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How LittleBits Went From Educational Tool To High-End Retail

The electronics maker has gone beyond the Maker movement with a new pop-up store that encourages play and experimentation.

When MIT Media Lab graduate and TED senior fellow Ayah Bdeir launched LittleBits in 2011, she had built something of a paradox.

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Here was a new approach to making technology easy and accessible: Lego-like electronic modules that snap together and let tinkerers power their creations to talk, move, and everything in between. Kids and adults alike could make sense of physical computing and engineering simply by playing with a magnetic kit.

But Bdeir’s creation was so new and novel that it also created its own barrier to entry: The simplicity of LittleBits was such that its possibilities would need to be both explained and marketed at the same time to make it a viable retail business. And at the end of the day, the LittleBits model depended on selling the kits.

From the beginning, it was clear that potential LittleBits users would have to be able to interact with the kits before they would be moved to purchase them. And for most consumers, that would mean a physical shopping experience.

Luckily, Bdeir knew that early on.

“Ever since I first started LittleBits, I’ve always been wanting to have a store,” Bdeir told Fast Company. “The products are so tactile, and the ability to understand what LittleBits is about, both from a product and from a mission perspective, is so immediate when you are able to touch them that it’s always been part of the vision to build out a retail store.”

In the past, LittleBits has had retail partnership specialty stores like Marbles: The Brain Store, and used opportunities like Maker Faire to get its products in front of users. In the spring of 2013, MoMA added LittleBits to the permanent collection at its MoMA Design Stores, and LittleBits collaborated on moving Rube Goldberg-esque window displays at each Design Store location. But Bdeir still longed for a physical home to call their own.

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Now, LittleBits finally has its own space—a new pop-up shop in Soho, New York’s high-end retail district. Smack dab in the middle of West Broadway’s array of boutiques and galleries, LittleBits will experiment with its own retail concept until January 2016, when it will shut down and use those learnings to shape its next phase of retail.

Here’s how Bdeir and her LittleBits team (which has doubled in size to 100 people since the new year) merged boutique and laboratory:

Little By Little

While Bdeir knew that a physical space was what LittleBits ultimately needed, she didn’t try to make it happen all at once. Instead, her team has spent the past couple of years building up the LittleBits arsenal so it could hold up to a store setting.

“The evolution has been going through the past two years of building up the company and the product line so that it is diverse enough and wide enough that we have something for everyone,” Bdeir says.

That meant more things with sound and flashing lights for younger kids, but also more heavily programmable options like Wi-Fi capabilities for more mature users.

“The strategy was always make the barrier to entry super low. But we’ve been building up the platform so that it’s not just a collection of products, and we’re making the ceiling higher so that you can really start to expand and get a lot more complex,” Bdeir says.

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Through those iterations, LittleBits has grown to 70 different types of modules, which translates to millions of combination possibilities, Bdeir says.

The Un-Store

Part of what makes the LittleBits pop-up store so special is its design: It’s a hybrid laboratory-boutique store, and its mixed-use purpose is clear throughout.

To create the store’s “interface,” Bdeir called on Montreal-based firm Daily Tous les Jours (DTLJ), which specializes in public art and interactive installations.

DTLJ created a finished-unfinished environment reminiscent of a workshop. The airy, split-level space is lined with large, light-colored wood panels outfitted with pegs for holding LittleBits modules as well as examples of what they can do, like a lever that releases cat food into a pet’s dish when you send it a text message from miles away. The panels are movable–much like the LittleBits themselves–so that the store can be reconfigured easily.

“The store is designed to be a little experiment,” Bdeir says. “It’s highly modular, it’s designed entirely to be reshuffled and recharged overnight, if we wanted to. Moving merchandise around, taking up more space for inventions or display, and vice versa. It’s really designed to be highly experimental.”

The extent to which DTLJ’s design complements LittleBits’s dual mission of educating visitors on the ease of using tech and selling its wares is most obvious in the store’s crowded workspaces. Visitors to the store can play with the installations on the walls or sit at work tables and try to copy an existing project using easy-to-follow instructions. Once they’re done, they can purchase the elements of what they’ve created or simply leave them there for the next visitor.

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“The idea is that we’re not a traditional retail store. You cannot go in and purchase LittleBits and walk out having never heard of it. We can’t expect to be successful like that, and it’s also not what we’re about,” Bdeir says. “We want to make sure that we are helping convert you to an inventor or unleash the inventor within you. And that takes a little bit more of a personal relationship than just putting products on a shelf.”

She says that LittleBits has gone beyond appealing to the Maker movement. Parents of all kinds, formal and informal educators, and enterprise and creative professionals are all using LittleBits to learn and create. “A store is really a way for us to talk to all these people and engage them and get to know better what they need to unleash their inner inventor.”

The LittleBits concept couldn’t come at a better time for retail. Bdeir points to a recent New York Times article highlighting facets of the retail industry that are struggling to keep users engaged with their wares.

“The retail industry is changing, and people are panicking,” Bdeir says. “Retailers are having to reinvent themselves. For us, it feels very natural. People don’t want people pushing product at them anymore. They want something that they think is meaningful, that they feel is inspiring to them, and it’s going to help make their life better. You can’t communicate that with three lines on a card and a store clerk that doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You need to create an experience.”