After seeing Matt Johnson, CEO and Co-founder of Bare Conductive, speak at MakerCon in New York this fall we knew we had to interview him for a maker spotlight. Matt runs the East Hackney-based company that, in the last few years, has gone from class project to thriving hardware startup. Matt tells us more about how the company has been able to scale, the rewards and challenges of Kickstarter success, and some hints as to where the company is headed in 2016.
Bare Conductive initially started out as a class project – can you tell us a bit more about the founding story and how you turned that project into a thriving company?
We definitely have an interesting story. It’s true that we started as a Masters project at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. We were interested in wearables and technology that existed close to the body. In 2009 wearables were gaining some significant traction but we found that the sensual appeal of the garments was often overshadowed by the bulkiness of the infrastructure. ie. you’d have a beautiful and compelling garment with a bunch of wires and connectors hidden around the back. We wondered if we could add value by focusing on the infrastructure of the garment rather than the garment itself. We came to the idea of a conductive paint which could be applied to many different substrates without special tools or processes. The paint presented during our project was the prototype of the Electric Paint that we sell today. Our project gained some traction and we received thousands of emails asking about the project we realised that we might have a business on our hands. After winning a government grant and receiving a small amount of seed funding we were able to launch a 50ml jar of Electric Paint in late 2011.
You began with Conductive Paint, what do you think were some of the initial elements that led to its success. (How did you get the word out? Who were your early adopters?)
We were (and are) a product of our time. When I look back at 2011 I realise how lucky we were to have a thriving community of makers that was willing to take a new material and begin experimenting with it (with very little support). More importantly though, this community was willing to share those experiments online. Because we had access to their ideas and feedback we were able to create more tutorials, refine our communication and create more products that spoke directly to what our community was asking for. We see this cycle as an essential part of our R&D. Our open and accessible nature has meant that our community is broad and diverse. We try to present our products in such a way that everyone can find their own unique value in what we do. One person can see our Electric Paint as a technical material and someone else can see it as a creative material. Neither are wrong. By allowing everyone take hold of what we do and use it in their work we nurture a range of different types of intelligence and ensure that our community will continue to grow.
Last year you Kickstarted the Touch Board, why was that an important product line expansion for you?
We kickstarted our Touch Board in late 2013 and sent boards out to backers in 2014. It was a fun, exciting, challenging and satisfying process. Our campaign publicly signalled a major shift in our focus as a company. We were moving away from being just a material manufacturer to being a hardware manufacturer as well. But stepping back even further, what we we really doing is providing the tools that makers needed to prototype interfaces with our Electric Paint. Something that they had been doing already, but we saw an opportunity to facilitate this. The Touch Board project began as a response to our most popular tutorial- making capacitive sensors with Electric Paint and an Arduino. Our community loved this tutorial and it was viewed 10x more than any others. The only problem was that using a standard Arduino didn’t necessarily result in a reliable sensor. We realised that we could help makers turn Electric Paint into a capacitive sensor with an Arduino-based product that was specifically designed to deliver robust capacitive touch and proximity sensing. This idea became the Touch Board.
You received an overwhelming response with the Touch Board Kickstarter – were there any challenges around managing that success and being able to deliver your final products?
The response was fantastic. We were worried that shifting from making paint to making PCBs might be hard for our community to understand, but they clearly embraced the change. There were certainly challenges during the campaign and after. As with many creators, we thought we were much further along the production process than we actually were and scaling production from 100 to 3000 is never straightforward. We faced an unanticipated shortage of stock on some of our chips, a redesign of the board to accommodate testing standards and a long process to get manufactures on board. Despite the challenges, it was incredibly satisfying and fulfilling to have 1895 people join us on the journey and we appreciate every one of them for being there with us.
You have a very active community of customers and fans – what are some of your favourite things that your community has created using Bare Conductive products?
We do have a very active community. We wouldn’t be anywhere without them. We create tools and our community gives them meaning. It is hard to pick my favourites as there is an endless list of amazing projects. Instead of picking favourites- that would feel unfair- I’ll pick some that show the wide breadth of work that our tools support. More than anything, what is interesting to me is seeing how diverse our community is and I hope that these projects demonstrate that. First would have to be the Noisy Farmyard project by the Feser family. She’s using a Touch Board and Electric Paint to tell a story by creating a unique interface using very sophisticated tools with very little prior knowledge. Next would have to be an interactive window display by Knit for Huit Demin. I love this because it shows how a bit of Electric Paint can transform a shop window into a portal for more information. This project is both practical and magical- a great combination. Next I have to mention the Polyphonic Playground. An installation by Studio PSK which shows how our technology can transform an entire space into an interactive environment. The Polyphonic Playground is also worth mentioning because it uses the dark colour of Electric Paint to a great effect. Finally I’d cite Thomas Evans, an artist who’s taken our Electric Paint and Touch Boards and transformed his fine art practice, producing interactive work that doesn’t look digital.
What’s next for Bare Conductive? Are there new projects/products you are particularly excited about?
There is always a ton going on here…a lot of which I can’t talk about! What I can talk about though is that this next year will see us focus on showing how our tools can be useful in specific places and for communities that we haven’t reached yet. Probably the best example of that is musicians. Our Touch Board works great as a hackable MIDI controller, but only a tiny portion of our community has used this feature. It’s up to us to reach out to mad scientist musicians and put the power of our work into their hands. Bringing them into our community isn’t just about helping them, it is about helping everyone else too. We believe that the more diverse our users become the more everyone benefits from the magic they create.
What advice do you have for other makers who are looking to turn their projects into companies?
Do it! Turning a project into a product is a fun adventure with lots of new challenges. If I had to give any single piece of advice it would be to move quickly and always ask yourself, what is the quickest way to get an answer to my question. See your business as iterative prototyping. Don’t set anything in stone.
We try to add in a section on the “business of making” to showcase how projects get off the ground. The three questions we ask as part of this are:
How are your projects typically funded?
Bare Conductive has been funded through a mixture of private (“Angel”) investment and government grants. We have not been through an incubator program or officially part of any investment network.
What materials/tools do you use in order to manufacture and prototype your product?
That’s a big question! We are a chemical manufacturer as well as a hardware manufacturer so we work with at least 250 individual parts – some of which are raw materials (like the water that goes into our Electric Paint) and some of which are off the shelf components (like the 9V batteries that go into our Glowing House Sets).
Have you partnered with any organizations in your city (Makerspaces, small-batch manufacturers, schools) that have helped you in your process?) Please name them specifically.
It sounds strange to say, but in 2009 when our business was just gaining traction there was very little infrastructure for startups in London. Luckily there is now a quickly growing support network that we’re proud to be a part of. This includes meetups like Hardware Club, support networks like Tech London Advocates and government entities like NESTA.
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