Tom Evans had the idea for the first of his Bleep Bleeps products sometime in 2008. He doesn’t remember the date but he does remember the time: 3am. In the middle of the night, while attending to his young daughter who was suffering from a fever, Evans was struck by how he was using both a thermometer and his phone to read and check her temperature online. Why aren’t these two things combined? he thought, before eventually returning bleary-eyed to bed.
What Evans realised was that if an ear thermometer was connected to the internet, its readings could be displayed and logged in a way that meant a worried parent wouldn’t have to go straight to Google for reassurance. Fast-forward nearly ten years, and while this particular product is yet to go into production (as Tony Tempa), Evans and his team of collaborators have already brought motion alarm Sammy Screamer and baby monitor Suzy Snooze into the world via Kickstarter, with smart toothbrush Benjamin Brush (who plays two minutes of your favourite song while you clean your teeth) launching next month.
The seven connected products now listed on the Bleep Bleeps website are each designed to make parenting easier – and with their bold colourways and minimalist design, they make a pretty cute family themselves. After Benjamin Brush, Evans’ next product will be Lily Loco, a location tracking pendant, followed by the aforementioned Tony T. At the same time, the company is developing two other products with design studio and long-term collaborators, Map, one based around imaging and video, the other around food on-the-go for families.
We conceived the design language and how [Bleep Bleeps] behaved first, then began to backfill with technology
Most of the ideas for these products have come out of Evans’ own experience of being a father of two. Having gone through the disrupted nights himself, with their heightened levels of stress and lack of sleep, he has a good idea of what parents want help with. “A lot of our products are based around creating ritual,” he says. “And we realised that we wanted to make products that people use every day. A lot of the early concepts we had were around pregnancy and birth – very cool and very useful – but only really useful for maybe a few weeks out of your life. And, as a parent, I knew there were daily problems and challenges that we could help with. Sleep is huge, the biggest commodity; how much they’re getting, how much you’re getting, whose turn it is to get up in the night. Then we looked at other rituals – toothbrushing, how we could make it more fun and incentivise it, bring out a sense of joy and build ritual around it.”
At an aesthetic level, Evans hopes that Bleep Bleeps’ appealing, character-based designs will resonate emotionally with people. But these objects are rigorously researched and built connected devices – and they are made to last. Unlike many of the products available in this area, they have longevity built into them, Evans explains, “so they can grow with your child”. This is key to his long-term vision for Bleep Bleeps. For example, Suzy Snooze functions as a baby monitor when a child is very young, but can then be used as a night light and sleep soother, even a connected speaker. Benjamin Brush is intended for use from teething to adulthood – its silicone ‘pom pom’ head can be swapped for a more standard-looking rubber brush. It’s a family-centred approach rather than a specific age-centred one.
“There are a lot of hit and run products in parenting,” says Evans. “[As a parent] you have a need, a desperate need, for something – you buy it and it lasts a few weeks or months. You forget about it, give it to charity or whatever. We’re trying to make stuff that you’d be pleased to have as an object in your home, that also has a longevity to it, an evolution I suppose.”
Evans’ own journey to launching Bleep Bleeps is unusual, too, in that he isn’t from a tech background. He founded digital agency Mook in 1999 (eventually selling it to the Nitro Group in 2007), before working as brand communications director at Jack Wills/Aubin & Wills and then taking on ECD roles at Being and TBWA. But starting out in branding and communications has given him a way into connected products that has become an effective point of difference. “We conceived the design language and how [Bleep Bleeps] behaved first, then began to backfill with technology,” he says. While tech firms will often start with the technology and try and find a use for it, Evans continues, “we started with people and cool, cute characters and then wrapped utility around them”.
“There is no finish line really,” Evans adds. “There’s never going to be a point where I go ‘well, that’s Bleep Bleeps done’. You have to get used to the feeling and enjoy every day, the journey and the learning and the grind that it is making connected hardware. It’s really hard, [there are] so many bits to join up: industrial design, then the mechanical engineering, design for manufacture, then the electronics and printed circuit board design and componentry. Then there’s the connected/radio stuff, the software on the device and the app. Then you’ve got to sell it!”
Even people ‘liking’ it on FaceBook was incredibly motivating. There was some energy around it [that] I was going in the right direction. The sharing of it was like fuel to keep going
In a talk given at a Glug London event in 2014, Evans stressed the importance of talking to people about your business ideas; of sharing your creative vision, rather than hiding it away. This way of working enabled b him to collect feedback from a wide range of people prior to launching the company. And while Evans revealed some of the influences on and inspiration behind the Bleep Bleeps range – from Memphis design and the work of Teenage Engineering, to Japanese vinyl toys – he also showed how he had been open about sharing product sketches and circuitry drawings from the very beginning.
“I didn’t consciously do this, [but it] was about publically committing to something, so that you got off your arse and did it,” he says of the reasons behind this open approach. “A bit like if you commit to running a marathon. The shame of not living up to it can be quite motivating! And it just felt like the right thing to do was share it. The opposite is you keep your idea highly private and launch to a great fanfare when it’s finished. I was really inspired by the whole ‘lean startup’ thing, which is [where you] share your ideas with everyone as much as you can and get feedback. Even people just ‘liking’ it on FaceBook was incredibly motivating. There was some energy around it [that] I was going in the right direction. The sharing of it was like fuel to keep going.”
Evans says that in launching a website full of interesting ideas for connected products, many early visitors assumed Bleep Bleeps was a huge company. With CGI and video “it was fake it ‘til you make it basically,” he adds. “Because I’d come from content rather than tech it was easy for me to do – to describe it in that way, as marketing.” As none of the products existed in the real world, Evans was forced to try and communicate what they were about. Here, his knowledge of storytelling and branding, character design and film came in particularly useful – even so, he describes the approach as a kind of “intelligent naivety”.
One early product idea, a home ultrasound scanner called Ultra Stan, caught people’s imagination right away, but the reality was that it would be a tricky device to make. While the hardware was feasible it became clear that correctly interpreting any scan would require certain levels of expertise and regulation. Rather than scrap the idea, however, Evans simply put it on ice.
This flexibility of approach is indicative of how nimble and responsive Evans’ company can behave when it needs to. Bleep Bleeps has no office space – Evans runs the studio from home as its only full-time employee and relies on a wide range of part-time, contracted and freelance collaborators. There are also weekly calls to contacts in Shenzhen in China where the products are manufactured. “My challenge as we scale and grow is hanging on to this lean, virtual and remote way of doing it,” he says.
Evans’ own time is meticulously planned out, he says, with each day of the week set aside for a different part of the business – from admin and finance, to sales, software and products (the latter is a meeting with Map each Friday). “In general I try and put stuff in boxes, in my diary at least,” he says. Evans also uses OmniFocus for task management with team projects going into Trello.
While connectivity and openness remain at the heart of the Bleep Bleeps world, Evans is currently attempting a personal digital detox, he says, with an aim of achieving a more distinct separation between work and life – a disconnection of sorts. This might prove trickier than he hopes, Bleep Bleeps being so much the product of lived experience. But by leaving his phone off in the evenings – and getting into ‘journalling’ – Evans hopes to acquire more “headspace and gratitude. I’m getting increasingly Zen in my old age.”