A story I wrote for the March 2014 issue of WIRED UK.
Early in 1999, when Robin Terrell was managing director of Amazon UK, the company postbag would regularly contain a particular form of correspondence. Customers would send handwritten letters to the newly launched online retailer’s headquarters on an industrial estate in Slough, drawing attention to something extraordinary: they had dialled up the Amazon website, searched its catalogue for a product, paid for it using a credit card, waited a few days and then a deliveryman had arrived at their door with a box, inside which was the book they had ordered. The transaction was enough to prompt not just correspondence, but wonder: it wasn’t the product that excited the consumer, it was the fact that the process had worked.
“These days you’re more likely to get a call from a customer because they’ve got a different type of asparagus,” says Terrell, who now runs Tesco’s multichannel activities after spearheading digital at John Lewis and House of Fraser. “The internet has changed people’s expectations completely.”
Published in October 2013, this piece was a roundup of the ten startups in Berlin causing the greatest buzz, according to the local commentators, investors and entrepreneurs I surveyed.
Berlin has been the most talked-about (and talked-up) startup hub in Europe for several years. However, a backlash of sorts has emerged over the past year, with some asking when Berlin will produce an exit of global significance. Of course, there have been successful exits: Jamba in 2004 ($273 million/£180 million), Brands4Friends (€150 million/£129 million) and Citydeal (€130/£109 million) in 2010, and DailyDeal in 2011 (around €130 million/£109 million) are evidence that Berlin can deliver. “People expected it just to happen, but it takes three to five years,” says Sven Schmidt, a venture partner at Accel.
Jörg Rheinboldt, an early-stage investor and long-time observer of Berlin startups (he sold his ecommerce site Alando to eBay in 1999 for £28 million), has been advising the German government on tech. Recently, he’s noticed a growth in accelerators and incubators, such as Axel Springer’s Plug & Play, Berlin Startup Academy, The Factory and initiatives from companies such as Mozilla, Microsoft and Google, as well as an increasing number of events and conferences. And there’s easier access to capital — Berlin attracted €173 million (£145 million) in VC funding last year.
But some of the companies that have been seen as exemplars of the city’s standing in the tech scene, such as SoundCloud, have yet to make money. Rheinboldt sees a coming together of maker events and hardware: “It’s super early but I have the impression that there will be more startups that are hardware oriented.”
A story I wrote for the August 2013 edition of WIRED UK.
Suneet Tuli of Datawind in a Punjabi field, with the UbiSlate in a solar-charging case: Martin Prihoda
The town of Kallah in the district of Tarn Taran is 45 minutes from Amritsar through the flat, verdant countryside of the Punjab. Turn off the main road, pass a few farms and homesteads and, set among ploughed fields, there is a pair of two-storey breeze-block buildings that make up the Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj (APKF) public school. The institution, which was constructed three years ago, has 25 teachers and caters for children from kindergarten to year nine. Funding comes from local benefactors: according to head teacher Ravinder Kaur, the parents of most of the school’s 600 pupils are uneducated day labourers.
On a misty January morning, two rows of 12 pupils sit in pairs in a classroom on the ground floor. These children — most of whom are 15 and wear either green jumpers and grey trousers, or the school’s winter uniform of a blue tracksuit — sit patiently at wooden desks. According to Sikh custom, the girls wear headscarves and the boys turbans or a topknot.
The room contains the familiar elements of a classroom: a blackboard, posters of great inventors and a chart rewarding pupil performance with stars. But, placed between each pair of students, is something unusual in a resource-deprived, rural school in the developing world: a seven-inch capacitive touch-tablet computer.
Very few of the pupils have access to computers at home, yet the devices that the children share — known as the Aakash, from the Hindi for “sky” — are loaded with educational software, including the national curriculum. “We’re studying physics,” explains Prabhjeet Kaur, 15, running her finger down the screen of her device, “the chapter on gravity”. With a single tap, she brings to life a module on linear motion.
Part of the day’s activity is to welcome Suneet Tuli, a tall, elegant Canadian entrepreneur dressed in a dark-grey suit. His company, Datawind, manufactures the tablet devices that the children are using. During the visit, Tuli, who has four children of his own, chats with school staff, recites choruses from traditional Punjabi songs with a group of younger children, and films the event on his Samsung smartphone.
Tuli, 45, often simultaneously clutches two mobile devices. He carries several in a pocket in his carry-on luggage: “This is for Canada, this is for the US, this is for the UK, this is for India…” he explains later in the day, pulling phones from his bag while being ferried back to the city. Multiple mobiles are a necessary part of his armoury — he spends much of his time travelling the world encouraging governments, state-level entities and NGOs to embark on pilot programmes for the Aakash. The list of countries that are investigating the effectiveness of learning with the device includes Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragura, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. In November 2012, Tuli presented the device to UN secretary general Ban-ki Moon in New York. The year before he spoke at the World Bank in Washington DC. Tuli spends two weeks a month away from his family, who live in Toronto; consequently, he is a master of negotiating cancelled flights and chaotic airports, largely conducting himself with serenity, although it’s clear that there’s steel beneath his composure.
