Cyborg prosthetics for limbs that don't exist

If you're given a third arm coming out of the middle of your chest, a really long third arm, it turns out you can adapt to using it successfully in less than 10 minutes.

Homuncular Flexibility in Virtual Reality, Won et al (2015) [PDF].

What if you could become a bat--your arms acting as wings allowing you to fly through the night sky? The avatars that users inhabit in virtual reality (VR) make this possible. ... For example, could people learn to control a lobster avatar that had many more limbs than its human user? ... Tracked movements that the user made in the physical world would be rendered as different movements of the avatar body. Thus, an eight-armed lobster could have each limb powered by the rotation of a wrist, the flex of an ankle, or some combination of the two.


In Experiment Two, participants controlling three-armed avatars learned to hit more targets than participants in two-armed avatars.

And in the "Future directions" section:

how far can we push these adaptations? Can people learn to control eight limbs, or kilometer-long arms?

Okay so that's VR, but why not really?

The Cave was a proto-VR environment where you would stand in a cube-shaped room where a virtual environment was projected on the walls. Using a controller, you could "move" through the virtual environment -- and look around you without needing to use a headset.

I don't have a reference for this but I heard about this experiment: what they did was track the rotation of your head, as you looked from side to side, and then rotate the virtual environment the same amount again. So if you looked 90 degrees the right, it would be as though you were looking 180 degrees, directly behind you.

What I heard was that people adapt surprisingly quickly to this. You get accustomed, really fast, to being able to rotate your head all the way round like an owl.

Dani Clode's design provocation The Third Thumb visualises a robotic extra thumb as a sixth digit on the hand, used to hold fruit and play the guitar.

MobiLimb is a robotic finger that protrudes from a smartphone. It can prop itself up so you can see the screen; it can literally point things out; it can drag itself across the table.

Why don't we see a ton of serious research into areas like this? Given it turns out we can adapt psychologically quite happily to having extra limbs, why don't we see R&D money being piled in?

I want to see weird-ass research lab nerds from universities walking around like Doctor Octopus, doing their best to convince the rest of us that more hands = better. I want to see folks like Apple and Google try really, really hard to get it to go mainstream, even though they will mostly fail.

Because decades of research got us the iPhone -- and, by extension, the peace dividend of the smartphone wars being: drones (sensors and batteries) and the internet of things (commodity connectivity) which is massive in the industrial world). Imagine if robotic prosthetics were cheap and commonplace.

What are the mundane, everyday applications?

I want an exoskeleton chairless chair but for gardening.

I want to open the door of a cafe with my third arm when my hands are full carrying coffee.

I want to feel electric fields with my fingertips. I want to go ambling in a new city and not get lost because I have an intuitive sense of north. I want a camera stuck on the back of my neck that shows up as a stretched image round the rim of my otherwise ordinary glasses, and I want to know how quickly seeing behind me feels like a little extra sense that I couldn't do without.

Forget showing my lost items on a map on a screen and making me treasure-hunt my way back to them. I want to be able to whistle to my phone from anywhere in the house, and have it wriggle out of the sofa and scamper across the room and snuggle into my pocket.

Imagine giving your phone a high five with a tiny hand that you don't yet have.

The law, the 4 day working week, and how come society doesn't see the benefit of automation

It strikes me that automation means that the kind of laws we have can really change.

First there are laws as deterrence.

If the state wants to reduce some action but it’s really hard to detect, there are a couple of possibilities -- take for example, deterring people from driving dangerously fast. The state can make the penalty disproportionately large: so there might be only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being caught, but if you do get caught you might get banned from driving. OR: the threshold for penalty might be stricter, such as having the speed limit by 70 mph when the actual "safe" speed is 75-80 mph. (Or rather, we're not actually trying to measure speed but danger, and speed is just a poor proxy for that.)

Multiple together the various numbers to get a deterrence factor.

Now imagine, in this era of mass surveillance and computer vision, that it’s easier to detect and prosecute. That means that the number of prosecutions can go up, but for the same deterrence factor the laws can be more lax and the penalty lighter.

