Every Thing is a fucking art project

This is probably blatantly obvious, but the Internet of Things is not really about the Things. Startups are not really about whatever product or service they are making. They are about the money, and changing the behaviour of people in order to extract money from them.

That money could come from directly selling the things, or subscription services and consumables (eg content, razor blades) atop of the things. And there’s the data — by using the behaviour derived from people via the things one feeds it back into the loop of the product’s utility and offers services to third parties.

Here’s a consumer-facing example that does all three: Let’s imagine I’ve made, launched and marketed a smart little bicycle widget. The thing has GPS, an accelerometer, cellular data and somehow has a infinite battery life and is embedded into your frame in an un-nickable kind of way. It tracks the location of your bike either when you’re using it or in the event of theft. It also measures road surface quality. It’s basically Strava, only with a thing.

There’s the price for the thing itself. There’s the subscription for the service, covering the costs of the cellular connection and the server infrastructure as well as the software and apps to run it all. The direct utility comes in the form of theft prevention, and of quantified-self-bragging about one’s standing in the competitive commute.

Then we sell the aggregated intelligence to local authorities to help them understand and improve their road cycling infrastructure. Then we flog specific intelligence to a digital out-of-home ad company to power targeted ads on their billboards on busy routes.

With stuff like this, it only works if it’s big enough. You need scale in the form of large numbers of punters to make it viable, by which I mean reaching the tipping point where the revenues exceed the costs. You therefore need to make it desirable, priced correctly, marketed effectively. And you probably need a big wad of cash (i.e. time and people) to do all that.

My recent experiences have taught me that if you don’t have the cash you are basically fucked. If you don’t know how it’s going to make money, you are fucked. If you don’t know where that tipping point is, you are fucked.

And, if you can’t articulate those last two things clearly, no investor in their right mind is going to give you a bean. It may as well be a fucking art project.

Is there an alternative?

I do like a good art project.

There are pretty much two schools — the startup school where things are productised money-making machines as above, and the DIY school where everyone’s a hacker. Not everyone is a hacker.

I reckon that there is something in-between. An approach whereby the tech is punter-friendly, morally sound, and doesn’t need to be heavily invested in to operate at scale before reaching that tipping point.

That would not only be art, it would be voodoo.