SharpEnd’s Founder and CEO, Cameron Worth, joins Ryan Chacon on this IoT For All Podcast episode to discuss NFC. Cameron shares the founding story of SharpEnd and dives into what exactly NFC is and how it differentiates itself from similar technologies. Cameron talks about how IoT plays a role in the industries that SharpEnd focuses on and the challenges for brands looking to integrate NFC into their products. Ryan and Cameron wrap up the podcast with a discussion about the future of NFC and what to expect from SharpEnd.
Cameron Worth, 33, founded SharpEnd, the world’s first Internet of Things (IoT) focused agency, when he was 25. The business is based in Hackney, London, and develops connected products and experiences for brands. After seeing customers in a North London bar tapping their phones on QR codes for the first time in 2015, Cameron created SharpEnd. Before starting his own company, he managed mobile advertising at Soho-based marketing and mobile agency group Engine, delivering many successful projects but, unfortunately, having some unsuccessful children’s apps for Mr. Bean. Cameron splits his time between London, Ibiza, and Bulgaria. In his spare time, he DJs minimal electronic music and plays across Europe’s cities, galleries and afterparties.
Interested in connecting with Cameron? Reach out on Linkedin!
SharpEnd / io.it is the world’s fastest-growing Internet of Things partner to leading brands spanning the categories of drinks, beauty, fashion, wellness, and FMCG. Clients include Estée Lauder Companies, Pernod Ricard, PepsiCo, Mattel and Nestlé, Yeo Valley, and LVMH. Founded in 2015 and with offices in the UK and US, SharpEnd uses technologies such as NFC, QR codes, and Augmented Reality to develop connected packaging, product, and retail experiences for brands powered by the industry standard platform called io.tt, which is currently used in over 130 countries. SharpEnd’s proprietary platform, io.tt, connects billions of products and store touchpoints across the globe, identifying where and why consumers are interacting and delivering these insights back in real-time dashboards.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(01:29) Introduction to Cameron and SharpEnd
(05:12) How IoT plays a role in Sharpend’s industries
(08:51) What is NFC technology?
(12:53) Challenges for brands going into NFC
(15:38) Future of NFC
– [Cameron] So what we really did is we were quite responsible for bringing brands and marketers into the kind of IoT ecosystem. So if you sort of fast forward to seven years, now we’ve got a bunch of the world’s biggest brands that kind of use our blend of SaaS and studio to deliver IoT programs, Levi’s, NFC enabled jeans, companies with their global IoT partner.
– [Ryan] Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast, the number one publication and resource for the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Ryan Chacon. On today’s episode we have Cameron Worth, the founder and CEO of SharpEnd. They are an integrated solutions partner offering industry leading SaaS platform for connected products supported by global pioneer of IoT engagement. A lot of variable cool stuff happening there. Great conversation today. We talk about NFC. If you are unfamiliar with that, we’ll explain it to you. We talk about the future of it, how companies can go big with it, what stopping companies from going big with NFC and how NFC technology and IoT technologies are disrupting industries like the beauty and fashion space. So all in all, fantastic conversation I think we’ll get a lot of value out of. But before we get into it, if you out there are looking to enter the fast growing and profitable IoT market but don’t know where to start, check out our sponsor, Leverege. Leverege’s IoT solutions development platform, provides everything you need to create turnkey IoT products that you can white label and resell under your own brand. To learn more, go to iotchangeseverything.com. That’s iotchangeseverything.com. And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of the IoT for all podcast. Welcome Cameron to IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Cameron] Thank you for having me, Ryan.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. I’m looking forward to the conversation. Let’s kick this off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself to our audience.
– [Cameron] Yeah, my name is Cameron. I’m the founder and sometimes accused of being the CEO of SharpEnd. We’re a 50 person company, headquartered in London, office in New York, delivering global IoT programs for the world’s biggest brands.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. And tell, I’d love to hear a little bit more about the founding story of the company. So you know, where did the idea for what you all do come from, what was the opportunity you saw and kind of take us through that.
