I don’t think that “Atoms are the New Bits” on any large scale, but there is an interesting trend of web based companies creating physical products to generate revenue or buzz. Websites have been doing this for a while with the most common examples being T shirts and mugs with a sites logo or a book based on a blog’s content. XKCD is the latest example with their self published book that has earned $53,000 in profit in 3 months. While these can be great offerings they are generally enabled by the same generic platforms that offer Print on Demand publishing or Direct to Garment printing.
Going beyond the readily available platforms helps products to standout. Seth Godin was one of the first to advocate this kind of activity on a large platform. His book “Purple Cow” came in a faux milk carton and the follow up “Free Prize Inside” came in a cereal box. The odd packaging is great conversation starter, sets his books apart from the generic business fare on the shelf, and has helped establish him as a trusted marketing guru.
Going a step further, travel startup Air Bed and Breakfast created real cereal boxes (with real cereal) as part of a marketing campaign to get their fledgling service off the ground in 2008. While reporters get hundreds of emails and press releases every day they do not get something as creative and tangible as the AirBNB cereal. This promotion was a great success putting them on a breakneck growth trajectory and getting them coverage in the New York Times, CNN, Time, BusinessWeek, and USA Today to name just a few.
“Shockingly Good” software maker Panic created retro boxes for their software reminiscent of those that held 5 1/4″ floppies back in 1980′s. The artwork is amazing, period correct, and a fun “Cube Grenade” for fans of their software.
All told, making things of paper is relatively easy. The Icon Factory took on a big challenge by creating a plastic toy version of Ollie, the mascot from their wildly popular Twitter client, Twitterific. Done up in the “Urban Vinyl” style it is a really well executed port of the character complete with a soft “flocked” surface. They haven’t released sales figures, but it has generated a lot of blog posts and Twitter traffic helping them differentiate from lesser, toy-less, Twitter clients.
Economics and material science are working against a true industrial revolution where we will see the tools of production move from factories to garages across the nation. However the increasing availability of these tools in the form of dropping equipment prices or services that provide access to them (See: ShapeWays, QuickParts, Ponoko, et al.) is going to let companies who may not be “Atomcentric” produce physical compliments to their digital offerings. We may not see millions of new factories in the short run, but I would bet we will see thousands.
The missing link to wider use of these approaches seems to be knowledge about the capabilities and complexities of manufacturing. I’ve talked to a number of software entrepreneurs who are working on physical components to supplement their core offerings, but don’t know where to start looking. Books like QuickPart’s “Better be Running” are a good start, but only touch on a couple aspects of the manufacturing puzzle. With a better introduction to the world of mass production we could see more of this cool stuff.
The examples I’ve provided are great marketing promotions or side businesses, and represent an interesting trend when viewed next to companies using this physical/digital hybrid model to market as a core component of their strategy e.g Boxee with their set top box and remote and FitBit.