Last week, Techmog met with Dan Lewis, founder and CEO of Skute, to talk about new ways to connect and share content with friends, and the challenges arising form creating a physically connected social network. Skute aims to create new connections between people through content unlocked with NFC tags. They have been described as “the Instagram of people, places and things”, making a fun wearable with discoverable content.
Techmog: What is the story behind Skute?
Dan Lewis: In 2012, I had the idea to bring the physical to the digital for the music industry, and one of my friends who worked for IC tomorrow technology strategy board basically said: “We’re doing a competition, you should enter”. It was the perfect kind of competition for it. I entered it, and it ended up winning, which was amazing. We got to work, initially, with Rocket Music (Elton John’s record label), but they couldn’t find an artist that we could work with, so IC tomorrow took me on a tour of all the major labels. Sony music kind of took us up on an idea, and then Warner took us up as a challenge partner. We did our first big campaign where we got to test out the whole Skute platform: peer-to-peer sharing, putting something into a physical object. In that case, we “tech’ed up” guitar plectrums for a band called The Wild Feathers, which were on a European tour. Our guitar plectrums were handed out to fans at the gig, and when someone tapped one, they could actually choose the encore track for the band, they could do all sorts of different things. As a result of that, we got really great stats across Europe about how people were using it; we were encouraging fans that were at the gig to then get other people to tap their guitar plectrum, to build up that fanbase through a physical network. That really taught us a lot about what we could actually do with this and how it could potentially be something bigger. And that’s when Skute was born, when we felt that we could create a physical social network, essentially, where connecting with people, and meeting with people that you’ve actually met – or brands you’ve actually connected with – just made it so much more desirable, a little bit safer and more secure. All the other features came out of that initial focus.
TM: How does it work?
DL: The tags themselves are using Near Field Communication(NFC) technology; it’s a contactless tag, the same king of thing you find in Oyster cards and bank cards. It’s a very low-fi kind of tech; there’s no power source to it, which means that the actual unit price is really cost-effective; which is a big win for the target audience we’re aiming at. We encased the tags in this epoxy resin that means they’re pretty much indestructible. And then, when you double that up in a silicon pod, they’re even more indestructible! It means that as a little pack they’re only going to be a few pounds each, so if you lose them, that’s fine. All the content that’s associated with them is held in the cloud, and on the app. Once you’ve tapped on a Skute, you actually “friend” it, just like you’re friending a brand on Facebook, but then it allows you to exchange content with that particular tag, so if it’s something that’s been left around, or if it’s someone you’ve actually met, you can now share content that you’ve created, showcase where you are… If you are a skateboarder and have found a great trick spot, you can send out a notification to your mates. What we also focus on in the app. We’re currently only on Android, but we are going to be building an iOS platform that will be able to seek and discover content through geolocation, a little bit like Foursquare. There’s a lot of people using that space and I think we’ve gone for the youth market because we have done quite a bit of research, and it’s evident that young skaters and teenagers are predominantly on Android devices. The main reason being that what they love doing is skating and they smash their phone all the time. So, they tend to go for the cheaper ones.
We’re not just making it for the UK market, we’re making it for everybody, hence why we did our soft launch in South Africa; we wanted to go out to an emerging market, we wanted to assess it with a community out there, giving them something that they could easily afford, so they could actually understand the product, the tech, and how it works.
It’s all about going out and discovering them. We’ve got a map built into the app, so you’ll be able to see and locate anyone that sets their Skute’s content to public. You’re going to be able to find them; once you find them you then “friend” them, “follow” them, so even if you find them when you’re on holiday in London and you go back to New York, you can still see what content is on there and you can add content from wherever you are. That’s something we’ve made sure, was part of it.
TM: Your main target is teenagers, but do you see it expanding to a wider audience?
DL: We’ve looked at how other social networks have developed. It is very interesting to see how Facebook has grown, when it was predominantly for teenagers, university students etc. A lot of teens are now coming off there, because they’re not particularly interested in the content; it’s dominated by their moms, and dads, and grannies, and aunts. So, we feel like you have to think about who your audience is and focus on that. We hope that Skute is something the kids will get empowered by; they’ll want to embrace it, experiment with it, and really take ownership of it. As a result of that we’ll allow brands they really want to engage with to get involved: for example a street vendor, or a pop up store, or a skate shop, or a music channel. As we started to develop we realised that it does have many, many other applications and I’m starting to sketch out new elements of Skute, but for an even younger audience, for the kids market. We would probably look into developing a new brand on the side of that, using the Skute infrastructure, but less of the social element and more of the swapping and sharing. As we develop a kids’ version of the app with more parental layers, we really hope we’ll be able to work with brands such as Panini, Disney, Nintendo and the like.