Second: laws that make laws possible.

There’s an idea in cybernetics, from Ross Ashby in 1956. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety:

if a system is to be able to deal successfully with the diversity of challenges that its environment produces, then it needs to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems thrown up by the environment.

The complexity of the controlling system (laws, police, courts) must be at least as complex as the system being controlled (the public). Given we want the controlling system to be small, an easy way to achieve this is to somehow constrain the range of behaviours of the system being controlled -- to simplify it.

That is, there are some laws that aim to make society simpler to govern, not to deter behaviour which causes self-harm. Perhaps those laws could be removed?

Using automation and mass surveillance, the control system becomes more fine-grained; more complex. This means the allowed complexity of society should also be allowed to increase -- that is, become less regulated.

The police state and the dividend of automation

But when we think about mass surveillance and face recognition in cameras, etc, we don’t think about greater precision in enforcement and more freedom. We think about a police state. There are other factors at play:

  • paranoia: perhaps, even though mass surveillance might allow for great freedom, fine-grained laws might mean that they are impossible to understand before they are enforced. The result would be a kind of horrific paranoia or feeling of being trapped in an abusive relationship
  • oligarchy: even if greater freedom for society was made possible, perhaps the complexity or the "degrees of freedom" of a society is a bulk property, and needn’t be distributed equally. Some will be granted huge freedom, most of us not so much
  • history: when profit and power are able to maintain the status quo, whether society overall is allowed to improve or not is a consequence of history. If those in power today wouldn’t be in power tomorrow, tomorrow won't be allowed to come.

So there’s a dividend of automation that could mean greater freedom, but other forces mean it might not go that way.

The 4 day working week

I’m reminded of the 4 day working week, which was in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto.

There is a trend towards greater productivity by replacing human workers with automation. We are used to thinking about this in terms of unemployment and re-training.

But the Labour manifesto framed this dividend of automation differently. Unemployment would be a result of the dividend going into the pocket of company owners. If instead it went to society, we could think about a better welfare state, more leisure time, wealth to spend during that leisure time, vocational second careers, and so on. The "4 day working week" is a way to imagine all of that.

How to direct the dividend of automation?

The problem is that we have been trained to hear "unemployment" as a problem that the state has to deal with, not an indication that efficiency has increased, and there is now surplus time and wealth. UNEMPLOYMENT MEANS WE CAN DO THE SAME WITH LESS EFFORT.

How come the dividend of automation doesn’t lead to greater leisure and greater freedom? How come we’re not even asking the questions about how this can happen?

I think it’s because there isn't being painted a clear enough picture of a better future, and engaging everyone in a discussion about how to get there. Give me novels and movies of sci-fi almost-utopias. Make me ask, how do I live there. Make me ask and demand, how do we get there.

Just a quick couple of links about bears, because I've been busy today

The original word for bear has been lost. From this article about euphemisms:

Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn't even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them. So they came up with this word -- this is up in Northern Europe -- bruin, meaning "the brown one" as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear. We know the euphemism, but we don't know what word it replaced

There's some more about bears and also mushrooms and dandelions in this old blog post.

New rooms for the new normal

In the new normal, I imagine we'll need a few new room types for our homes.

1. Quarantine room

Now when we get grocery deliveries, Amazon parcels, or hand-me-down toddler clothes from friends, we take them directly from the front door to a holding zone where they sit for 24 hours before being allowed into the house proper. (Covid-19 does linger on surfaces for longer than that but the concentrations drop quickly.) The holding zone is the corner of a bathroom. Cold items go on a special isolation shelf in the fridge.

Maybe we could build a porch onto the front of our house and create a quarantine room. Bonus points: if we could give one-time access codes so deliveries can be left somewhere safe indoors, but without having grant full access.

2. Video conference room

You have to care about different things when you're working from home. Backdrops are important, as is lighting. I take my video calls with a neutral grey wall behind me. And while I was considering bookshelves for that wall before, now I want to keep it clear.