– [Cameron] Yeah, so I consider us as a bit of like, like an ugly stepchild of the IoT industry because we’re not really what you would consider an IoT player but we’re very much a kind of a core part of the ecosystem. Comfortably or uncomfortably. And the reason I say that is because, when we started, the IoT seven years ago, eight years ago nearly now, was fridges that were supposed to reorder your milk and that was gonna be the thing that was happening and everyone needs to get ready for a world where milk doesn’t spoil because Cisco is coming to the rescue. And then the cats were gonna be able to get into the same house because of RFID in their collars, you know, and there was all these kind of weird stuff. If I remember correctly, and this is drawing back slightly, and I might have got my company names wrong, but I remember Thingworks when it sold to PTC, I think that was something that, hopefully, I’ve got the names right, but I remember they tracked bananas in crates for companies, you know what I mean? That that was like something I could understand, something that had a clear value and something that kind of meant something to certain people. And I sort of looked at that and I said, “Well, actually what I want to try and do is find like very, very clear demonstrable use cases for the IoT for cool brands.” So I went to Absolute vodka, for example, and said, “Well, hey, everyone’s talking weird stuff about fridges, what about if we put NFC or QR codes into 125 million bottles of absolute vodka?” You’ve just created a whole new owned media channel. And what happens when Nevia wants to roll out QR codes across all their skincare products? And so what we really did is we were quite responsible for bringing brands and marketers into the kind of IoT ecosystem. So if you sort of fast forward to seven years, now we’ve got a bunch of the world’s biggest brands that kind of use our blend of SaaS and studio to deliver IoT programs, Levi’s, NFC enabled jeans, companies with they’re global IoT partner, Campari Group, , PepsiCo. So we’ve got a lot of these kind of big, credible, meaningful deployments of IoT but it’s IoT in the sense that it focuses very much on kind of connected packaging and connected retail. So just to kind of finish that emotional monologue, the next one to think about is, “Okay, well, where did IoT sit in the advertising ecosystem? Because if we’re not from the IoT space, then we must come from advertising.” But actually in advertising and media, product is media. IoT for engagement, it didn’t exist either. So we kind of created this sort of new field that bridges experience, physical, digital and technology and we’ve done it pretty well and you can see now a lot of people look to us for kind of where, where the industry’s going from a marketing and an engagement perspective so…
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Yeah, that’s awesome. Congrats on all the success you’ve had. I did wanna ask about those industries specifically, which we don’t get the opportunity to kind of dive into all that often, how is IoT really playing a role in those industries? It sounds like there’s obviously applications there, but from your experience, how accepting have those industries more, you know, the beverage industry, beauty, fashion, wellness, etcetera. How have they really been from a receptive standpoint on receiving kind of IoT and implementing IoT technologies?
– [Cameron] Yeah, it’s a great question, man. And like the thing that we had to do first was change the language because there was all of these and, again, we go back seven or eight years because bear in mind, for the first five years, SharpEnd wasn’t a mainstream concept, but since COVID, everyone’s using QR, NFC, augmented reality and now all of the brands are kind of coming back to SharpEnd now and saying, “Hey, the thing you told us about in 2017, we need to kind of do it now because everyone’s looking at it.” We had to change the language because what happened was, as well as a lot of these kind of IoT businesses, if you’re an IoT platform or an IoT technology, everyone was chasing marketing budget and everyone was trying to speak to CMOs and chief digital officers and all this kind of stuff and they were really screwing up the conversation ’cause they weren’t speaking to brand challenges, business objectives, consumer needs. So we didn’t wanna come in and say, “Hey, we do IoT, we’re an IoT agency.” We had to really distill it down into very concrete use cases around connected products, retail innovation, connected home, and really kind of focus it very specifically on use cases because then, at that point, you’ve taken IoT out of the language because what we found early on is you say IoT and they say, “Oh, we spoke to a bunch of IoT companies and there’s nothing there for us.” And we all know that there’s a huge amount of value across the supply chain and kind of, you know, going through into kind of retail and through product consumption that there’s a huge value proposition for IoT. But you had all of these companies that were saying, “Hey, we are gonna be the,” you know, “the new Salesforce,” and they all going to the brands and saying, “You need an IoT platform and,” you know, “you need to work with us.” And the brands were kind of put off by it and a little bit turned off by the IoT. So step one was to change the language and distill it down into use cases. And then, step two, in terms of where the real value is, I consider myself an IoT guy but