Turning a great idea into a business

  • Conductive paint in action in a Bare Conductive workshop (all images by Bare)
  • Workshop results: circuits made with conductive paint on paper
  • The product: conductive paint

Matt Johnson is part of the four-person collective Bare Conductive, who invented, produce and sell conductive paint. The paint can be used to create electronic circuits with a brush or a pen. It has an incredible range of applications, from performance art to medicine, and is also safe and easy enough to be used as a way of teaching children about electronics. All four members of Bare Conductive graduated from the Royal College of Art’s IDE course in 2009, and have gone from strength to strength since. We talked to Matt about how it all started, and how they’ve developed their original product into an exciting new business.

How Bare Conductive began

We started the project in October 2008, from a group project in the IDE course. We were interested generally in technology and the body. After research and some early experimentation, we came to the idea of applying circuitry directly to the skin. The nature of the IDE course is that you have to have a working proof of concept for any project – that required us to produce a material which would allow us to put circuits on skin, and out of that we developed conductive paint.

At that at time we were saying it was safe on the skin but we hadn’t done all the work yet. We produced a proof of concept and that’s what we took to a few design festivals and fairs in 2009, and the publicity kind of exploded, with a lot of the emails from people saying, “I want to buy some!” In a way it was kind of cart-before-the-horse. Now we have something to sell, we spend a lot of time generating publicity, whereas then we didn’t have a product but we have a lot of publicity. 

Developing an innovative product

A lot has changed but the core of the project is still the same. There is one really significant difference which is that, as we developed the material, we realised that it had a lot of potential for off-body uses and because we had been developing it for the body it meant that it was safe, impermanent, easy to use, and all of these things meant it was really appropriate for use around children, new users, and people intimidated by existing ways to wear electronics. For new or inexperienced users there was a huge range of possibilities for their work because it provides this different way of interacting with electronics.

There are a limited range of medical applications, a wide range of performance applications, or body decoration applications. We have a huge amount of interest from people who want to put it on their skin and do something that looks cool, a lot of people who want to make it part of another work, part of a choreography so that the movement somehow informs other aspects of the show. Last week somebody presented a series of postcards printed with our paint at SXSW that have been really well received. They contain a musical sample and when you plug it into a machine it plays a song. It goes from industry to security applications to individual people enabling their own work, all the way to education, teaching kids about electronics.

It’s both an appropriation of an existing technology and a re-presentation of that technology into a new space. Conductive inks are not a new idea at all, they’ve been around since the early 20th century, but most of the things that exist on the market are not at all intended for use by the final consumer. They tend to be very expensive and not necessarily safe for casual users; they’re intended for high precision production applications like printing circuit boards. In one sense, the idea is not new, in another sense, its crucially new, because the biggest difference is that our product is easy to use, materially very safe, doesn’t require gloves or a mask, has a higher degree of flexibility… The newest thing is how we’ve pitched it and who we’ve pitched it to. If before the project started you had tried to present conductive inks to the kind of consumers we’re selling a lot to now, it would have been an intimidating and abstract concept, but now when we talk to them, we say something like, “You can paint a circuit, or you can draw a picture that becomes a circuit and draw another one and see how it works differently.” 

Growing the business

There are four of us who work here full time and it’s the same four that started the project. We’ve gotten a significant private investment and a few of our investors are on our board and we have a few business advisers who also sit on our board. We found them at the RCA show – they approached one of the four of us, talking about her project that she was presenting, and she eventually introduced them to this project, and they decided that it was a useful business proposition.

We formed the collective in 2009. We didn’t have any money, but we had a lot of attention. We nurtured it as much as we could while all doing various other things. Six moths ago we needed freelance work to pay the bills, but now if we do freelance work it’s less functional and more about bringing new ideas into the company. Looking to the future, there’s so much work that there won’t be any time for freelance work unless we’re really interested in making time for it.

You do have to give something up. I know that there are times when I feel that way about the work, but then I just have to remind myself that the business is a platform and an excuse to meet interesting people, which is what I found most satisfying about my freelance work. The more successful the business is, the more doors it opens.

Being part of a collective is a great way to increase your personal capital because you’re presenting yourself as part of something larger. I think that’s an important strategic way to look at it. Having a company that you believe in gives you the confidence to pursue conversations you wouldn’t normally pursue. That’s exactly how I feel about it: because the company is doing well, even though it’s really only four of us, it gives me the confidence to say, hey, people like this, we deserve to be heard.

Dealing with practicalities

For us, division of conceptual ownership has never been a problem, and issues of company structural ownership are also not a problem. The bigger problem comes with task assignment. A group within the RCA may be well diversified in terms of skills and interests, but it inherently is not diversified outside the RCA because the RCA is such a self-selecting condition. From a really practical perspective, assigning financial and accounting tasks is really difficult because none of us is an accountant, so it’s arbitrary who gets the task of dealing with that kind of stuff, and oftentimes they really pull the short straw. But now that we’ve grown a bit, we’ve got a bookkeeper so that helps to alleviate it, and it’s helpful to have learned about it from the beginning.

