughly nice lunch at the Griffin in Claygate with Mike Scase (who incidentally helped design the Amstrad CPC464 for Alan Sugar), I thought I’d post on something he seemed to find interesting… the mystery of manufacturing.

1. Asleep at the wheel?

First, the economic context as viewed from my contrarian swivel chair. When the recent long period of (apparent) financial stability fell to pieces in the Credit Crunch, commercial banks realized that they’d been caught napping. Their balance sheets were awful because for decades they’d been lending large amounts of money at relatively low interest rates – acquisitions, management buy-outs, and all kinds of spurious stuff. Leveraging had vastly changed high-level business funding models: presumption of access to stratospheric levels of debt had even become part of the syllabus at business school.

But now things had changed, and the banks wanted their ball back. One group hit badly by this were the distributors…

2. Piggy in the middle, carefully sliced…

The distribution sector was unhappy about this change in the landscape: numerous large empires had been founded and built up on the model of holding large inventories while giving 60 days’ credit to trade customers. If the banks now won’t let you hold stock or sell much on credit to small trade buyers, what are you supposed to do? Looking at that big liquidity hole in your accounts where all that soft money used to be, it would surely be hard not to conclude that your business bubble had just been popped.

Moreover, now that distributors don’t hold a lot of stock, it’s often the case that bigger customers go directly to manufacturers, forming a direct-from-the-source relationship, shrinking the market in the middle. At the same time, there’s a lot of sideways pressure on distributors from Internet wiseguys also looking to disintermediate them, by replacing their service with a teeny-weeny webbed-up warehouse in Wareham. So if the banks won’t fund your inventory or let you give much credit to trade customers, bigger customers want to cut you out, and web-based micro-disties are trying to eat your lunch, what’s the future of distribution? Really, when everyone wants to take a slice out of what you’ve got, it’s not easy being piggy in the middle.

3. Just In Time(berlake)…

From the point of view of manufacturers, distributors are very often the primary sales channel, their basic “route to market”. But if banks won’t let distributors hold much of anything in stock, it falls to the manufacturers either (a) to finance the stock themselves; or (b) to find clever fast ways of creating stock on demand (the whole “Just In Time” phenomenon). Yet because the whole idea of working capital has become little more than a vague, distant memory, banks have placed manufacturers under arguably even worse pressure than the distributors: hence option (a) [financing the stock themselves] is very rarely practical.

However, even if you are able to devise clever, lean manufacturing models based around small, fast batch sizes – option (b) is the starting point for manufacturing right now – the process of manufacturing continues to be just as capital intensive as ever. You still need to design & prototype (even though 3d printing has made shape functionality testing much easier), build injection moulds (expensive, clunky, and slow), verify functionality, check for standards conformance, adapt for manufacture, assemble, test, pack, ship, and – last but not least – pray like crazy that people do now buy whatever it is you’ve spent so much time making, i.e. that the market for your product hasn’t silently evaporated while you’ve been away with the (development) fairies building it.

4. Finally, we get to “The Mystery of Manufacturing”…

Though I blog about “Funding Startups”, when it comes to funding manufacturing startups I’m entirely mystified. How on earth does anyone do it? There’s no money in distributors, there’s no access to working capital or overdrafts, and there’s only regional development support if you happen to be opening up a decent-sized factory in a region with high structural unemployment… which, frankly, ignores the reality of how most pragmatic modern manufacturers would structure their operations (typically around Far East subassembly and local late assembly for customer flexibility). As far as I can see, the main reason that James Dyson moved production to Malaysia was that his company would be stuffed otherwise: having outsourced much of the Midlands to Shenzhen, what’s our local alternative? It’s like that, that’s the way it is.

As a result, for UK manufacturing startups the only feasible source of funding is typically angels and VCs: but almost all of these have little or no interest in actually building things, preferring to channel their money into mobile apps and social media pixie-dust. It’s no secret that manufacturing doesn’t have anything like that ‘iGlamour’, for how can it compete with neon-look 3d demo buttons on a sleek black handset? Hence, “the mystery of manufacturing” is simply… circa 2011, how on earth is it possible?

So… a hundred posts down the line, it should be clear that I’m starting to flag somewhat. I continue to look at companies such as AlertMe and to try to figure out what the secret of their funding success was. However, apart from Pilgrim Beart’s reasonably generic advice to founders to delay inward investment as long as possible, I don’t really see what there is to learn about the realpolitik of funding manufacturing, what microeconomic levers there are out there left to pull.

