Innovating through disruption: a chat with digital’s Willy Wonka

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In 2009, Nike and the Livestrong Foundation made a big splash during the Tour de France with the Nike Chalkbot: a robot that sprayed inspirational messages from people across the globe on the road as cyclists rode along the famous bicycle route.

In order to make this possible, the relatively new innovation studio Deeplocal was brought on board. The company created the software that powered the message machine, a project that propelled the company onto the world stage.

According to its CEO, Nathan Martin, Deeplocal was founded by “accident” following the development of mapping software by five university researchers. It is a company that works through chaos and disruption, built on the basic principle of finding ways to tear down the norms and build something new and different.

Martin believes in innovative thinking and does his best to ignore the rules of convention. This makes sense as he was once described by Forbes as “Willy Wonka with a tool kit from Mythbusters”.

Memeburn caught up with the 35-year-old innovator to discuss what it means to be a “post-digital company” that thrives on innovation. Like former Wired editor Chris Anderson, Martin is a strong believer in the “maker culture” movement and feels that technology is headed to a stage where innovation allows people to build their own technologies. He argues that it is a much-needed space where people are creators not just consumers of products, where “learning [is] tied to fabrication”.

Martin also reckons that the way patents are granted need to change in order to better protect individuals.

Since Deeplocal’s success with Nike it has gone on to build equally innovative and quirky campaigns for the likes of Gap, the National Geographic Channel, EA Sports, Toyota and Good Magazine.

Memeburn: What does it mean to be a “post-digital company”?

Nathan Martin: “Post-digital” is a weird word… it’s like “controversial”, I don’t think it means anything. I like words and phrases that can be interpreted and mean different things to different people. I think it’s a little bit controversial, but it doesn’t have to mean any one thing. Especially for people younger than me, who have grown up in environments where everything was digital, you don’t need to define something as digital if you’ve always been a part of it.

Younger people don’t have to think about things as digital experiences, they’re just experiences. Technology becomes a little bit more invisible, like when kids look at a piece of paper and try to swipe it because they’re used to a gestural control on an iPad. Those kids don’t think of what they’re engaging with as digital, they just see it as the thing in their world.

Post-digital is really about building work and experiences that aren’t about any given piece of technology. They might use technology, but it’s beyond that point. It’s more about the experience that someone is going to get, and that experience might be online or offline, all over the place. It doesn’t need to be segmented.

MB: Deeplocal is good at bringing online experiences offline. Do you think the tech industry is not doing enough of that?

NM: There are a lot of reasons why this is not done often. It’s difficult to do. From a position of a company, what we do is not always the most profitable thing to be doing. In the advertising world, especially in the US market, you have known amounts of money that you’re willing to spend on certain things. If I’m going to shoot a commercial, and I’m a marketing department or brand, I know what I can generally expect to spend. I can spend more for some amazing director but generally I know the amount of money I’m going to spend. If I make a website or take out an ad, I know this is the amount of money I’m going to spend.

To build a street-printing robot… I have no concept for that, and no budget for that. My budgets are for social media, print ads, television or broadcast. The work that we (and other companies like us) do doesn’t fit really well, unless we force it to fit and it becomes social media or something they’ve already wrapped their heads around. That’s not for everyone. Generally speaking, what we’re asking a client to do is to find a way to find a way to pay for something that they’ve never paid for before and don’t really have a budget to do. That as a business model is difficult. It’s always easier to sell something that people know how to buy.

The problem with selling something that people know how to buy is that you’re producing a commodity, and you’ll have more competition and for me, it’s not that interesting. I often see people who are making way more money of things like a mobile app that they develop in a day. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s difficult to make money on and it’s pretty risky.

The world of hardware and physical stuff is really risky. So many things can go wrong and software is so much easier. When we make something, we have to be there and operate it — and that’s not like just hiring someone else to do it, that’s us having to be there, which isn’t the best use of time. It’s hard to find people willing to do that.

It’s only one part of a solution to a way of marketing things but I think right now we’re trying to figure out how it fits into overall strategies. But why I think it works, and why it has worked for us, is that there is a lot of noise and a lot of clutter online and it’s very difficult to capture someone’s attention.

You have two challenges: capturing someone’s attention and then communicating a message to them. Ideally, capturing their attention means creating a memorable or a real authentic experience that they’re willing to communicate to someone else, something where you feel you’re getting some value out of it and not just being advertised to.

I think that’s why Chalkbot worked well, because you felt like you were getting something that you couldn’t otherwise get out of the experience. You were making people feel good. It wasn’t so much about Nike for them as it was about experience. Where Chalkbot maybe failed a little bit is that it was difficult to calculate a return on investment.

I don’t like to get too involved in that stuff. We’re working on brand building, and working with larger brands that have a long-term vision. They are brands like Nike that are smart enough to know that it’s not about that one project resulting in more sales the next day in their stores, it’s about that one project combining with a thousand other projects over the course of five years making you a brand that other people have a very hard time catching up to.

We work with Reebok now and watching it from the other perspective, it is very hard for a company like Reebok or Adidas to play catch up when a brand like Nike has been so far out of the gate. I don’t think they were looking every time at every project and saying “are my sales going up right now?”, you need to have a longer term vision when you’re building a brand.

MB: How does one accidentally become the founder of a company?

NM: Our story and background is quite unique. I was an artist and researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, which is a big technology school but also has a good art programme. When I was there, we were developing some mapping software that was really similar to what eventually became Google Maps. But for us, we were just building this tool for people. We thought geographic data was really interesting, and it was a layer on the world that provided all this information.

I had a team of about five researchers. The way that the university works is that they publish a list of all the intellectual property being developed by the research teams, and this was in about 2005. Around that time, there was a lot of interest in what we were doing from Nokia and Motorola and companies that just wanted to have some mapping platform. So while we were encouraged by the university to spin off this company, it was accidental — the original research had nothing to do with commercialisation, it was very much an art project.

We had an installation in Germany where we had this big display with a map of Pittsburgh and these two server motors that controlled a point behind the map on this clear plexi [glass]. We would play back audio in real-time that was recorded using cellphones in Pittsburgh. We used our mapping software to do that kind of thing. It wasn’t designed to be a commercial product.

I decided I didn’t want to go back to teaching, I wanted something different. It was a really long struggle. We became sort of a consulting company — I had one software engineer working with me, and I hired another one, so it was basically myself and two software engineers. I did all the design work and accounting and that sort of stuff. We slowly grew the company over the last six and a half years. Now we work in advertising and product consulting.

What we are, and how we define ourselves, changed every couple of years. Sometimes we’d be an outward design studio or a development shop or an advertising agency. That was never as important as just making work, and we always let our work stand for itself. We were never really good at describing who we were as a company — we don’t fit any model that I’ve seen and that’s been successful so we’re just going to be our own thing. If we do well, that’s great. If we don’t, that’s okay too, we can all move on.

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