Doing the PE with Joe live workouts at 9am every day, I'm struck by how considered his backdrop is -- it's definitely his home with his personality, but it uses neutral colours and all the ornaments are non-overlapping and mostly low contrast. It probably compresses well. Here's a pic.

It's easier to maintain a space like that at home if it's just one space. Everywhere else can be a mess. And so long as I'm always going to use that single space, then why not attach a proper webcam to the wall opposite, add some soft furnishings to dampen echos, etc.

There's probably a good business in being an interior designer who curates Zoom-friendly home office backgrounds. Though in this age of lockdown you'd have to figure out how to do it without actually visiting the house. Maybe in the interim Ikea could supply pop-up video call snugs with well-positioned lamps and tasteful decor.

Also I wonder how this will impact fashion? I noticed I was looking like a mountain man so I shaved my hair off. But I haven't worn a nice pair of shoes for weeks and I'm mostly in sweatpants. Zoom life is all haircuts and no trousers.

3. A home that pays its way

Ok, Airbnb is getting a shoeing because it turns out that (as everybody knew...) people were hoarding property and farming them with short lets, damaging neighbourhoods and driving up rent. BUT the original idea makes sense: rent out a room in my home, or the whole place when I'm not there. The sharing economy innit.

And the wider picture is that your home needs to work for its living. In unstable economic times, a home should also be a source of income, so what does that mean? A room with its own entrance, and a second door (lockable from both sides) that goes into the kitchen for breakfast, to be rented out? Solar on the roof, obviously, sold back to the grid. A kitchen garden. A Powerwall home battery to store cheap electricity and then sell it to neighbours?

Maybe the future of the "front room" is to be a mixed public/private space, a bit like the shopfronts or workshops of old -- a space which is made to run a small artisan business: massage, haircuts, I.T. support, neighbourhood parcel drop-off... a counter, a big welcoming window to the street, a secure internal door to the rest of the house. How would architecture respond if the ground floor of a duplex, or the front half of a home was assumed to be semi-permeable interface to the outside world like this?

Perhaps China's centralised supply chain won't last forever

If I was in charge of industrial policy, I'd be betting against the hegemony of the centralised supply chain. That is: no more getting everything manufactured in China; instead, move to local manufacture and many more, smaller, networked factories. I'm talking over a couple of decades.

It's worth thinking about why centralised supply chains exist.

Here's an interview with Liam Casey, founder of contract manufacturer PCH International (and who is, by the way, a good egg) -- which means you probably have stuff in your house that they've made, but it'll never say that on the label. I can take a product from the production line in China to a consumer in San Francisco in 4 days, 5 hours, 14 minutes. We’re 3 hours from all the factories we work with, and we're 3 days from 90 percent of the consumers around the planet that buy our products.

I can't remember where I heard this observation, but these timings means the entire transaction is entirely inside the credit window: a consumer can order something on a website, then the material is ordered, the item is manufactured, packaged, shipped, landed, and paid for, all before the invoices from the suppliers become due. That's the reverse of how inventory usually works, where material sits on your balance sheet -- and both loses value as it ages, and adds risk because demand might change.

A manufacturing cluster gives you that economic advantage, plus optionality over suppliers (reduces risk and cost), easy access to expertise, etc.


Shipping costs are increasing. Shipping is a carbon nightmare, and fuel rules are changing which will hike costs hugely. As we get more serious about climate change, that trajectory will continue. So how does that change the economics? And what other numbers are changing that I haven't run across?

Maybe - just maybe - local manufacturing is on the verge of making sense. From this article about Arrival, the new(ish) UK electric van startup: Electric van maker Arrival has secured a €400m (£339m) order for 10,000 vehicles from United Parcel Service (UPS) ... The purpose-built electric vans will be rolled out in the UK, Europe and North America starting this year and continuing until 2024.


