Focus and Fixing

Day 1 has been good. After 3 years of not being at SXSW I can tell you this much: the paradox of choice that attendees have to grapple with means many more sessions that will go unloved than should be. Like, for instance, the talk by the founders of BRCK. For the uninitiated, it’s a backup generator for the internet in the shape of (wouldn’t you know it) a brick. They smashed their Kickstarter goal last June and it was fascinating to hear the basic things that they took into consideration that a lot of bigger brands probably don’t, like having a clear focus and not straying from the goal (when I see multiple brand variations of a single product, I know that the brand is just pandering to the crowd because they can, not because they need to).

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BRCK wanted to be relevant to people in the developing world and started with figuring out the logistical issues in getting to market in that region first: they had to navigate poor connectivity, harsh environmental conditions and unreliable power. This meant that being of use to the Western world would be a cinch once they figured out how to make the product work in the developing world. They did a lot of field research to get it right: travelling up to Lake Turkana in Kenya to test how it would work during the solar eclipse last November, for example. There’s more on that in this video.

From a brand perspective, I started thinking about how we really need to remember the ‘final mile’, a phrase the BRCK guys referred to while speaking about the importance of following through with the connectivity of their product. When Kenya experiences a complete blackout and the BRCK doesn’t work because of a power surge, it’s not as good as it claims and that’s what needs to be fixed first. So along with all the planning that goes into getting a brand campaign out, we need to think about the rest of it – the follow-through: how do people respond to the brand? What do they need in order to use it again and again? How can media and marketing help them with that, as opposed to focusing merely on a message?

I asked the founders a question at the end about their chosen location of their contract manufacturers, which is Austin itself. Why didn’t they choose China, for example? It came down to reliability, they responded. Some parts were sourced in places like China but doing business there can be a challenge (something that I heard at the Michael Dell session as well), and the founders had a level of comfort with their manufacturers in Austin. They admitted that the West wouldn’t be able to maintain the product advantage for much longer, taking pricing into consideration, but for now, it’s good.

My other favourite talk so far was by two people I have long admired through social media: Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab, and Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. They spoke about the changing patterns in the process of making today, thanks to technology. This can be seen through the work of MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Group, which moves beyond exploring vital signs to seeing how emotions and the subconscious manifest themselves, the Mediated Matter Group, which prompts humans to explore how matter and the environment can be twisted and tweaked to create radically different objects (note the work of Neri Oxman for example) and the Self Assembly Group, where the changing nature of different materials we have access to enable products to be created in different ways (such as the work of Skylar Tibbits with the truncated octahedron). Bioengineering was painted out as the future, but in the meantime a useful lesson I took away was to never stop reimagining what we can do with the materials at our disposal, and especially to fall back on that age-old mantra: continue to explore remixing and reusing.

I also got to see a few startups pitch their wares at SXSW as they look to make a mark in the world:

  • Brandicted, a visual e-commerce platform, greatly inspired by Instagram
  • Featuring.me, a music platform that democratizes creation of music by allowing fans to input into the technical and creative process of music making: lyrics, arrangement and so on
  • Geppetto Avatars, which is building natural language processing capabilities for online avatars think Siri but for customised for anyone
  • iGen Apps, an app that enables the creation of a mobile app for any website in minutes
  • IM5, inspiring people to take action in real life by committing online

I get to see a few startup pitches now and then back in London and it is always interesting to see how different they are from each other and some hallmarks of the best ones: confident presenters, a thorough understanding of the product, a great team, and a view on profitability and route to market.

Bring on Day 2!

To see live photos of SXSW view PHD’s Pinterest page.

Anjali Ramachandran is the Head of Innovation at PHD UK. Follow @anjali28

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