While I was at the RCA, I went to the FuelRCA talks on taxes in the mindset of a freelancer and it was incredibly useful, but actually it also gave me confidence that I could understand terminology around us as a business. It gives you the sense that, OK, I can understand this, and understanding that from the beginning was really useful.

Directly out of the FuelRCA talks, we realise now that from the beginning we were pretty organised. I think there are just a few simple lessons we took from that: keep your receipts, keep your files organised, basically be rigorous about thinking ahead and be careful not to understate your ambitions. I think that we certainly have almost been caught out by not being ambitious enough and then our success kind of overtakes us. If you’re going to start a studio, what if this month you get £20,000 worth of work and next month you get £40,000? You can always reject it but if you are prepared for it, it’ll be tough, but you can handle it. The things that fall apart are bookkeeping tasks, keeping up with contacts lists, keeping up with emails.

We now have someone to help us with VAT and PAYE. That’s been really useful and it’s something we should have invested in earlier. That’s been really hard-learned for us, this thought that in a start-up you should pay someone who is good at it and who can do it quickly, so that its as cheap as possible. It’s really easy to undervalue your time in a very practical business sense. We’re going to need to start compiling EC sales lists, and it’s really boring, and I’m sure that I could do it in a day. But it’s much more efficient for me to pay our accountant £50 to do it, and it’s going to take her a quarter of the time, whereas I working hard for a day will add more than £50 of value to the company through content for the site and making sales calls. 

Finding hidden assumptions

I tutor quite regularly, and really love it. It’s really easy to get clarity on what somebody else is doing, and then inevitably you reflect and find you’re not taking your own advice. Something I love talking about with students is trying to find hidden assumptions. It’s like an awesome detective game: you can find that something’s totally supported on one assumption.

Our assumptions about how skilled our initial users were going to be were really important, because they defined what kind of content we put on our website, they defined how much of our paint somebody would need, what kind of documentation they might need. One of our assumptions was that 50ml was about the right amount of paint, but now we realise it’s too much. We just surveyed our first 200 customers – almost half have responded, and they’ve overwhelmingly said the same thing, which is that they all liked the product, they all thought it was good value, they all wanted to buy more, but almost none of them have run out. The likelihood is that it will take them a long time to run out of the jar. A lot of this is about keeping content really fresh and getting people to do new things with it so we can constantly be posting on the site and encouraging other people, but having someone sitting on a jar which is expensive and potentially a special product, that’s not what I want.

The jar requires the paintbrush or another method to apply it. Our assumption was that that leaves it open to the user to figure out how best they want to use it, but we’ve had so much take-up from people who aren’t at all experienced – we never anticipated that or explicitly talked about it – and it’s clear that putting the paint in a pen, even though it’s somewhat limiting, makes it easier for people to imagine what’s possible.

Knowns and unknowns

Way back when were at the RCA we had a conversation about how cool it would be if you had conductive ink in a pen and you could draw a circle, but the reality of doing that was more difficult, and if we’d tried to achieve that at the beginning we wouldn’t have gotten to this point. What we said was, we’ll just create the material and however we deliver it, that’s how we’ll deliver it. Now we know how to buy packaging in bulk, how to order labels, all that stuff which is key to realising it.

If you’re an optimist you say that as we’ve moved through this project, there are more known knowns than unknown unknowns, but if you’re a pessimist you’d say that the bigger a company gets, the more unknown unknowns there are. We’ll think we’re ready to move forward and we’ll get a letter from our attorney or come upon something we didn’t even know existed like a regulation around some material we’re using. Or a lead-time on a product goes form a week to six months, and there’s no way you could have known that. It’s about getting past the point where you’re being surprised all the time by the unknown unknowns.

What keeps us going

We just felt from that start that there was something there really deeply and had to continue to rely on that feeling even though sometimes tutors didn’t get it or the public didn’t get it. It’s almost like we were swimming out into the ocean hoping there’s an island, and we just kept swimming until we got something, even if it was just a floating log. Every time a member of the public would say, “Hey, that’s a cool idea,” it reinforced it just a bit. We still rely on this now – it’s so great getting an email from someone saying, “Look what I did with this, I love this stuff!”

The highly technical stuff is really exciting. It feels good to see that an electronics engineer treats this as a legitimate product and can do amazing things with it, but equally satisfying is a kid who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged by technology gets really excited and is literally playing with the fundamentals of electrical engineering, and doesn’t know it, they just think it’s cool and want to do it more.