The first vans have been built at the company’s first "microfactory" in Banbury, Oxfordshire, but others will be made close to their end markets, likely near major markets such as New York and Los Angeles.

The UPS deal implies that the base price of an Arrival van will be about £34,000, compared to a £27,900 sticker price for a new Ford Transit with an internal combustion engine – although with lower maintenance and fuel costs the total cost of ownership for electric vans could be lower.

So for at least one product - this electric van - the calculus has changed enough such that it's worth manufacturing locally.

The hegemony of manufacturing in China is assumed. But my feeling is that the threshold between centralised and local is a fine line, and it's closer than it looks.

I was reading recently about loo paper, because of course I was. Apparently it's always made close to the place of sale because it's cheap and not very dense and so disproportionately expensive to ship. So where else are these fine lines, and how quickly could we tip over them?

Another interesting data point: Ocado investing in vertical farms. That is, Ocado (massive UK grocery delivery firm, and now a platform supplying software and fulfilment centres to other territories) is investing in herbs and produce that can be grown in racks, indoors, right in the delivery depot.

I imagine the reasons for an economic cluster existing are similar to the reasons for a firm existing. As explained by Ronald Coase: Firms exist to economize on the cost of coordinating economic activity. That is: finding people to buy shit from costs money. If all the stuff to buy is in one place, it's cheaper.

But at a certain point, coordinating activity can be automated. That's the internet. That's machine learning. Routing supplies between factories, that's packet switching and it was invented in 1931.

So imagine the numbers in the equation change... long-haul shipping gets more expensive; the internet means it's easier to have lots of smaller factories that supply interchangeable parts to the bigger ones; the drivers of mass production diminish...

Hang on, mass production? Well mass production is tied to mass consumption is tied to mass marketing. None of the three precedes the other. But the logic of it all comes from a very particular era of distribution: physical shops, and awareness built using broadcast media (TV, newspapers). Think department stores. Brand is key.

But now we've got micro-targeted advertising and e-commerce. It's absurd to stock physical stores with items that probably won't be bought, just to make a particular size and colour available. And there's no ABC1 sociodemographic group now, people form their own communities. You can launch a micro-brand on Instagram in an instant (and either keep it niche or scale it to billions). Where's the requirement for mass anything? The logic collapses.

So maybe the logic supporting centralised supply chains has collapsed too.

Let's not even get into (gestures ineffectually) the current situation. It's clear now that every country needs its own manufacturing base so that - when push comes to shove - it can be redirected to make what needs to be made.

Expect government incentives to support local (or at least national) manufacture in the coming years.

I don't know what this future world of local manufacturing looks like. Not 3D printing, that's too far. But maybe final assembly happening in many, many towns, each local to a handful of markets in a hub and spoke model? Maybe more shared components to allow that... what if all shampoos, cleaning products, fruit juice, etc came in standardised bottles, so packaging could happen in the supermarket warehouse? How would you industrialise packaging-free zero waste shops?

But yeah, if I was in charge of the UK's industrial policy, I would assume this was the destination for 2040, and then invest to build towards that future.

Now people are comfortable with video

I wonder what businesses become possible now that people are comfortable with streaming video.

I've started doing the 9am P.E. with Joe workouts on YouTube. 30 minutes of exercise is barely compensating for running (it's hard to find pedestrian-free routes round here), but it's great to get the heart going, this Joe Wicks guy is warm and genuine, and our toddler - although she isn't old enough to join in - seems to love it too, charging round the room. Long story short, I'd never done live workouts through the TV before and now I have.

(I try not to think about the telescreen workouts in 1984 while I'm doing it: Winston sprang to attention in front of the telescreen, upon which the image of a youngish woman, scrawny but muscular, dressed in tunic and gym-shoes, had already appeared.)

And everyone's using Zoom, and Houseparty.

Getting people to do new things is hard. As popular as YouTube is, and as popular as Facebook Live is (or Instagram Stories), they're very consumption focused, and Netflix (Bandersnatch aside) is still TV.