I’m always on the fringes of the IoT industry because it doesn’t pay, you know, pay my bills to sort of be a part of every supply chain conversation around traceability and, you know, farm to fork and all this kind of stuff. But the easiest thing that I can do, or the best thing that I can do for the industry is make sure that brands are incorporating products as media channels because, if you then have digital triggers on products, QR codes, NFC tags, watermarking, etcetera, then it’s much easier to bring the rest of the business along on the journey and say, “Hey, we’re using it to do engagement over here, but did you know we can also do supply chain traceability with the same ID?” Do you know what I mean? So you look at something like Avery Dennison, for example, you know, they’ve got their product cloud Atma. Atma fully focused on kind of traceability, transparency and that’s really what they wanna be able to do. What we really want to do and what we do very well is the engagement and the experience part. And when you can kind of bring those two things together, that’s when it becomes IoT, in my opinion. When you can do everything along the product journey that uses, essentially, connected products to be able to deliver business and brand applications. And then also you’ve got all of the other obvious bits, the, you know, ingredient management, supply chain tracking, you know, logistics and all that kind of stuff but there’s much smarter people who get paid much more money than I do to figure those things out.
– [Ryan] I gotcha. I did wanna ask, so we talked about, or you mentioned, NFC technologies and they’re playing a role in disrupting a lot of these industries. Two part question that I wanted to ask is, the first, can you just give a quick overview of NFC, kind of, technology for our audience? Just so they understand exactly what it is, how it works, and then talk a little bit more about how NFC technologies, and even other IoT technologies, in that regard, are really disrupting industries like the beauty and fashion industries. ‘Cause I’ve had a couple guests on here who have talked about certain applications of technology, IoT technologies, but I feel like you’re much closer to a lot of these things and it’d be really interesting to kinda hear a little bit more about that.
– [Cameron] Yeah, so, I mean, as an individual, I’ve been living and breathing kind of QR codes, NFC, augmented reality for nearly 10 years now. QR codes were kind of where it started. Everyone knows, 1994, wave, tracking car parts through the automotive process and blah, blah, blah. NFC was born out of RFID technology, but it was designed to work on a much smaller range because it was much more focused around like discreet applications like payments, for example. So rather than RFID, which is monitoring, you know, DVDs in electronic shops, then NFC is much more focused around smaller, shorter interactions like mobile payments, etcetera, etcetera. That’s probably a very easy way to describe the function of NFC. The manifestation of NFC is a small tag, right? So where RFID has like big powered units and RFID tags and stuff, NFC is generally like an adhesive sticker. It has a drive, it has an antenna, it’s got a substrate. And essentially the purpose for NFC, in the context of like engagement, is to broadcast a URL to a smartphone. So you go within five centimeters of the tag with your smartphone, it pops up with a browser notification, you’re then able to launch the experience. That’s really the main function for NFC right now. There’s kind of the more intricate parts of NFC, such as it kind of having a hidden new ID in some of the tags, which is great for authentication. So you don’t just look for the URL but you look for the URL that’s paired with this unique identifier, that’s hidden deep inside the tag, which is good for brand protection. But there’s two things that make NFC stand out against QR because NFC versus QR is always the conversation that you’re gonna have. The first one is the unique encoding of NFC. It’s much easier ’cause it happens at the factory, you’re just spinning out NFC tags that all have unique identities. So I would be able to know that every single one of my products is uniquely identifiable and with QR codes you would need to have, you know, high speed digital printing techniques to be able to support that kind of use case. So that’s the first one. And the second one is just, it feels more luxury, right? It costs more, so a QR code is basically free to produce, apart from using the platform and all that kinda stuff, but then the NFC tag is generally, you know, 12 to 15 dollar cents up, depending on order volumes. But it’s much better for cosmetics, fashion, the things that need a bit more of a kind of a discreet and a high touch feel, right? QR codes aren’t really aesthetically pleasing. NFC is a much nicer user journey, right? You take your phone out, you tap a tag, something pops up, you open it, you go to a cool experience. And then the integration part is a bit more complex, you know? So for example, the work that we did with Levi’s, we integrated NFC tags into all of their back patches for one of their collabs. You have to go through a whole production test around machine washing, spin testing, withstanding heat, withstanding cold, making sure that it’s machine washable. So that there’s a bit more complexity to integrating NFC. But generally, it’s the technology of choice for our cosmetics and fashion clients and . Yeah. Yeah.