With Skute we want to be discreet, but we also want to put it back into the hands of future product designers and fashion designers and say; “Look, this is the product, this is the size of it, and we could change the shapes, and what would you do with it, how would you wear it?” The actual Skutes themselves can be designed and we can get new graphics and all sorts of stuff done on them so we can sell them into the shops. We are already collaborating with young creative talent from the worlds of fashion, advertising, and action sports.
What we’re doing now is creating loads of user stories, getting people inspired. We’ve got testers in Vietnam and all the way across the US as well. We’ve got a nice little nucleus of users who are testing it and giving us feedback.
TM: Where did the name come from?
DL: Hum… good question. That was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to try and do. Every single name, and every single URL seems to be bought in the world! As part of winning the IC tomorrow competition, we were able to get connected with amazing lawyers, and when we had the initial name, Pollen, we got an email/phone call from the lawyer saying “Oh by the way, there’s another company using that name, you have to come up with something else”. We did a lot of soul searching, a lot of looking on the Urban Dictionary, and tried to come up with something that was quite cool and funky, because we knew what target audience we wanted to aim at. Someone said, “Have you heard of the word ‘scoot’?”, spelled slightly differently, and we started looking at it a bit more, and we found out that scoot is actually the brand of a vessel, a ship. And we thought that was interesting, because the tags could be a sort of vessel through which you share the content that you are “dropboxing” into the physical product. After that, we looked up Skute on the Urban Dictionary and it actually meant “a skanky-cute person”, so we thought that was quite funny. Then we did some focus groups with it, tested it out with some youth, some skaters, and they absolutely loved that terminology. So it just stuck, and it really worked, so we bought out all the URLs as fast as we could, and there you go, that’s how the name came up.
TM: Why choose NFC, which you mentioned is low-fi, over Bluetooth?
DL: There are too many limitations to “beacons”. We’re not fixed into NFC at all, we’ve done it as a cost effective option right now. With the “action” of NFC, we really like the fact that people are having to engage with it. It puts the control back to the user; you’re not getting spammed loads of rubbish, and vouchers, and offers, and deals every corner you turn around. Also, turning on NFC on your phone, doesn’t drain the battery, unlike Bluetooth does. It’d just sit there and not do anything, really. The other really nice factor is that we’re reducing the barrier of entry to our application. If you find a Skute out in the wild, on a wall, or in a skate park, and you don’t have the app; you can tap on it, and if it is a public one, it will pull up a web view of all the content that’s on there, you’ll see who owns it, and all the video content, photographs, music files… However, you won’t be able to add your own content to it, or follow it, unless you’ve got the app.
With the platform that we built, anything can become a Skute. This table could be a Skute, skateboard manufacturers could put the technology into their boards, we could partner with trainers manufacturers; with our silicon pod you could easily clip them in. We’ve actually been asked by a US firm to be the focal point of a hackathon at the end this year.
TM: What is your biggest challenge with Skute?
DL: Technically, when you’re working on Android with all the different types of handsets, and different interfaces, making sure everything works seamlessly has been a really big challenge. We’ve been finding some interesting glitches in certain handsets which has been quite funny. Also, as we start to launch, the biggest challenge will be to feel organic enough for these kids to take ownership of it, and really start to embrace it and do amazing things with it. I guess finding really good designers, good developers has been quite a challenge too, although we’re getting to that point where we know what we need to do. Cost-wise, we’re not just building an app and put it out there; we’re actually building an app that’s connected to a physical thing, so there are manufacturing costs, a lot of R&D involved, and a massive amount of legal wrangling you have to go through.
That’s the beauty of it, we’re not telling anybody how to really use it, we just want people to go and have some fun with it.
In the past, NFC projects have not always been understood and adopted by the public; Kickstarter has had a few examples of success (like the NFC ring) and failure (like Siignia); but we’re confident that Skute will fall in the former category. They have already managed to grow a community of enthusiastic test users all around the world, and are backed by brands who can see the potential for exclusive content. Dan also told us that Skute was already used by students in different kinds of projects such as Humans of London, or by parkour runners, hiding them in inaccessible places. There is already a burst of creativity around these little tags; and we can’t wait to see what comes up next. Think of all the treasure hunts! More than just a content-sharing platform, Skute lets you capture digital testimonies of real life moments.