So getting people to do two new things is impossible. Getting people to group chat by video, okay, but group chat by video and also watch football? Niche. So far.


Now the first hurdle has been removed. Everyone will take for granted the idea that you can watch a live video stream in a group of 500,000 and have live shout-outs from the comments. Or have a group video chat in which friends can drop by. My mum (who is pretty technical, sure) is now playing bridge with her friends over Zoom.

So now what businesses be layered on this mode of interaction?

Doctor consultations, that's already happening.

Personal shopping, how could that work? How would an artisan farmer's market work? What about touring Venice by telepresence robot? What if BBC iPlayer launched Houseparty meets DVD box sets?

Could I invite a live sports channel into Zoom with me and my friends? Or a brand new movie?

Technically, we'll need to plug together three things to make ideas like this happen:

  • a trusted social network that can handle different, overlapping groups of "close friends", and the idea of presence/availability -- I wonder if this could be built as a shared utility by several different companies, in a "public infrastructure" kind of way
  • video software that interoperates with the various discovery endpoints (it's important, like Zoom, to have links in calendar invites), but that also allows programmatic access -- Twilio's video call APIs might be the infrastructure here
  • video calling which is as interoperable as the phone network. We need peering between Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp video calls, Houseparty, etc. If this is going to work, it's ludicrous to force a patient who is already familiar with FaceTime to download Zoom to talk to their consultant.


VP of Something

Over the years I've met a lot of new agencies and consultancies, and got to chatting about their positioning and strategy -- the words they use to talk about what they do, how they dress it up, and who they're selling their services to.

Sometimes the new business is operating in a new market which typically isn't the smart thing to do. It's an uphill struggle to sell something where there isn't an common job title for the buyer, or an established network for word of mouth (word of mouth is unreasonably effective) or an easy way to see how the services fit into business as usual. But when you can make it work, my goodness, things start flying. So it can be worth it.

Think... design, about 10 years ago. Even only a decade ago, it wasn't clear that Apple's design-first approach would prove so successful. Software development methods like agile were still relatively new and not that widespread: it was unclear that design methods like looking at actual behaviour, prototyping, testing, and learning could actually work, as opposed to diligent specification. The idea that design is a way to invent, understand, and to develop strategy... well, that's still a tough sell, but at least people no longer think it's just websites and album covers.

Or let's take a newer example: circular economy products and services, whether they are about reducing waste, or actually shifting business models to have a circular supply chain, or changing the internal culture so businesses look for new ways, big and small, to go zero waste. Right now I know a bunch of startups operating in that space, but what's the entry into corporate customers? It could be CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), or marketing, or you find a progressive team in product, or there's an innovation group. It's muddled.

Although sustainability is changing, like design before it:

It's pretty clear to me that in 10 years time, sustainability will have to be a VP role, if not a C-level role, and circular transformation (I just made that up, you can have it) will be a phrase for the 2020s just as "digital transformation" was the business mantra for the 2010s.

And that takes me back to positioning:

When I'm talking to these new agencies, and sometimes even new startups, who are operating in a space without a clear market, one of the provocations I like to use is this: imagine your ideal customer was the VP of something, or the Chief Something Officer. What would that something be? Design? Innovation? Chief Data Officer? (That's one which is on the ramp.) VP of A.I.? Sustainability? And can you be the cheerleader for it?

What would need to change in their company for that role to make sense? How would you have to package your work for someone in that job? Someone that high up, you have to take way more responsibility for your work -- you give them measurable outcomes, you don't just make deliverables; you have ownership in a different way. How would you help that new VP make clear the importance of their role?

Ok, your client today, whoever they are, your job is to talk to them like they are going to become that VP of something new, and the purpose of your marketing is to give them the air cover to make the case for it as a critical and growing area, and the purpose of your work is to give them the tools to get them promoted. They'll feel flattered, you'll provide more value, and your work will start establishing its own market.