– [Ryan] And what are the biggest challenges for brands looking to really grow their NFC usage? Or you know, what’s really stopping them from going down that path? If anything.
– [Cameron] Yeah, there’s kind of, being from London so I always have kind of anecdotes, is the way that I sort of make sense of the world. But I remember, with one of our drinks clients, they’re like the global creative agency and I was in the room and they say, “Well why is SharpEnd here? We can do NFC.” I said, “Okay, fine. Well, if you can understand the difference between type one to four NFC forum certified tags and if you know the difference between, you know, my fare and X, Y, and Z and if you’re able to do the unique encoding at a platform level and if you’re able to work with a label converter, if you’re able to do the production line thing and build the experience, then you’re welcome to the brief.” And it’s kind of when you say that they were like, “Actually, SharpEnd probably got a role to play.” So then the thing for me it’s about being able to put everything together. It’s about understanding how labels are applied to products and how you integrate NFC and how you test them on the line and how you communicate it on pack and how you build a right experience that makes people wanna engage. So being able to make sure that they can give you everything and they know they can give you everything. That’s the first barrier. Second barrier is cost. You know, it’s gonna increase my cost of goods quite significantly if I’m embracing NFC at scale. But actually what you can kind of do is start thinking, “Okay, are we spending more on the product but are we spending less on capturing data?” For example. So if we are delivering an experience that generates first party data acquisition, is there a solid business case that says, “No because we’re spending $4 per email address on these channels, can we spend $2 on product as media channel and can we get the same data cleaner with opt-in?” So it’s kind of about understanding the business case. And then the third one is scaling, I think. It’s, not very easy, but it’s much easier to deliver limited edition pack rollouts of NFC than it is to do like an always on full rollout of the technology, like we’ve done before because you need to be able to work with local agencies, you need to be able to industrialize the processes, start working across supply chain, start building more use cases. But like I said, for me, it’s always much more, and maybe it’s just ’cause I have a simple brain, but it’s much easier to speak to marketers and digital and get them to adopt the technology as a test and then get to work with the rest of the business on saying, “Hey, but you can also do traceability, you can also do authentication, you can also do eCommerce and quality driving.” So it’s about understanding what the use cases are that are gonna drive the right conversations around the business ’cause that’s how it scales.
– [Ryan] Right, right. Totally makes sense. And where do you kind of see the future of NFC technology going? Not just the technology itself but the use cases, the adoption, that kind of thing. What are you most bullish about? Or do you see other industries maybe that are not utilizing the technology that would be good fit? So you kind of see it, you know, evolving into from an adoption standpoint.
