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Monday 5 November 2007
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Starting out: Creatives clued in to 'Generation C'


By Wendy Grossman
Last Updated: 12:19am BST 07/06/2007

It was a leap of faith. By mid-2006, Matt Webb and Jack Schulze had been meandering along, doing a few jobs together and talking about "crazy ideas".

 
Matt Webb and Jack Schulze of Schulze and Webb
Matt Webb [left] and Jack Schulze

Schulze had just finished a Master's degree in interaction design (studying the human-computer interface) at the Royal College of Art, Webb already had a physics degree - and they decided what they wanted their company to be when it grew up.

"We started turning down work," says Webb, describing the duo's slightly different approach to building a fledgling business. But Schulze and Webb had an unusual problem - when they spoke to potential customers they would get offers to design websites or graphic material. But that wasn't what they meant by "design". "Bits of plastic and microcontrollers," says Webb, "the future world of products." These were the things that excited them.

Friends advised two strategies. One: find a way to communicate to people what you do in language they can use with others (such as their bosses). Two: make things that encapsulate the kind of work you want to do and hope people discover them.

The second strategy bred the Availabot. This small robotic figure plugs into a computer via the USB port and works with a couple of instant messaging programs. It stands up when your designated buddy is online, and falls over when the person goes offline.

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If you're part of what Webb calls "Generation C", like a roomful of techies at a San Diego technology rally, it is instantly compelling as a vision, even if you may not want one yourself. Webb describes Generation C like this: "Comfortable with complexity, connected socially and electronically, creative, and controlling."

Future product design has to appeal to this group, who expect to be able to share everything with their electronic social network.

The first strategy made them grow up. "We had a very us-centric view of the world," Webb says. "We assumed everyone in the world knew what design was." The turning-down-work period lasted several months while their savings, the only funding they put into the business, shrank.

And then, suddenly: "We had two phone calls in the same week from people asking us to do work because they knew what we did. That was our first profitable quarter, and the pattern has carried on." Current projects include their own research and some work on radio frequency identity chips for a university in Oslo. Recently they did some consultancy for the BBC.

A few months ago, they had a meeting to evaluate the business.

"We wanted to make sure it was a choice. We decided the company was going well and was good, but there were some things missing." Primarily, they weren't spending enough time together: "We believe our work is better when we work in the same room."

www.schulzeandwebb.com


Do: Start with the smallest thing that'll work. The learning you get from 'doing' is huge, it gives you pace, and big plans are always bigger than they look from the outside.

Don't: Take work only for the money. You get what you do, so work than makes you unhappy is not progressive. And it's better to structure the business so you don't need the cash than take work that kills the opportunity of much better work.

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