It's a personal provocation I use on client projects too. In addition to the brief we've discussed, I ask myself: if there was a VP who had already created the culture and conditions such that this brief was already being answered, what role would that VP have? Can we see this project not just as delivering what it needs to deliver, but as a prototype of this VP's wider function? And if we see it like that, what's missing?

Perhaps this is one of a set of Oblique Strategies for consultancy...

Interconnected is 20 years old today

20 years is pretty old for a blog, right? Although nowadays I "blog" more to my daily work notes or my "draft posts" folder than I post here.

I actually have a post I'm working on. But, as is typical, it's getting longer and longer each time I touch it, and (I know how this movie goes) it'll probably soon get to the point where I think it's too boring, too asinine, or too wrong to do anything with. So no promises on that front.

Instead here's a rambling post from 2007, from before I got self-conscious.

If you're looking for some good sci-fi, try Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar (I kind of don't want to point at a review but if you insist). The book I am currently most excited about reading is the new short story retrospective from Molly Gloss, Unforeseen -- I have the paperback on pre-order. In the meantime, read her novel Wild Life (there's a decent blurb behind that link). Both of these books deal with subtle uncertainty and unstable realities. Much of Wild Life takes place in silence. Gloss writes about silence beautifully.

Some thoughts on the Glass Bead Game

When I first read The Glass Bead Game (Hermann Hesse, 1943), I was awed by the beauty of this (fictional) game that is aesthetically beautiful, simply for its own sake, yet bridges art and science producing new insights.

All reminiscent of cybernetics which - as an interdisciplinary language - bridged fields from anthropology to information theory, and produced insights in cognitive neuroscience, computation, and more. (Some will disagree, which is kind of my point.)

Yet. I spend a lot of time in the tech world, and I frequently run into technologies that

  • I'm sure must be useful -- that is, provide leverage meaning less effort for greater value, but
  • unhappily, to me, look like scams... and this is the critical bit: even when they are not.

This is technology from companies that are long-running and therefore successful (by one definition), or startups that are well funded (and popularity is another kind of success).

So what qualities causes my scammy spidey-sense to fire (or misfire)? It turns out it is mostly language. It is when

  • there is language and (conspicuously costly) activity which is working to build excitement and desire… and it seems like this is detached from the underlying technology itself, and
  • a lot of the language points "inward," the words and phrases being defined in terms of more "in-network" words and phrases -- which naturally gives rise to concentric circles of increasing familiarity, where those towards the centre can extract value for providing understanding to those further out. But perhaps the obfuscating language isn't necessary.

The problem is that many complex disciplines look scammy like this. Without already being an expert, how is it possible to tell the difference between necessary complexity and gatekeeping complexity? I don't know. I think about this a lot.

Back to tech:

I sit inside the technology ecosystem, and my own perspective is most likely bounded by a bubble - the surface of which is where it refers more inward than outward - and from the exterior probably it too looks like a priesthood that plays with concepts and charges for access. Perhaps? Yet clearly I feel it brings value. Besides its economic impact, it provides me with my tools for thinking and creativity. So how am I to reconcile that with these imagined exterior views?

And my goodness, design. There's a whole world of mysterious, self-referential language and play with ideas that many have trouble believing actually carries meaning to those participating, but in which I have great faith and find much value and enjoyment.

Back to the Glass Bead Game

Because, with my 2020 perspective, the Glass Bead Game alarms me. The Game is played by a monastic caste of adepts and it takes a lifetime to master. It is supported by the fictional society it sits within.

It's exclusive. It's privileged. Although it makes a show of being meritocratic - in theory, recruits can come from anywhere - in practice it perpetuates the class system. Cynically: the meritocracy is a sham to build allegiances with the powerful in society at large, to enrol them in defending its practice of extracting energy from the ecosystem, simply to perpetuate its own complexity.

Thinking about the Glass Bead Game again, it seems more like a warning against societal preoccupations that fiercely gate-keep themselves. Which troubles me, because that also describes a lot of what I enjoy...

