In a wireless world, it seems, all signs lead to a paperless future. Scratch that, says a London design studio.
Last fall, BERG released a video online that made a big splash. It introduced the Little Printer, which churns out a slim printout of material from a smartphone or computer via a wireless connection. Its creators are betting that people will integrate the gadget into their daily routine, printing out to-do lists or puzzles to pencil through or scribbled love notes that might be tucked in a wallet.
In fact, they imagine its versatility will be so great that they’ve engaged the public in a spirited conversation about the product’s development. Thousands of people responded to the video about the Little Printer. They asked questions, pitched ideas and made up stories about how it would be used. All this, even though the printer doesn’t yet exist.
CEO Matt Webb says BERG created the Little Printer to connect the paper world with the digital world. It’s also become an interesting case study of the modern path to market for products and the power of new, more personal forms of advertising, which Webb recently discussed. The transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity:
Where did you come up with the idea of the Little Printer?
So as a design studio, we play with lots of technologies, and one of the things we were playing with was thermal printers. Now another thing we care a lot about is the Web and making things social and live. When you mention something on Facebook, it’s different from sending a postcard because it becomes something which has comments, and your friends are involved. And so we thought, why not put these two things together?
But we’ve also done a bunch of work with magazines and newspapers and slowly we realized that what the great thing about little printer was the cloud, you know, the Internet. Connected to the Internet, it could do a bunch of work for you to edit down the information into what matters most — which is really important for a piece of paper because you want to make sure it doesn’t use too much. And that it’s really spot on.
So then we realized that what little printer was doing wasn’t just printing out the Internet, it was printing you a miniaturized, personal newspaper. And once we realized that, then it became a catalyst — making really great tiny publications from loads of different sources that you could put together in whichever way you wanted.
How did you and your colleagues get involved with product development?
We regard a design studio as a group of people with loads of different skills who can scratch a lot of different interests and work on many different projects, all at once. And actually, that’s the benefit — I don’t think we would have had the idea for Little Printer if we weren’t also working with clients like Intel and Google and the BBC.
What companies are you working with?
So we’re initially working with a great group of launch partners, Google, the Guardian, FourSquare, Nike and ARUP. ARUP is an architecture and engineering company — they’re really interested in what happens when the technology behind the little printer starts going into buildings. When we announced Little Printer in the closing months of 2011, the response was tremendous. I think we had a million and a half views on the announcement film so far, which is astounding for a tiny company. So what we decided to do is when we come out, we’re going to make it very easy for all kinds of publishers and service providers to create publications for the Little Printer.
What are you looking forward to reading most from the printouts?
One of the things we’ll get working with Google is this idea of a daily agenda, which will just print out my appointments for the day and my to-do list. Now that’s the kind of thing that I look at my phone maybe 10 or 12 times a day, and I’m always forgetting things. So the idea that I can print it out and carry it with me — maybe there’s a map next to appointments outside the office — that’s the kind of thing which is really useful for me.
How do you decide what types of content or services you want on the printer?
To begin with, we weren’t sure what Little Printer would be really good for. So we’ve been trying a lot of things internally. What works really well are things that you’d normally look for on your phone a lot of times during the day, like a to-do list. Also, things that you want it to remind you, in quite a serious way. So imagine you had a running coach that told you how far you had to run today, I know it feels like a little thing, but when that’s on paper, and it’s telling you to do it, it’s hard to ignore. And illustrations. The illustrations look really beautiful –like a cross between kind of pen and ink drawings and computer ops.
Take me through your philosophy of advertising the product — why choose social media and the Internet?
Well, we’re a very small company, so social media is what we can do, for one thing. Little Printer is also being sold to people who are already well-connected to the Internet, so they’re our audience.
A really peculiar thing happened when the Web came along — if you remember, when blogs started, there was this big battle between people saying, “Blogs are gonna kill newspapers,” and newspapers were saying, “Blogs are terrible because they have no editors.” And there was a similar thing with MySpace, and people were scared the music industry could be destroyed. The truth is that none of those things happened. Now we’re finding new models, which are really the best of both.
I think something similar is happening to products. I look at the things I see on Kickstarter, and people are making films, video games, physical things. I look at things like Etsy, whether people crafting or making all kinds of beautiful objects . . . and I wonder whether the new age of products is going to see very, very many small companies getting into products and reaching people in new ways, the same way happened with the Web all those years ago.
So do you think then that the Internet is helping lift up these smaller companies in a way that couldn’t have been done before?
Yes, but let me caveat a little. My caveat is in the word “advertising,” really, because it doesn’t feel quite so much like advertising when it’s on the Web. It feels more like a conversation. And when we announced Little Printer, we had so many e-mails. We drowned in them, and we got loads of great feedback from all over the web. We replied to them and we had conversations with lots of people. We met lots of them, and all of those experiences are helping shape what the product is. So part of operating, not entirely openly, but in a more engaged way, is influencing what the product is in a way that a large product company really just wouldn’t be able to do. It’s more that smaller companies are able to use the Web to take advantage of their size, rather than their size being a hindrance.
So might this style of advertising help make a better product, or might it be able to increase sales in a way that the other styles off the internet couldn’t do?
I think what we will see is new kinds of products. When you’re trying to make and sell a million of something, you have to make a product which appeals to a million people. And maybe it has to be a little more generic because of that. The nice thing about a smaller scale company is you could make products for smaller numbers of people. And maybe those products could be more delightful and specific and quirky because of that.
So when will we see this Little Printer?
We’re working our way happily and steadily through the process of production. As a small company, it does take us a little longer than large companies, because there are so many different moving parts in three or four countries, which all have to come together. And we want to make it so when it’s in people’s hands, it is as good as it can possibly be.