How I decided to create the biggest ever unlock for brands – their products becoming interactive media
By Cameron Worth, founder and CEO of SharpEnd / io.tt.
He has spent his career at the intersection of physical and digital, ensuring creativity is never lost in a connected world.
Cameron launched SharpEnd / io.tt, the industry’s leading IoT agency in 2014 when he was 25 and also sits across io.tt, the world’s fastest-growing IoT SaaS agency.
Against the grain of the industry, SharpEnd / io.tt has focused on supporting brands creatively and strategically, defining and delivering value from IoT for organisations and consumers. Cameron has grown SharpEnd / io.tt to a team of more than 50 people, across two continents, and together, the team proudly supports a wide range of the world’s most ambitious brands such as Estée Lauder Companies, PepsiCo, Levi’s, Balmain and Molson Coors.
What brought you to this specific career path?
Building businesses is certainly not the easiest career path. But the rewards of building a great team with a solid client list outweighs the negatives.
My skills didn’t totally fit anywhere I was working previously, which was a deep and sincere blend of creativity and technical vision, so I put them together in a space that was desperate for a new approach and a new way of working.
My relationship with QR codes started about 15 years ago when I was in a North London pub and saw someone scanning a beer mat with his phone. I didn’t know what had just happened, but I’ve been obsessed with ‘physical to digital’ ever since. That fascination led me into the Internet of Things (or IoT), and it’s been game on since then.
I started SharpEnd back in 2015 at 25 years old to prove to myself, and the industry, that connected products need creativity as much as technology. Whilst others were only focused on ‘how many QR codes or NFC tags can we put on products?’ I was, and remain, laser-focused on the ‘but why would anyone engage in the first place?’ I knew that without creativity driving engagement there would be no success.
If I was right, and creativity was the important thing, then I would have the world’s biggest brand owners as clients and have real leverage and insight to make some moves. That happened.
We went on to build the infrastructure, a platform called io.tt, that would power this connected future as it still didn’t exist. Ten trillion products coming online equals big data opportunities and challenges to address. So, we did that too.
As a startup founder, what are some of the key challenges you’ve faced when embarking on your entrepreneurial journey?
We were profitable at SharpEnd from day one, but only grew organically from client revenues. That was tough when surrounded by a bunch of other companies doing a worse job but had raised tonnes of VC money and were being pretty wasteful. IoT ten years ago was a real buzz topic (like Metaverse is today — but with more substance), so it was easy if you could speak the language of investors to get some big cheques.
Then you had these big, clunky sales teams going out peddling the wrong message to the market, but we at SharpEnd stuck with the program and believed in ourselves and the proposition. It turned out to be the best decision but made the first few years a lot harder.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I did, and still do, genuinely believe that our approach is correct. Just had to stay committed to the vision and know we were playing a longer game and would grow in-line with the real market, rather than pump loads of cash in and then trying to force the world to agree with us.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
These days we’re an effective (and fast growing) team of about 50 people, across two continents and together we support some of the world’s most ambitious brand owners in more than 130 countries, from Molson Coors, PepsiCo, Estée Lauder Companies, Campari, Levi’s and Balmain.
We have developed and launched our SaaS platform, io.tt, that connects billions of products and intelligently handles data points at scale to finally surface how, where and why consumers are interacting on-product and in-store. This presents a real opportunity for brands to understand their consumers and scale their connected packaging adoption.
I’m a native Londoner and think you develop a bit of toughness just by growing up here, and I am always grateful before anything else that I was raised in a city that gives you the sort of opportunities that London does. Big up London!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m quite considered, rightly or wrongly, so if I make mistakes they’re generally not with funny outcomes. I feel that we have had fun through the whole journey and made sure we had a laugh. There was a point early on where I thought I needed to look older, so I wore only Sainsbury’s clothing (notably, their cardigans) for about a year until the team got together and told me I looked ridiculous.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Honestly, it’s the people and the proposition. We’re credible, massively respected and can have conversations that other people can’t have.
