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Pioneering Design Consultancy Berg To Shut Down

A conversation with Berg CEO Matt Webb a few months ago offers some clues as to why.

Berg, the British design consultancy behind some of the most creative experiments in the Internet of Things, is closing up shop.

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You may know Berg’s work without knowing the firm’s name–for its charming Little Printer. Or you may know it for its amusing Twitter birdhouses. Or you may know it for its future-forward, physical Google desktop. Berg had an incredible proficiency at tackling one of the biggest challenges in design today: Connecting the blocks of the physical world with the bits of the digital world without forgetting how to design for human beings along the way.

Yesterday, Berg CEO Matt Webb announced the studio’s closure on the company’s blog: “Folks, I’ve got some news about Berg to share. We’re wrapping up for this incarnation. Our partnerships and our services, they’re done. A few things left, then hibernation…We’ve not reached a sustainable business in connected products.”

When Webb and I exchanged emails yesterday, he didn’t want to share much about what happened and why. But a few months earlier, we had spoken at length on creative consultancies and the market for the Internet of Things, offering some hints at Berg’s precariousness in the design ecosystem.

Design consultancies can be a tough business. Much of Berg’s work since opening in 2005 was confidential because companies like their own names on their projects. Years of work for one of their biggest clients–Intel–was never realized or publicized (likely the case for its other mega client, Google). When we spoke a few months back for a story on Berg’s burgeoning cloud business, Webb lamented the one-way street of Berg’s inventions–that what they created was so rarely aired to the public. As design consultancy, you need to be able to advertise your creations to get more consulting jobs and keep your staff paid. “Revenue is 2.6 times payroll. That’s what a consultancy is,” Webb said then. “If you go on holiday for two weeks, you stop making money.”

Berg also fired clients. The company wanted to focus on itself, not as a design consultancy or even a product company, but as an infrastructure service company like Amazon’s cloud services. The Berg Cloud–invented to support the Little Printer–was repositioned as the digital backend for the long-teased Internet of Things, when all of our dumb objects are connected to the internet, and generate monthly subscription revenue that would add a stability to Berg’s ever-scrapping design consultancy business model. “It would be nice to fall asleep at night and know something is humming in the background,” Webb said then.

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When we spoke over email yesterday, Webb didn’t have any particular insights or lessons about running a design consultancy to share. “Tbh I’m a bit close to it for a retrospective–still processing,” he writes. “Best way I can say it is that we didn’t reach the sustainable business thing.”

In the coming months, Webb will lead a skeleton crew to either prepare the cult favorite product, the Little Printer, to be sold to a company or repackaged as an open source product. “Don’t want it to die, I want to remain proud of Little Printer and what happens next,” he writes. “So that’ll keep me busy for a bit.”

Read more here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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