Interview with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

This is the second in a series in which we interview people whose work we admire. This time, we speak with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, of Good Night Lamp and Designswarm.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (@iotwatch on Twitter) is an interaction designer and entrepreneur, and has been focused on the “internet of things” and its implications in the design of everyday products since 2005. She is the founder of Good Night Lamp, a family of internet-connected lamps. She also leads Designswarm, an “internet of things” design studio and consultancy, and works with clients who want to design next generation connected products. She uses her expertise to help shape early business ideas around smart products. Her work has been exhibited at The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

From 2007 to 2010, she co-founded and ran Tinker London, a smart product design studio. Focused on creating connected product experiences that linked the digital to the physical, Tinker was the first distributor of the Arduino platform in the UK, ran workshops around the world and offered design and consultancy services.

Alexandra is involved in organizing technology and design community events in London such as the Internet of Things meetup and This Happened London.

What are the issues you’re currently fascinated with, or problems you’re currently trying to solve?
I’m like two people in one at the moment, where I have a very successful consultancy, Designswarm, and my startup Good Night Lamp, so mostly my problem is not having enough hours in the day. : ) But seriously, the big challenge for me is to make Good Night Lamp into a credible and successful business that can inspire others to start their own “internet of things” startup. I think there’s a lot of value in making and building businesses as a measure of success of an idea. Tinker London, my first business, suffered from trying to do too much at a time. We were part Arduino resellers, part workshop designers, part consultancy, part production house. It was a nightmare to try to market what we did. The Good Night Lamp is an opportunity for me to do just one thing and do it well.

Explain what Good Night Lamp is, and how it is relevant.
The Good Night Lamp is a family of internet-connected lamps. You turn a Big Lamp on in your home, and a network of Little Lamps you’ve given away to friends of family is turned on too. It’s a physical social network you can collect to keep an eye on people you care about who might be living in another town or country.

You work in East London, which is considered one of the European hotbeds of tech innovation. How does that environment influence your work?
I’ve been working in and around Shoreditch for about 4 years and I really enjoy the mix of tech startups, ad agencies, fashion and art studios that meet in this area. Every time I go for lunch, there’s a chance I might meet someone I haven’t seen in ages and have a quick catchup. It’s really a dense area with a lot of people crammed in, all doing amazing things. If I wasn’t next door to MakieLab and near Berg (who are making the Little Printer) I don’t think I would have had the impetus to get Good Night Lamp off the ground.

Share the most important thing you learned while building physical, networked products.
It’s hard. There are generally more single points of failure than if you were making a regular product. The software that talks to the hardware as well as making sure your product is beautiful all become part of the equation and a world of problems you have to be ready to deal with. It’s a world I’m massively excited by regardless.

What’s your coffee setup at home?
I’m not a coffee fascist as I recently became lactose intolerant. So it’s Americanos for me. It’s really easy for cafés to screw up an Americano, sadly…

At home I have the small Bialetti Italian coffee maker I bought when I was a student in Italy back in 2004. I mostly use Illy or sometimes Lavazza coffee, rarely anything else. I got used to the taste in Italy when I started drinking coffee and old habits die hard. I only have one coffee a day though and rarely at home, so it’s a weekend treat.

Interviews in this series:

  1. Caroline Drucker
  2. Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

More interviews coming soon – stay tuned.

An update on the Quantified Self

In this article, we check up on the current goings-on in the realm of QS.

A few months back, we put together a series of blogposts on the Quantified Self. We’ve had a look around at what’s been happening in the QS field in the meantime, and have put together this update, with some interesting new apps, products and articles.

Apps and gadgets

TenXer is a personal assistant startup, founded by Jeff Ma, who as it happens was a member of the MIT Blackjack Team. It aims to increase your productivity at work by helping you track your progress in relation to set goals. RescueTime, a competitor, operates under a similar concept, monitoring your computer activity to give you feedback on how you’re spending your time.

Alohar is a platform that includes a software development kit for Android and iPhone, and services that gather detailed data on location (how many times you’ve been there, how often you usually stay) and movement. Applications for this information could be both QS-related and commercial.

HealthyShare is the product of a cooperation between Facebook and General Electric. Just in time for the Olympics, the two giants bond for a piece of the QS cake, in the form of an app that provides the user with a selection of Olympian-sponsored challenges to promote good health.

Lift is an iPhone app designed to help people achieve any kind of goal, big or small. This startup with the rather ambitious desire to “eliminate willpower as a factor in achieving goals” has been backed by Twitter’s founders and is set to launch in August 2012.

Samsung S Health, an app for the Galaxy S III phone, allows users to track their weight, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.

Nike and Microsoft have come out with Nike+ Kinect Training, an exercise program for Xbox 360. Combining two hugely popular platforms, this could be big.

The Garmin Swim watch (article in German) is designed for swimmers to keep track of their exercise.


Mashable: Wearable Tech
An infographic giving a helpful overview of various kinds of wearable gadgetry, some of which are QS-related.

The Atlantic: The Measured Man
A detailed and extensive article about the oft-mentioned Larry Smarr, who diagnosed his own case of Crohn’s disease through self-quantification, and who goes to unusual lengths to chart his own health.

San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Biohackers’ mining their own bodies’ data
Dave Asprey is a famous and extreme believer in QS and body-hacking. This article documents the measures he takes to control his own body, discusses the motives behind bodyhacking and explores associated risks.

What we read this week (20 Jul)

Our articles of the week talk about brands in science fiction, startups in the Philippines, mobile vs mobility, predicting violence with algorithms, and empathizing with machines.

