Looking back on 2017

Last year was a huge second year in the life of our small company. I remember meeting my friend Tom for a drink one day, and as I told him about everything, he noted that I’d begun calling us a startup. It’s been a busy, interesting and largely really productive year, and I thought you might like to see all the stuff we’ve done.

Our 2017 goals

I’m a big fan of the dictum “aim low, succeed often.” If you’re able to construct goals that you know you can reach, you might just be more satisfied. We set three goals for the year, and we’ve practically reached all of them. Along three themes: user research, sales, and product design.

  1. Develop educational strategy
    As we’ve talked with more teachers, it’s become much clearer that we need to continue developing and refining our educational strategy. We’re big fans of the idea of 21st Century Skills and Object-Based Learning, and broadly feel like those two themes are a great fit with what we’re hoping to achieve. We’re doing a great pilot deployment with the Education team at Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) in 2018, and that’ll be our first major unattended deployment, in about 10 schools across the USA. We’re looking forward to collaborating with the teachers and students around our general materials, as well as the fabulous SIL content. We also have a list of teachers who’ve expressed interest in joining in the fun. The challenge there is creating enough Brains and Collections to be able to send around!
  2. Sell something
    We’re calling 2017 a big success, largely due to the fact that we’ve completed box commissions with lots of great partners. There’s more information below on these, and how they’ve worked out. We hope to grow our commissions program into 2018 and beyond, not only for income for the company, but to build content that consumers might like to make use of down the track. I also feel personally that, as a small startup, having actual customers differentiates us somewhat from the inflated types of tech startups you might find sniffing around for investment. Even though we’re not exactly profitable yet, having customers is a big win!
  3. Declare Box V1.0
    We’re so close to this, largely thanks to Charlie’s superb CAD skills. We call the container box that sits around the Raspberry Pi and other peripherals (NFC reader, speaker etc) the Skull. We’re nearly at V1.0, which is brilliant. Keep your eyes peeled for a blog post about all that soon.

Things that didn’t quite work or have been difficult

I’ve been struck this year by two major challenges:

  1. We are able to move at light speed compared with the traditional cultural institutions out there. The “sales cycle” )or ability to move quickly on a small purchasing decision) is sometimes months long for museums and libraries, and that’s hurt us a bit, since we’re bootstrapping our operations at this stage.  But, we’re no different from most small businesses in that regard, as cash flow is always a challenge.
  2. It’s often a David vs Goliath dynamic. This mostly relates to work like making agreements with large, old institutions. It takes a lot of energy for a little shop like ours to process and respond to standard terms and conditions from huge organisations. Even though we’ve also been developing our own documents and agreements as templates, it’s very rare that we can engage without also signing a giant contract that’s not especially written for a startup at our stage. And then if we have adaptations or amendments we’d like to incorporate, that takes a long time, too.  I am fantasising about perhaps doing a small conference called David vs Goliath, to discuss and raise consciousness around these challenges, and perhaps even to develop some strategies around mitigation. (Let me know if that sounds interesting!)

There were a few other specific things that were tricky last year too…

  • Science Museum tender – how to measure reach? We were thrilled to be asked to submit a tender around building “Science Capital”, but were essentially overlooked because the (current) cost of sending boxes and objects into schools is very small if compared to the potential of “digital reach”. Our contention, though, is that the quality of the interaction generated by tactile, social interaction is really different from a hit on a website. There’s lots to think through about measuring stickiness and success and engagement with Museum in a Box.
  • Innovate UK – We put our hat in the ring for the 3rd Open Round of funding from Innovate UK. It took ages to put the proposal together, and apparently, we scored a “70” (out of 100?). It was a bit disheartening to see the feedback from the assessors, since it was split 50/50 between “this is a brilliant idea, we should fund it” and “I don’t know how this benefits the taxpayer”. But, the silver lining was that the act of creating the proposal helped us refine our thinking around business models, and how we describe ourselves, which has been useful.
  • Fast hardware iteration – it’s hard not having Adrian in the office with us, but in Liverpool (which I’m sure he’ll never leave!). Even though we’ve made some strides in the design and layout of the Brain, each time there’s an update or a treat from Liverpool, it makes me wonder how much further we could have come, and faster, if we could afford to have this work happen much more. It’s all related to general company cash flow and where to place effort, and again, our commissions are what’s helping us drive all sorts of work forward, so we look forward to more of those into 2018!
  • Software development – Similarly, it’s fast approaching the time when we need a better public-facing UI to help people buy their own boxes, configure them, and even make their own. Finding resource to fund freelance software folks is hard! (And I’ve personally found this part difficult, since my background is in software, and a) I am most useful when I can pair directly with an engineer, and b) I know fairly well how much work there is to do on all this.)

