"Little Printer shipped on Dec 4, 2012, a year and five days after we put video up," says the U.K.-based Webb. "I thought I’d feel like I had achieved in something huge,” says Webb. “Instead, on the day it shipped, I felt empty. It was like we ran off the end of the business plan.”
One of the reasons: his company was still in a different business, doing design consulting on things like interactive magazines and lab-grown meat, and now they were being pulled in a new direction: making physical products. While they’d played with hardware, that wasn’t Berg's core—the company was a far cry from the way it is today. That transition was bumpier than expected, but also a ton of fun, says Webb.
“We were about 15 employees at the time. We are now only eight. They’re very very different mind-sets, a consultancy and a hardware startup. While I thought the transition would be easy, the psychological difference is huge. The biggest difference for me with a hardware company is the Reid Hoffman idea, ‘If you’re not embarrassed of your product when you’re launching it, you’re launching too late.’ "
Learning to prototype and ship early was one of Webb’s first lessons—here's what else he learned in turning his service-based company into a hardware shop.
“We’ve always been interested in hardware, but the thing we’re experienced with is the design and software," says Webb. "It’s a new thing in the world being able to do hardware.”
Webb describes his early experiments, which began back in 2006. “The very first thing we tried to make was called Availabot. We announced this back in 2006. We licensed it to a toy company that year, and for awhile we thought we’d be in the IP business. Eventually, we took it back and tried to make it ourselves.”
They also did a series of experiments to learn about physical product. “Before we’d made some posters and sold them to learn about production. We also made comics you could only read when you shined a blacklight at them," says Webb. "That was partly an experiment in ordering in China, partly an experience in warehousing and customer service.”
Since those early days, Webb and his crew have built a platform for making connected products, and used it to hack a washing machine and connect it to the Internet, build a cuckoo clock that sings when you get a tweet, and develop Pixel Track, a "dumb" sign that updates via an API and the cloud to work and look similar to an e-paper display.
The big lesson he’s kept in mind while making all of these? That thoughtful design starts with the materials. It’s easier to smartly source materials up front than to deal with customer service caused by cheap parts. “When you’re shipping things into people’s hands, you live or die by customer service,” says Webb. “When we realized that, that that led us toward components that were really good. The receipt-printing component of Little Printer has been around since 2008 and is very well proven. We evaluated a product to do with ink by contacting factories. You need to know that the technical problems of creating a product are nothing compared to the customer service for it.”
Webb points out that in hardware, there are things you might not think about. For instance, with hardware, there are specialist insurers.“With software, what’s the worst thing that could happen? The website could crash,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen if we put out Little Printer—it could stop someone’s pacemaker. Or what happens if all the product has to be recalled? That’s 200,000 pounds sterling. You need product recall insurance, that’s the name for it.”
The best way to learn tips like this? Hang out with hardware people. “As hardware companies this is the kind of information we share with each other. We’re like a new class of company it’s all about sharing and growing up together," he says. "This stuff is so new."
It isn’t like traditional manufacturing anymore, he points out. "The days of focus-grouping a product to death and slow-to-market are gone. The pace is different now. As are the players. The kind of people with the relevant experience and expertise are PCH, the Highway1 accelerator, or Dragon Innovation. There are reasons the London Hardware Collective or Wearables London exist. There’s a reason people are gathering together," he says. "Find people like you. When we did Little Printer, Kickstarter didn’t exist in the U.K. If I were going to do this again, I’d Kickstarter. These resources and best practices are gradually appearing.”
The time to think about manufacturing is much earlier than you think—Webb says it’s well before you prototype. “Manufacturing needs to happen so early because it tells you things like the cost… Just having a rough idea about how these things are going to be done really early is really important."
He should know. He learned about supply chain issues the hard way.
“Right before Christmas we had this 34-page manufacturing guide," says Webb. "We thought we had everything figured out. But as it turned out, getting the glue to set took 30 seconds longer than we anticipated. Thirty seconds."
Because of that, they had to pull that batch of product to sort and evaluate it. That added three days to production. It also made them miss the weekly truck out of the Czech factory, and left their entire factory and customer service team sitting around with nothing to do.
Lesson: don’t assume that you know. And make sure your manufacturing partners do.
“For both plastics and electronics, experience doing what you need is key,” Webb says. “With the plastic we wanted a high quality finish and low variation—our production partner has experience with medical equipment, so we know they’re dependable. Electronics—we should have started considering electrical certification earlier, because that’s not the production facility’s job. We were lucky in that our manufacturer was nearby in Europe so that shipping iterations was quick.”
He is quick to share that his Little Printer assembly partner was fantastic, in part because they helps to create a Quality Assurance guide for all their workers. (QA is especially important in hardware because mistakes are costly and hard to fix). However, for a new maker, he recommends an alternate, easier route: “Consider going with a contract manufacturer who will look after everything. It will let you put your time where it’s needed—product invention, and marketing," says Webb. "We didn’t because we had a desire to understand the whole process better, but it’s worthwhile taking advantage of someone else’s experience.”
He also offers this bit of advice: “Keep the supply chain short. Ours is long: twenty weeks for Little Printer, and 4-6 weeks for the business version. This is a problem because it reduces flexibility and the ability to take opportunities like large customized orders.”
More than just an evolving hardware maker, Webb is a thought leader in how the category is going to grow. As he said at Berlin’s ThingsCon last month, “The reason we did Little Printer right in the beginning was to learn enough about making connected products so we could help other people make connected products. In hardware, there’s going to be new categories we haven’t even dreamed of yet. How are those things going to happen? They’re not going to happen in the R&D group at Samsung. It will be someone randomly experimenting. It is incumbent to me as a product designer to leave the wires hanging out. I’m quite up for letting people find their own answers.”