Quotes of the week

The invisibility of something [doesn’t imply] its lack of being.

Werner Herzog

What if the “posthuman” isn’t being a cyborg but instead being a cell in a giant’s body, helping to enable a vast consciousness that you’re never aware of and that is never aware of you?

Alan Jacobs

Articles of the week

  • The New Yorker: A Word From Our Sponsors
    Science Fiction got it right again. It’s interesting to consider, in light of brand power struggles at the London Olympics, what impact marketing and corporate culture are having on everyday life. This is a good example of how speculative fiction can bring us to question such situations and ask ourselves: do we want that?
  • SGEntrepreneurs: The Philippine startup scene: Asia’s best kept secret?
    An in-depth article on the current state of the startup scene in the Philippines, particularly the cultural and economic factors that influence the choice of field for new companies.
  • David Armano: The Future Isn’t About Mobile; It’s About Mobility
    Throwing yourself out there isn’t enough anymore – this also applies to the mobile web ecosystem. David Armano recommends that we get acquainted with patterns in modern digital behavior and advises us to learn how to differentiate between mobile and mobility.
  • LA Times: Computer analysis predicted rises, ebbs in Afghanistan violence
    A group of friends, who happened to be computer experts, decided to make something out of the endless data on war in Afghanistan released by WikiLeaks in 2010. Based on the data they extracted by using simple code, they managed to predict fluctuations in the country’s violence.
  • Olivia Rosane: the ROOMBA whirrs for thee
    Reading through the @SelfAwareROOMBA Twitter feed has an uncanny effect: you begin to empathize with a machine. (A vacuum cleaner, no less.) Olivia Rosane does a beautiful job of analyzing the mechanics that cause us to experience genuine emotion in response to tweets from this lonely and perceptive character, and how a Twitter feed comes to take on a personality we can identify with.

We’ve put this week’s reads into a Readlist for your mobile perusal. Enjoy!

Week 91

We worked very closely with a big corporation and its attempt to reinvent itself.

My second tweet this week was this:

Large corporations should not pretend that they can behave, act or build anything like a startup.

I never bought the premise that large corporations should pretend that they can act as something that they are clearly not. There is a reason why the goal of a startup is to become a large corporation and that is mostly: scale. Startups can create innovative, adaptive products and services. That’s what they are good at. Large corporations are good at scaling something that is already tested, adopted and accepted by a significant amount of people. The line between those worlds is blurry, but it is there and I don’t see it as dissolved.

The lessons that some consultants derive from the work at a startup – focus, agility, empowerment – are natural byproducts of the size of a company and the ecosystems every single company is embedded into. It is easy to recommend a large corporation to act like a startup, but I rarely see any valuable advice that tells the people inside those companies on how to actually achieve that.

That’s because mostly, it is impossible. Large corporations and their scaling machines are deeply embedded into a financial structure that doesn’t encourage and/or allow the high risk that a startup can take. Most departments inside a large corporation don’t run on VC money and those companies do have shareholders that want their money. While I agree that this is not the best virtue to operate under, it is rather effective in establishing a certain culture that makes risk as possible as finding a unicorn.

The first time I came in contact with the famous quote “Never change a running system” was while inquiring on how to update my Windows about 15 years ago. That’s not because the new system is not superior, but because it is very hard to change something that is already running and unless we, as consultants, know on how exactly a large corporation can become innovative, we should be very wary of giving them advice to become more like a startup.

My passion for this topic derives from working closely with a new client of ours on how to develop a new business model for the company. It’s a sensitive, very difficult problem to tackle inside of a company that is currently generating north of 200 Mio in revenue. While that seems like a lot – and maybe enough to prevent real change – they realized and feel that whatever they are doing right now is coming to an end. It needs to change, the company needs to reinvent itself. Telling them that they need to act like a startup would not help them, because they would need to fire many of the long time employees to make it happen. So whatever comes out of this process of reinventing a large, well established company with a known brand needs to help to sustain the old business while at the same time building a future opportunity.

With that, I wish you a great, productive week full of scale.

P.S.: Johannes just told me, that in the whole month of June we did send out 8 faxes. While this is a record for us, I would be careful in predicting the return of the fax machine.

Week 77

This week notes takes a dive into our work with startups and why we think that we can be of service to them.

Working with startups

Since we started out almost 18 month ago, we worked for round about 35 clients. Most of them where larger, established companies, but there where a few startups as well.

One of the first startups that asked us to work with them just went into public beta last week: Routehappy. They brought us in at a very early stage in the production cycle. We met the team, helped them shape their idea better before any heavy coding had been done. Our job was to give the team a frame and help them shape their goals with certain aspects of the product.

Last week, we have been invited to work with another startup. If possible, we will never say no to startup. At least not, if the product and/or the team is at all interesting to us. Not because we necessarily want to work for smaller companies, but because the work that we are doing there is somewhat different.

Usually startups have enough ways to get great insights from inside the team, from their peer group and most importantly from their investors. Especially the last part became even clearer to me after I participated in the Startup Crash Course that Edial and Floris gave last week. Yes, Angels and VCs will give you money, but they will also provide you with access to their knowledge, network and their ability to reflect your ideas in a bigger context.

That’s why there aren’t that many consultants for startups. If needed, most young companies have a plethora of opportunities to talk to somebody without hiring outside help for cash.

Our take on this is simple: we are rather confident about the fact that we can be helpful to startups. While it is true that there are plenty of opportunities to get insights from somewhere else, our strength comes from the fact that we consult every day without being out of touch with what’s happening. And we are more then happy to find ways how young companies are able to get us in without the ability of paying for our services as established companies do.