Fleshing out the business plan

As I mentioned, we have a pretty good strategy around how to build out other products, and the three main products we’re thinking about (or selling now) are: Commissions, Make Your Own, and Direct-to-Consumer collections. As we continue to build our commissions portfolio, we also want to package and sell what you’d need to make your own box (object selection, content research/production, and tech stuff). There’s huge demand for Make Your Own from teachers, and we feel like it might tickle the holy grail of actual cross-curricular learning if we can get it right. Then, we’re hoping to allow anyone to buy a Brain and some Collections, and we’d like to design and develop some of those Collections ourselves, to be best-of-breed examples for everyone, and also a possible container for new collaborations with writers, artists and other “agents” all over the place.

There are so many ideas that easily attach themselves to this Museum in a Box idea it can be a challenge to focus on the right next steps! That’s another reason why the commissions are useful to us, because as well as developing the features of the product, we’re also able to do market/user research with our commissioning partners, to learn what they need and want in a partnership like ours.

We’d love to do a first release of Make Your Own mid-2018. That’s a goal and a half for this year!

Boxes

We now have a list of 26 boxes in total in our archive. Some are simple prototypes, like our Statues of Women in London, and others are full-blown commissions. This year, we’ve created 10 new box sets.

  1. Jewish Museum London – a custom-designed box to house 3D prints and postcards remembering Jewish service people in the wars
  2. Healing Through Archives – a brilliant box with archivist, Abira Hussein, exploring “mother tongue” perspectives on Somali objects and audio held at the British Museum and British Library
  3. London Borough of Camden – AHRC-funded program to increase awareness of Camden’s art collection, included several workshops with kids, and culminated in an exhibition which drew together original works, 3D prints with artists’ impressions, and recordings about works made by kids in workshops
  4. Phonics – a prototype idea, to help young people learning to read to understand and sound phonics
  5. How the Ear Works – a quick box Charlie prepared for our pitch to the Science Museum using vintage illustration and audio, and a jigsaw element to help you see all the bits of the human ear
  6. Greek Gods & Goddesses – we’re developing a new product line, where we would like to sell boxes direct to the public, containing engaging narrative and fun 3D/2D materials from institutions around the world already making their collections available for open reuse
  7. Haunted Objects – our visiting summer intern, Michelle, helped put together a first prototype of what a box of scary objects might be. We learned a ton about  bad narratives and what we’d need to do to make this really fun
  8. Climate Change in a Box – a new commission with Jon Christensen, adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, and centred on the Los Angeles area, in particular the tar pits at La Brea
  9. Smithsonian!!!!! – Oh, wow! After nearly 18 months in development, we’re just beginning to start on two separate grants with Smithsonian Institution Libraries in Washington DC. We’ll be making 10 boxes to distribute to 10 schools across the USA, and then delivering two different sets of objects to each class, over the course of 4-6 weeks. We’re so excited to connect with the teachers and students who will be using the box, and also curious about building this first step into a much wider deployment!

