The apparent collapse of Mahabis, the slipper start-up, just after Christmas, sent a chill through the supposedly booming direct-to-consumer sales sector.
I follow this D2C sector closely not because I am particularly interested in slippers (or mattresses or gas boiler installations or luggage) but because these are primarily tech businesses. The founders are not footwear, bedding, plumbing or suitcase specialists, but smart people interested in using tech to muscle in on complacent corners of commerce.
But all I have spoken with seem to be genuinely interested — and frightened — by how Mahabis, with a minimal staff, managed to go belly up having, by its account, sold more than 1m pairs of £69 slippers direct to buyers. Post-Mahabis, could the whole idea of disruptive new technology-first businesses be seen as a bad joke by January 2020?
It is easy to see how reimagined internet slippers — comfortable as they are — were, perhaps, a slightly fatuous idea. It already seems like a weird dream that such a thing existed. But consumer technology embraces many far more “out there” ideas. My favourite of the past year was Smalt, an app-connected salt dispenser with built-in mood lighting and Bluetooth speaker and which even works with Alexa.
While this California hopeful seeks to disrupt salt cellars, what I find more interesting is the less showy disruption going on in unexpected fields. Who would have imagined, for example, that an app is being introduced this year for forestry workers to help locate trees in need of felling?
I came across Logbuch recently on a visit to the German garden tools manufacturer Stihl. In old-style forestry, explained Wolfgang Zahn, head of research and development, a forester will see a tree that’s ready to become timber and mark it with a spray can. But with Logbuch, armed with a smartphone, they will note a tree’s position accurate to 10cm, make notes on the quality and quantity of the wood, even add a voice note.
“It’s digital tree-spraying,” said Mr Zahn. “So when someone like Ikea asks for 50 tonnes of a particular type and quality of wood, the lumber company can immediately see which trees are suitable and the lumberjacks can locate them immediately. It’s quicker, with simpler logistics and less need for wood storage.”
Then there is Watch Tuner Timegrapher, an app for watchmakers. Watch repairers and makers sometimes use an expensive diagnostic machine called a timegrapher, a young watchmaker explained to me at Christmas. But this £12.99 app, by a Polish developer, uses an iPhone’s microphone to provide a detailed health report on a watch movement just by listening to it.
Another truly disruptive technology recently launched by a London company threatens to eat dentists’ lunch. Straight Teeth Direct promises, as the press release puts it, “straight teeth from the comfort of your couch”.
This is a self-treatment system. Users send pictures and scans of their crooked teeth — the company sends an impression kit, then supplies the correct braces and monitors progress via an app. The claimed result is a 70 per cent saving on orthodontics.
And finally, a disruptive funeral “solution” from a Sheffield start-up. Undertakers are not a much loved profession. This is not just because you tend not to deal with them by choice. Bereaved families frequently feel cornered and pressured when they are at their most vulnerable to add expensive “extras” to funerals.
Ascension Flights offers a novel send-off at a fixed price. For £1,395, it will send a person’s ashes on a balloon to 100,000 feet and scatter them to the winds: “They will circle through the heavens before finally returning to Earth in rainfall and snowflakes,” according to their website. For an additional £800, Ascension will video the ashes’ release and provides the footage, set to music of your choice. It says it has already done more than 400 near-space scatterings.
It is true that disruption has become a cliché. One of the business stories of 2019 could be the air coming out of a succession of bumptious start-ups. But for every disruptive technology of dubious lasting value, there will continue to be several which quietly, in a limited field, genuinely do improve life.
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