So perhaps the book is a doorway into meditating on (and perhaps learning how to distinguish) which unproductive, self-indulgent, expertise-demanding, self-perpetuating, expensive, worlds are actually very much the stuff of life - in that life would have no meaning or joy without them - fiction! art! hiking! opera! sharing great food with friends! -- and which pursuits are instead complex emergent parasites on society, with double mouths gulping from the noosphere and the econosphere, getting fat on their own shit.

Mwie Ltd

About three weeks back, fellow traveller Tom Critchlow shared his annual notes on being an independent consultant: 5 years on the road: Thoughts on sustainable independence.

And: coincidence! I work via a consultancy vehicle called Mwie Ltd. I am its sole employee. Mwie was incorporated in October 2014 and issued its first invoice in November 2014, so that also puts me 5 years on the job. Happy work anniversary, I guess (which is absolutely not a thing although LinkedIn insists it is).

Inspired by Tom, I started writing a blog post retrospective. What I’ve been doing, what some highlights have been, etc.

What I’d like to do more of.

What’s missing.

What am I any good at.

Oh my god where is it all going anyway.

Ok so (a) I shouldn’t have tried to write to write a retrospective on my own on a Friday night; and (b) wow it got way too personal, there’s no way I’m sharing it.

The thing is that for the past five years, I haven’t been talking about what I’m up to, and there hasn’t been a plan. My strategy has been

  • talk with interesting people about what I’m interested in
  • don’t chase too hard: allow as much time as necessary for win-win situations to make themselves obvious
  • only do interesting, stimulating work — but never just because I need it for the cash or positioning (granted, it’s privilege to be able to be choosey like this, but I’ve previously worked to earn that)
  • no marketing except word of mouth: marketing can’t abide complexity. Crafting a message that will carry, any message, requires reifying my practice and I haven’t been ready to do that.

That last point all about what we’d call in other contexts product-market fit. That hyphen is an arrow of influence that points both ways.

Marketing requires a view on what the market finds valuable; what will resonate. In my case, how clients will find and understand business value. Not only have I lacked up-to-date knowledge of what value I, personally, can unlock, but prematurely working on marketing will shape the product before it’s ready.

And what is the “product” here? Well it’s me, my practice — it’s some overlap of what I find stimulating, what I’m good at, and what helps me get future work which is the same but better. But can I articulate that? Not a chance.

So if I look at the last five years, the strategy has been

  • follow my nose
  • discover what I want, because I can’t articulate it
  • discover what the market wants, because I don’t know.

If it sounds like I’m starting from the ground floor here, I guess it’s because I am. BERG (the design consultancy turned tech startup I co-founded) shut its doors in 2014, and I carried on working on various loose ends well into 2015. My “voice”, needs, patter, platform, and intellectual interests had been mixed with the studio, in one incarnation or another, for 10 years. It’s… confusing. Moreover, I had been surrounded by some of the most talented, unique individuals I have ever met — and one of the jobs of a CEO is to do only what can’t be done by others.

All of which means I came into my current five year stint as “Independent Consultant” (according to my LinkedIn) with very little real idea of what I was good at and what I wanted out of my work. And, if I’m honest, a bit afraid that the expectations of others — potential clients — would shape my practice into what they needed and thought I could offer, before I could figure that out for myself.

Let’s call it product discovery and market discovery. Business-speak as camouflage for feelings.

I wish I could find the source of this quote. I remember reading Kevin Kelly relating something he heard from his mentor Stewart Brand:

We have time for three 15 year careers. In each career, you’ve got five years to learn and work your way into it. Then five years to do it as well as you can. Finally you have five years where you can offer a new spin from your own individual perspective.

I think about this period I’m in as my second career. I’ve been in no hurry to figure out what it is.

But… five years in. Maybe it’s time to finish the discovery chapter and focus on execution for a bit.

Where were we? Oh yes, Friday night a little over two weeks back. On my own at the kitchen table with my laptop and a class of red, writing a career retrospective that was rapidly devolving into a career existential crisis.