– [Cameron] I think fashion and luxury is in an interesting space right now. Fashion and luxury seems to just be in a competition about who can put QR codes on their labels first. I think that, for me, is like a rush to technology, which is, “Shit, everyone else is putting QR codes on stuff. We need to get QR codes on our labels.” If you look at most of our, and I say most ’cause we’ve got some good examples of clothing brands that have rolled out QR in their garments, but I think NFC is gonna be the dominant technology in fashion and luxury just because of the high touch experience of engaging with NFC and the unique identity within the tag that kind of gives the product a personality. So for me, I think that’s gonna be the big one. We’ve got a very big announcement in September around luxury brand embracing NFC, which we can share with you in more detail in a couple of weeks. NFC… I mean, to be honest, I think it’s more about… I think… Actually I think probably what I could do is answer it in a slightly imported manner, which is, the problem isn’t with NFC, the problem is with the fragmentation of platforms and every NFC tech company right now is either building their own platform or partnering with another one. And then you’ve kind of got eight tag companies, who are all doing different things on a platform level, but they all kind of do the same thing. There’s no real competitive advantage on any of them. So its gonna be different because you’re gonna have tag providers that are saying, “We wanna become a digital business by 2027 and we need to have a software component,” and it’s just gonna slow the market down because a brand might have a license to our platform globally, but then, the NFC tag company is saying, “No, no. You have to use our platform to buy our tags.” You see what I mean? It’s all just money now. And I think this is gonna just be another bit of a… I dunno how long you’ve been in the space for but there’s been a couple of these things. There was like the thin films of this world, who promised one cent NFC tags, and the whole market went thin film for a while and then everyone realized that was bullshit after about two years. And then they were like, “Where do we go from here?” And then the next one was, you know, company X promising this type of tag and then the market moves that way and now everyone’s promising a platform and so you just kind of wait for these extremes to just kind of slow down and everyone just kind of ends up coming to sense.
– [Ryan] Yep. No, that’s a fantastic, it’s a very interesting space to pay attention to, as new smart technologies are getting implemented, adopted, and used by, not just the companies, but also the customer and the end user. So sounds like you have some very exciting things going on over there. For audience who wants to learn more, potentially follow up on this conversation, ask questions, anything like that, dive more into just what you all are have going on. What’s the best way they can do that?
– [Cameron] I mean, sharpend.com. S-H-A-R-P-E-N-D.com is the website, it’s got information about the studio, about the platform. Yeah, and that’s generally the best way. I mean, I’m on LinkedIn, Cameron Worth, SharpEnd is the only kind of social media presence I’ll have if you can call it that. But yeah, just… Yeah, appreciate your time and questions and- I’m not sure if you agree with me, if you kind of agree with me in this kind of journey that the IOT’s been on, it’s kind of been chasing its own fads for the last five or six years.
– [Ryan] Yeah. To a degree, I get where you’re coming from. I mean, you know, even on like the platform and more enterprise commercial side of things, platform’s always been a big thing, right? Everyone on their own platform, they realize that that and the fragmentation of the market just wasn’t realistic to lend itself well to adoption across different areas. So I think people have kind of started to go a little bit further away from that and we’re seeing some consolidation of the industry in different areas, different players and things along those lines. Yeah, it’s super interesting. You know, one of my goals has always really been to try to showcase what IoT can really do and not just focus on hypothetical or conceptual ideas of IoT, which I think a lot of people get hung up on, on, “Here’s what it could do for your business,” but until you actually prove out the success and prove the scale, prove the technologies work in that environment and so forth, it’s hard for people to really want put their money towards adopting it. And I think we need to see more of those successes in order for adoption to continue to grow and the industry to succeed together.
– [Cameron] Yeah. Yeah, I think if I could leave you with one sort of soundbite, based on what you’ve just said, is that the IoT can save you money in marketing costs, you know?
– [Ryan] Sure, yeah. And that’s a unique angle too because that’s not necessarily something… A lot of the businesses I’ve spoken to, their use cases are… Haven’t really touched on that as much, but when you’re talking about more consumer facing industries, like you are involved in, definitely it makes a ton of of sense and is super interesting to kind of explore.
– [Cameron] All right. Thanks for your time, man.
– [Ryan] Yeah, thank you so much. Really appreciate it and can’t wait to get this out and, you know, would love to have you back at some point, talk further about what’s going on in the space.
– [Cameron] Easy man. Take it easy.
– [Ryan] Thank you. All right, everyone. Thanks again for watching that episode of the IoT For All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel and be sure to hit the bell notifications so you get the latest episodes as soon as they become available. Other than that, thanks again for watching and we’ll see you next time.