Ultimately, slicing through the tangled Gordian knot, there’s a high chance that there is in fact no mystery here: that is, the UK has no “mystery of manufacturing” simply because it has no manufacturing. Should people like me abandon the UK and start afresh in Taiwan or Shenzhen, planting the IP seed of their business into a richly loamy cultural soil that not only understands manufacturing but actually values it?

Could it be that I’ve been so caught up with solving super-hard tech development puzzles that I’ve sidelined the properly big question – is this the right place to run a manufacturing company from? That is, might the real mystery of manufacturing be “why do I persist in banging my head against this particular wall?” Or, rephrased as a Zen koan for philosophical heavy metal fans, “what is the sound of one head banging?

The (short) prehistory of “gamification”…

Here’s a little story that hasn’t yet been told, hope you find it interesting!

* * * * * * * *

Though I wrote my first computer game waaay back in 1981, by 1999-2000 I’d grown disenchanted with the near-abusively one-sided way things worked in the industry. Given that one major games publisher tried (unsuccessfully, thank goodness) to sue me for £2.56m while another cancelled a big project days after approving a full-on milestone, you can see why that would be. Hence I decided to do an MBA: this was partly to try to salvage anything worthwhile from the bruising experiences I’d had, but mainly as a form of lightweight business therapy. 🙂

At the same time, I also started to move away from games into an unfashionable mix of embedded development and business analysis. So at some point during late 2002, I put all these pieces together [in a buggy-whip ‘core competency’ kind of way] and began to wonder whether the kind of games user-interface I had been developing for so long could be used to turbo-charge all manner of transactions and activities on commercial electronic devices – in-flight video, ATM machines, vending machines, mobile phones, etc.  Unsurprisingly, this was the point when I coined the deliberately ugly word “gamification“, by which I meant applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast. Note that I was much more interested in applying gamification ideas to electronic devices than to the Web back then: just as now, I wanted to build physical things and to make them fun and effective to use.

All of which is why in 2003 (9th April) I founded a one-man consultancy called Conundra Ltd specifically with the idea of pursuing gamification, though I eventually dissolved it in 2006 (17th October) after eliciting no significant customer interest. Here’s a copy of the original 2003/2004 Conundra webpage, which should give a fuller idea of what I was aiming for (though note that the email link there doesn’t actually work, I gave up the domain loooong ago.)

Ultimately, the little genuine gamification work I did was essentially restricted to developing a couple of 3d casual games (3D Pool, 3D Chess) for a mobile phone platform that was never directly released (the Alphamosaic VC01). Sure, these games coupled particularly easy interfaces with high-gloss rendering technologies (direct-maths raytracing on a 16-bit array processor!), but the particular vision of gamification I had briefly glimpsed back in 2002 was simply a decade too early. Besides, the whole MBA mindset that tends to drive such high-concept business ideas was already on the downward slide by then… but that’s a story for another day.

So as far as “gamification” goes, I devised [I believe] the term, tried to make money from it, failed miserably, pulled out long before anyone else used it, and that was pretty much the end of my involvement. Oh well! 🙂

…but there’s a follow-on. Having then joined the CCTV industry and then started to develop my own innovative kind of small ‘speed dome’ security camera (hence ‘nano-dome’, doh!), it only struck me a little while ago that what I was doing was at heart a curious kind of culmination of the gamification path I had started out on way back in 2002. For PTZs – keyboard-steered cameras – are essentially a kind of industrial videogame, and one of the key things I was aiming for with the control software in my own camera was to make it what I would call ‘properly interactive’. And what would that make it but a truly gamified device?

Of course, I may have missed the biggest gamification boat of all (mobile phones), because in many ways Apple picked up the whole gamification UX ball and ran further with it than anyone else. So however much I like Dieter Rams’ designs, I’d argue that maybe the real secret behind Apple’s iWhatever devices isn’t Jonathan Ive’s aesthetic but the underlying idea of gamification – making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use. Automating sprezzatura, one might say. Put in those terms, perhaps the full societal rollout of gamification has only now just begun, hmmm?