It’s been really interesting and revealing to see how our commissions (and prototypes) can fit comfortably in the construct that is Museum in a Box. It sounds cheesy to say, but you really can fill this idea with anything that works for you, and we look forward to sealing the deal on our current set of leads for more commissions into 2018, so stay tuned on that!

Brain-raising
photo of skull pieces laid out for constructionWhile we’re still working on getting good names for all the bits, we’ve been calling the hardware that you place objects on the Brain. Therefore, we call the casing of the brain the Skull. We had a ton of fun earlier in the year putting together six new brains, with their skulls, to be deployed for our various commissions, and our use for demonstrations and events and such. We’re looking forward to our next Brain-raising session in January 2018, so if you happen to be in London and interested to come and help out for a day, please get in touch.

Collaborators

Gill Wildman has been a fantastic supporter and design guide for our work this year.  Her incredible experience in listening and questioning and designing for years has been such a useful resource. Thanks Gill.
Ben McGuire has helped us with all our legal challenges this year, and co-developed our agreement docs and thinking around resource re-use and potential for royalties and such with our commissioning partners. Thank you, Ben!
MOO HQ has been a generous sponsor of our endeavours, helping us with printing resources, and expertise around packaging. Thanks to Chad, Phil T, and Richard for everything.
Pango Studios is a company full of talented artists who we’ve sub-contracted to make some of our commissions really sing. Their skills with spray paint and brushes really makes 3D prints look amazing, and we’re looking forward to more! Thanks, Pango! Onwards.
We were pretty clear from the start that we didn’t particularly want to get into the 3D printing business, so were really happy to meet Stever from Amfori, who has helped us with printing this year. He’s also up for doing experiments around materiality, which we’re keen to start on soon.
We’ve also had a ton of student/post-grad visits: Kate Chan, Michelle Wong, Rosie Parker, Lozana Rossenova, Angeliki Symeonidi, Angela Difede. Thanks especially to Michelle for helping design the first instantiation of a Haunted Objects box!
Also thanks to Michelle, for connecting us to Winns Primary in Walthamstow. We really enjoyed our play testing there, and were happy to leave two boxes there for a week to see what the kids did (and what the teachers thought).

Thanks too, to Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, for her continued support of the company, both with offering us speaking gigs ar the brilliant @IoTLondon meetup, and offering us a table at her Christmas pop-up. People really liked Museum in a Box! If only we could sell them one!

Looking forward to some collaborations around inclusion and accessibility in 2018, particularly with Nicolas Bonne and the Tactile Universe program @ Portsmouth University, and Stacy Rowe, geometry and accessible design @ RNIB.

Birds of a feather

It’s both exciting and a bit nervous-making that we’ve spotted other folk doing similar work in the same space, or nearby. Overall, we think this indicates some trending movement back towards tactility and object-based interactions and learning, and gathering different points of view, all of which are central to what we’re doing. It also feels like the race is on!
Work we’ve seen that looks great includes:

Press

photo of the Raspberry Pi magazine on our work table surrounded by boxes and objects and other office detritus

It was a thrill to be picked up and interviewed by some of our friends in the press this year! Even in print, if you don’t mind!

Looking forward…

So, to sum up, our 2018 is looking pretty good already. We’re about to move from Bloomsbury to a new (and more cost-effective!) office in Hoxton. We’re looking forward to more lunch options, and seeing if there are simpatico companies nearby who might like to collaborate on some of the hardware stuff, laser cutting, or even software development!

We’re watching the Young Foundation Academy program with interest. It’s one of the few “accelerators” that has a focus on social good, and importantly, measuring the effectiveness of companies in that sector.
We’re really excited about a possible collaboration with Stacy at the  Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). We’re talking about prototyping a box around geometry, and it just so happens while Stacy is the liaison between RNIB and external companies, she’s also a mathematician with mad skills and a ton of personality!
If we could do a first release of Make Your Own product sometime in the summer that would be Super Fantastic!
And, there are almost too many leads for commissions… this is obviously a good problem to have.