Here’s what I did.

  • I wrote down everything I would regard as a career highlight from the past five years, and looked to find themes.
  • Then I went back to looked at extracurricular activities from the past five years. I’ve always got a side-project or two. Well, I decided, if they fit into one of my themes, they’re retrospectively now a work project.
  • I listed everything that I felt was missing. What do I wish I had done more of?
  • And then, at the end, there is this section: If I met me, and was advising me on what to do, this is what I would say: — and after answering that title I went to bed.

Before I go into the results of that personal career review, it’s worth saying why I separate myself from my consultancy, Mwie Ltd, even though the two are often the same.

  • It’s practical and means I can work with bigger clients. Incorporating means I can safely subcontract (which I’ve done frequently for clients) and relate to companies on the basis of product supplied rather than hours done.
  • I can invest in assets. Through Mwie Ltd I have run a bookshop in a vending machine, and I’m building Job Garden. Both cost money. But because they stick to the consultancy, even if they don’t wash their face by their own account, they can be worth it for the marketing, creds, or capabilities benefits.
  • Separating the company bank account from my own provides a psychic buffer. For years I’ve paid myself a regular monthly salary. Company revenue goes up and down. Clients sometimes pay late. Sometimes there’s a good month and the company looks flush. But so long as there’s a six month runway in the bank, none of that affects my sleep.

You get what you do. Or rather, you get what others see that you do.

It’s funny. Jack and I gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph business section (I’m not even kidding) way back in 2007. I just went back and read it, and the advice in that article is exactly what I had to remind myself about that Friday night. Here's the article:

"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.

And at the end of the article:

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 that 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.

Bloody hell. Thank you very much Jack-and-me-from-2007.

My personal career review includes some course-correction points.

  • I’m not doing enough public speaking of the sort that I enjoy — I feel I’ve lost touch with my tribe, and I miss that.
  • And while the function of the work I’m doing is rewarding, and I enjoy and I’m good at it… I’m missing the opportunity to chase down intellectual avenues which — because of my individual perspective — fascinate me and I believe are important. I have a list of these.
  • I also have a couple of points which boil down to: this isn’t the consultancy, but do more of it!

I’m not going to share details on the above points if that’s ok.

Mainly, and this is what surprised me, when I looked back over five years of projects

  • there are indeed themes!
  • the kind of value I can offer and enjoy is supported by credible previous work!
  • I have opinions about the industry that I’m in, and what should be done better and differently!
  • I would like to do more of those things!

None of this was necessarily going to be the case. So, good news.

You get what you do.

Long story short, I redesigned my website. Between other things that took two weeks and I put it live yesterday.

I thought about renaming. But switching away from Mwie Ltd felt like it would be inauthentic — it is just me, after all, operating as a limited company, and I have no intention of building it into another agency. Been there, done that.

Secret origin: “Mwie” stands for Matt Webb Import/Export because when I was a kid, visiting family in Nairobi, we would pass all kinds of import/export businesses and I still remember them as exotic and mysterious. I always wanted one of my own. And so.

Yet Mwie is a dumb name. So in the spirit of celebrating that which binds us, I figured I would lean in and put the expanded version on the homepage too.

Actually writing the case studies was pretty simple. This isn’t a launch of a new offer. There’s nothing aspirational here, and no new positioning. All I’m doing — very incrementally — is reinforcing existing word of mouth marketing by stating exactly what I already say in person.

So I just wrote down how I already talk about my projects.

Putting them in one place, and grouping them: that’s new.

Oh, and the design. I get my hands dirty with web design every year or two. It’s fun, although of course now I can’t see anything except what I think is wrong with it.

Here's a screen grab of the old website from November 2019. Single page. Useful mainly for the boilerplate which shows the company registration number.

Here’s the new one:

Mwie Ltd: Matt Webb Import/Export, est. 2014.

As always, I’m up for hearing your thoughts. There’s a contact page on the other side of that hyperlink should you wish to get in touch.