OK, so no grant this time… :-(

I’m disappointed to have missed out this time round, of course: but a Tech City grant was always going to be a bit of a long shot for a Surbiton-based non-social-media startup. Some of the TSB’s anonymous judges clearly liked my whole “Soft Factory” pitch: but given that the point of the competition was to fund loss-making collaborative Tech City projects rather than Tech City companies, perhaps I did ultimately end up veering too far towards the latter (certainly, one of the judges felt compelled to reiterate this point several times). And being in a consortium of one probably didn’t help either. Oh well. 😦

Still, I’ll be doing my 2-minute thing at the TSB’s investor day this Wednesday (please feel free to say hello!) in the 3.55pm-to-4.25pm Pitch Session #5 (AKA the mid-afternoon graveyard shift). Given the homeopathically low amount of interest that UK angels tend to have in manufacturing and the brutal-but-unavoidable fact that angels are mainly there to sniff around the 18 grantees, my expectations for positive funding outcomes from the day are perhaps even lower than the normal ankle-highness. All the same, it’s always nice both to catch up with people you already know and to meet new people. For example (going through the list of attendees), Twickenham-based Wren Capital looks interesting, as does MMC Ventures: and perhaps I should be cultivating more of a relationship with NESTA Investments. Anyone else there I should be talking with?

Pitching ‘foreplay’…

When pitching to potential investors, conventional wisdom says that you should focus on clearly describing the company, the market, and the proposal’s financials while doing your best to come across as the personable, brilliant, credible marketing-and-technical-genius you are (because otherwise you probably would never have got to make the pitch), and all preferably without having to use a distractingly fancy presentation backdrop as a crutch. Perhaps “clear financials, smart presenter, dumb slides” would be an oversimplification, but I’m sure you get the basic point.

All of which is plausible-sounding advice, for sure: but I’m not sure any of this helps you choose the right starting point for telling a startup sales story. You see, it may well be that you have a whole extra level of work to do in your pitch before you so much as mention your company.

For example: when presenting my own startup Nanodome, I inevitably have to spend a minute or two (or indeed three) warming the audience up to the general idea that security cameras are in fact extraordinarily sexy – specifically, that the kind of “intelligent camera” (or ‘LSL’ – lens, sensor, Linux) that will without doubt centrally define the security industry over the next 20 years is a ‘Cinderella technology’ just about to get its invitation to the Ball. And then I have to put yet more pitching time into explaining why small electronic device manufacturing circa 2011 is also extremely sexy, and nothing at all like, say, British Leyland circa 1970. *sigh*

In some ways, I don’t mind if some of the people to whom I’m pitching then go out and invest in a completely different LSL camera startup – ultimately, not everybody you present to will be perfectly attuned to the precise details of where you’re going, what you’re doing and the way you’re trying to scale your chosen business mountain(s). But if everybody in the audience leaves the room without understanding exactly why you think the whole market you’re aiming at is so utterly awesome, no amount of financial finessing will ever gain you investment.

There’s a similarity with novelists here, in that crafting the first page of a novel is often a challenge quite unlike writing the rest of the book: so it goes with pitches, too. Really, the key presentation problem with real-world business opportunities is that they rarely fall right in the middle of a ‘hot’ investment area (geolocation, etc), and so need a level of introduction: which is why I think you often need pitching ‘foreplay’, to pre-sell your industry.

There’s also a larger picture to consider here, insofar as I believe entrepreneurs are often guilty of being too preoccupied with ‘pure’ money financing, when the realpolitik of angel investing is typically about other issues entirely:-

  • self-image – “am I the kind of angel who would want to be associated with this industry?
  • self-validation – “if this startup succeeds, would it make the rest of my business life look even better?
  • mirroring – “does entrepreneur X remind me of myself earlier in my wildly successful career?
  • exploitation/plasticity – “how coachable / malleable is entrepreneur X?
  • controllability – “is entrepreneur X a pussy cat, a wild horse, or a loose cannon? And am I comfortable with that?
  • …and so on.

Naturally, the influence that such interpersonal dimensions have on investment decisions will always be completely subjective, but I remain convinced that it is these kinds of things that contribute most to angels’ first-fifteen-seconds gut reactions. And so as an entrepreneur, you have a yet further aspect to think about: that the way you present yourself in the first minute of your pitch is also crucially important.

For me, the three keywords are normally passion (for a market), drive (to satisfy that market’s needs) and credibility (that you have the right experience and skills to make things happen): but you have to accept that if you find yourself presenting to a room full of cashed-out actuaries, you would probably need to dress these up differently.