Tuli’s vigour has been an asset to a project that has been mired in controversy almost since its inception. What he witnessed in the classroom in Kallah was just a tiny part of what the Indian government and its partners hope to achieve with the Aakash: to raise one billion people from poverty by means of a low-cost tablet device. The existence of the Aakash runs counter to many of the principles that have guided the world’s most successful technology companies and, indeed, the most basic tenet of capitalism — that of supply and demand meeting the needs of the market.
Impoverished people tend not to invest heavily in consumer goods; the per-capita income of the average Indian in 2011 was £819. For that reason, the Aakash is an anomaly: a piece of technology that is funded not by angel investors, venture capitalists or corporate backers, but by the public purse. In 2009, the Indian government announced a five-year plan that it hoped would accelerate its citizens’ education. Its intention was to build a framework that, eventually, will place hundreds of millions of tablet devices in the hands of some of the world’s poorest people.
The need is immense — in 2010 the World Bank estimated that 68.7 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people lived on less than US$2 (£1.30) per day. By the end of April 2013, Datawind had manufactured 98,000 devices at $41.61 (£26.80) and 2,000 of a future version — the proposed Aakash 3 — at $49.98 (£32.60), a price that succeeds in undercutting those of even Tuli’s most aggressive Chinese competitors. He intends to bid for part of the next government tender — 5.4 million, to be delivered over a period of six to nine months.
“I call it the forgotten billion,” Tuli says of the challenge. “Once you get past the upper and middle classes, you’ve got a billion people who are not part of the media, they’re not part of the political class, they are literally out of the system.”
Whether Datawind — or any of the other suppliers competing for the tender — can produce and deliver the number of devices required quickly enough and at sufficient quality to provide the breakthrough envisioned by Tuli, the Indian government, its educators and universities could determine the technological future and, potentially, the prosperity of one person in seven on Earth.
We were thrilled to win Consumer Media Brand of the Year at the Periodical Publications Association awards a couple of weeks ago. The gong is recognition of the diverse number of ways in which WIRED UK touches consumers lives. Below, a few thoughts on how magazines can transition to new models – both in terms of content and commercially – in an interview I did with What’s Next magazine, which is currently on sale.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s manager at WIRED 2012. With twenty years spent in the industry – he started out in the early nineties working with DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith – Carter has seen several waves of disruption. Here, he discusses how he turned Gaga into the person with the biggest social media footprint in the world, how data can be used in the entertainment industry, and his platform, the Backplane, which allows his artists a direct relationship with their audience.
A nice piece by Christine Overby (@coverby) from Forrester research who interviewed me ahead of a talk I’m doing in May:
There’s a growing group people who are always online and use their devices to support nearly every activity, including making decisions about your products and services. We call them your perpetually-connected customers. They will shake you marketing to the core, because they value service and utilility — not ads buzzing in their pockets. To thrive, you need new tactics and a culture of innovation. In the run-up to our Forrester Forum for Marketing Leaders EMEA, I’ve been speaking about marketing innovation with one of our keynotes Greg Williams, Executive Editor at WIRED. As an editor, speaker, and writer, Greg scouts the best glimpses of the future that exist in the here-and-now. Here are some of his thoughts.
Q: What’s your favourite example of an application that merges the digital and physical?
A: It’s a really hard thing to get right. A successful example is Tesco’s South Korean operation, which is called Home Plus. As part of its drive to become the number one supermarket chain in the country it did some research, which revealed that – as people in South Korea work some of the longest hours in the world – they found supermarket shopping an enormous chore. Home Plus reacted to this by posting detailed photographic images of its stores (everything from meat counters to shelves of cleaning supplies) on the walls of subway stations. This enabled time-poor commuters to use their mobile devices to scan QR codes and have their goods delivered to their homes within hours. Home Plus online sales went up by 130 per cent in three months helping it to close the gap on the market leader, E-Mart.
Q: Are there low-risk ways for brands to open up innovation?
A: I think that it’s a mind-set more than anything else. I did a talk for a large energy company a few months ago that was trying to improve its knowledge flows. They’d got people together from all over the world who work across various parts of the business that basically operate in silos. Instituting large-scale change was high-risk for them in terms of cost and they didn’t know where to start. In instances like this I think that the only way to initiate change is to try and forget that you work in a large institution and act like an entrepreneur and energise your team or those around you and, essentially, attack the way that you work. You have to hack your own business, your own working methods and the only way to do this is to have a culture of openness.
Q: What’s the most common mistake that brands make when story telling?
A: People talk a lot about uniqueness and setting your brand apart, which are important, but I feel that, in many ways, content marketing is no different from writing a novel or a movie – it’s about creating a narrative with emotional resonance. To steal from John Lasseter, the chief Creative Officer at Pixar, there are three words that really count: make, me, care.
My great-great grandfather was born in a workhouse in Smithfield. My great grandfather ran a café on the corner of Market Road and Caledonian Road in Islington, cooking breakfasts for the herdsmen and abattoir workers who laboured in the Metropolitan Cattle Market. I have nothing of theirs. No possessions; no photographs.
Yet, I have a fleeting sense of what their lives might have been like from the stories that were passed on by other family members: my great aunt describing the Zeppelin over Finsbury Park during the first world war; my grandmother’s close shave with a Messerschmitt thirty years later; my grandfather, a fireman during the blitz, telling me about taking to the sewers around St Paul’s cathedral one night in December 1942, when he and his crew had to escape the inferno that surrounded them.