We’re unique because we’re the only solutions provider with a totally integrated business model for how brand owners engage with what many people refer to as the Internet of Things. Experience, Technology, Platform and Data all in the same business. It’s dreamy for clients. Eight years later we still haven’t, and can’t, been replicated.
One project that comes to mind, that captures SharpEnd / io.tt perfectly, is our work with Balmain to launch NFC-enabled Pokémon garments globally. Two very prestigious brands coming together to deliver an amazing collab that was supercharged with connected experiences. The attention required across craft, production, creative excellence, and technical expertise is something only we could have done.
Another recent campaign we enjoyed rolling out was for Rabble Wine. Rabble Wine is on a mission to bring meaningful change to the wine category, and enlisted us to bring innovation to the point of consideration. Through immersive storytelling that leveraged AR and label recognition, we helped drive home the Rabble brand story in a relevant and effective way. We did this by delivering a disruptive connected retail experience whereby consumers scanned a QR code on in store POS to enter ‘Fury or Flourish’, a world-view AR experience that hooks them into the Rabble story to influence purchase decision making.
The scene presents a tree of life and a choice to make. Shoppers are given the option of unleashing Mother Earth’s power on the tree, or letting it grow and flourish. After the AR sequence a title fades in, reminding us that we cannot so simply choose how to harness Mother Earth’s power. We must listen to her, obey her and protect her, especially if we want to continue drinking the delicious Rabble wines that are made in collaboration with Mother Nature herself.
Once completed in the AR experience, users are encouraged to find Rabble on the shelf, pick up a bottle and click ‘Discover The Range’ to see what really sets each variety apart. Scanning a smartphone over a Rabble label allows users to learn more about their chosen wine and watch a short video including tasting notes, pairings, and reviews.
The third element of the experience is an invitation to ‘Join Our Cause’ and be a part of a community that’s actively making real change, highlighting how Rabble contributes to environmental causes with each bottle sold. Geo-location allows Rabble to donate to local causes depending on where the product is scanned.
Which tips would you recommend to fellow founders to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
1 Engage in psychotherapy. It’s not a quip, but my most sincere recommendation. As a founder, keeping the anxiety, overthinking and self-doubt internally can be a challenge. Being a more structured individual makes for being a better leader. That said, leadership is a famously lonely path so ensure you can support yourself and don’t be afraid to seek support from others.
2 Understand your role and ensure you are evolving as the company does. Otherwise, you risk becoming a very inefficient micro-manager, and no one likes that. Ever.
3 Embrace healthy detachment. My business is not my baby, my colleagues are not my family. We are on an enjoyable shared path to create an entity that delivers value in all areas. I don’t think enough is said of healthy detachment, as it keeps you objective (in good or bad).
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
From a client perspective a lot of our programs are designed to help businesses reach their sustainability goals, like helping people to recycle or resell products (using QR Codes and NFC to facilitate these processes) which is impactful on a more planetary level. There is lots more to do in this space, however.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1 Know your strengths, plug the rest with other people in the early days. There’s a time for personal development, but it’s not at the beginning of your founder’s journey.
2 Accept the beatings, it’s part of the path you chose. It’s why you stand to enjoy more of the upside.
3 Really, really make sure you’re ready for a fundraising process (if you go this route). It’s quite unique. I promise you will be a more rounded businessperson by the end of it.
- Embrace change, eventually the company grows in different directions to what you anticipated, and you absolutely have to accept this or you will have full control over something stagnant.
- Back yourself at all times. You did this, not someone else.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Balance is key. Don’t get too swayed by great things or terrible things, try your best to always be somewhere in the middle.
Understand your emotional process and identify when you’re feeling rather than thinking. You’re running a business sorely on intellect vs impulse.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Not sure about great influence, but I’m certainly respected in the right places for certain things. But so is everyone.
Hope I’m not sounding too much of a hippy by now, but I constantly imagine a world where there is greater access, acceptance, and openness to psychotherapy. Absolutely everyone can benefit. Most of the most successful people I know are on some form of therapeutic journey, and I encourage everyone to at least try it with an open and curious mind. It’s mechanics for your thoughts.