New orbits of influence for Van Der Berg
The CEO of digital display company Pufferfish has transformed the business prospects of the Edinburgh start-up since arriving in 2022
It’s difficult not to appreciate the wow factor when you step into the darkened studios of Pufferfish. Tucked away in a parade of nondescript business lock-ups in the south side of Edinburgh, the workshop is a hive of innovation and industry producing products that are impressive to see and to touch.
Large spherical orbs float in the air, radiating translucent colour and intense brightness. One of them, the PufferGrand, is a 1.7 metre high ball with changing characteristics suspended from the ceiling and illuminated by an internal projection system. A high-resolution fisheye lens inside the orb has been programmed to ensure every pixel on the surface is 100 per cent pin sharp. The results are entrancing and, for Pufferfish, the applications and opportunities are massive.
As happened with many companies, the Covid pandemic stalled progress at Pufferfish. A reset was required. It is fair to say that the firm was in a precarious position when Elaine Van Der Berg was asked if she could bring her business polish to a Scottish enterprise that had somehow lost its sparkle.
When she agreed to become Pufferfish’s CEO in May 2022, Van Der Berg, who has held senior positions at Dell, Capita and Amazon Web Services (AWS), was swapping the big corporate world (and its regular pay packets) for a small scale-up.
“My first discussions were with Par Equity, who were considering putting in the new funding support for the company,” she says. “I had known Paul Atkinson of Par Equity for some time and met with Iain Mackay, the Pufferfish chairman. I told them that I would make an honest assessment of the company. Was there a business here with great prospects and could we turn it around?”
She was obviously hit by the wow factor too. “When I came in, I just saw opportunity after opportunity. Not only was there a great product and a talented team, but there were also superb case studies, and an astonishing client list. In my view, what was missing was the business fundamentals – and I knew we could fix that.”
Tall, blonde and in her early fifties, Van Der Berg exudes vitality and sense of mission. A funding round of £626,000 was agreed and she set about rebuilding a business that now employs more than 20 people. “I went back to the basics of how I see companies. I asked: is there a market? What is that market size? Who is the target audience? Does the product fit – and what is the price point,” she explains.
“We have real innovation in here and I’m really proud of what we do. We are still the market leaders, the creators of immersive experiences, using our spherical displays and solutions. Each one that we make and assemble enables major brands to captivate their audiences in ways that are pertinent to them,” she says.
The Pufferfish client list reads like a Who’s Who of industry blue chips, including Rolls-Royce Engineering, NASA, the San Francisco 49ers and a host of educational centres such as the National Oceanography Centre, where earth science and astronomy is taught. More recently, Pufferfish has been working with Disney Haunted Mansion, via an agency called Partridge Events.
In its Edinburgh studio and workshop, the team designs and builds – and later instals – five types of sphere. The PufferTouch is the flagship touch-enabled display; the PufferSphere suits more permanent installations in museums and galleries; the PufferHemi is half a sphere but with double pixel density, and is garnering new markets after the first one was sold to Saudi Airlines; the PufferMini is a new smaller and more accessible display; the PufferGrand is the largest sphere, capable of dominating any space and engaging large audiences.
“We use the term immersive because we’ve made the transition from being passive spheres to this more immersive experience where users can interact with the spheres. That might be a young scientist learning about the planets or an airline passenger wishing to find out more about their journey using the PufferHemi,” Van Der Berg explains.
One potential client is in discussion about creating a suite of spheres that are the relative size of each planet in the Solar System to form the centrepiece of a planetarium, and there are some hush-hush projects underway for a major entertainment brand.
At the core of Van Der Berg’s plan is a drive for profitability. “I like to simplify complexity so that we have a structure that everyone understands and can follow,” she says.
“I’ve defined this as four areas: we want to evolve our spherical display products to exploit emerging technologies, and that includes AI. We’ve been introducing new display forms using our underlying tech, while at the same time enhancing our core software to improve that wow factor for our customers.”
Increasingly, Pufferfish has embraced SaaS [software as a service] solutions to enable clients to build their own bespoke displays, aided by Pufferfish’s support and installation.
In the past 15 months, the hard work has begun to pay off. Revenue has grown by more than 60 per cent in the last year, which is not a bad figure considering the underlying economic situation.
“Most of this has been through word of mouth – so the brand is synonymous with the product, and vice versa. We have developed our own go-to market for sales. We’re on a significant journey to acquire more customers, making sure that product, sales and marketing are all fully aligned. In my view, they all have to be joined at the hip.”
She has no illusions about the battle to stay in the game. “I often say that Pufferfish is one of Edinburgh’s longest running start-ups and one of its best kept secrets. We’re starting to emerge from this, but as you scale-up there is juggling of cash flows and product sales, because you have to invest to grow.”
Much of the ‘secret sauce’ lies in how the Pufferfish team utilises its expertise to stay ahead of the competition. “Our biggest defence is always improving and offering something new and innovative to customers, who know that we can deliver. We currently have about 20 global suppliers and we must source components from different places. We’ve managed to shorten lead times, and accelerate delivery, but there have been issues with cost increases,” she concedes.
Pufferfish now has a clear three-year plan in place, targeting around £4m of turnover next year. In the longer term, investors will be looking for an exit and a return on their capital within the next two to four years and Van Der Berg is comfortable with this timescale. “I understand all of the objectives for the company, and of course, I want us all to succeed and share in the future prospects.”
She says many companies have had to reassess their markets after the shock of Covid. “The pandemic was a massive eye-opener for so many of us. For me, I was considering ‘do I want to continue working 14- to 16-hour days in a big corporate in my early fifties, or perhaps run my own show and reap any potential rewards for this?’ It was a bit of mid-life reassessment for me joining Pufferfish but I haven’t a single regret.”
However, in any smaller business there’s often the need to bring all hands to the pumps, and attracting committed people is a challenge for a company such as Pufferfish in a hot tech city such as Edinburgh.
“Now, when most of the larger operations are offering remote working they can often offer much higher salaries, so a lot of the talent gets attracted to these. That’s fantastic, but I think they are missing out on working in that community where you come in to work with your colleagues, share ideas and there is a more collegiate view of the company.”
Her team includes Tom Frame, head of product and engineering, Keith Hamilton, head of software, Ross Wilson, head of marketing, and Alana Coventry, head of finance and human resources, and Mike Pacitti, head of operations. Andrew Castell, of Par Equity and investment director, joins chairman Iain Mackay on the board.
“When we are recruiting new people, it is not what’s on their CVs that matters most. What really matters is how that person views things when they arrive and hear and see what we do. They have to be engaged by it and get the wow factor – and decide they want to play a part in what we are doing.”
FROM GRANGEMOUTH TO EDINBURGH, THE LONG WAY ROUND
Elaine Van Der Berg was born in Grangemouth. After her father insisted that he wouldn’t support her going to university (because of an outmoded generational view of females and education), she left home at 16 to become a nanny. It was the start of an impressive journey.
After being inspired by a successful businesswoman in London, she returned to Scotland and started working with Scottish Amicable in Craigforth in Stirling, where she became a business analyst.
She was singled out for career development and worked her way up to become managing director of a tech company at the age of 28.
“I don’t believe in imposter syndrome. I believe that you can achieve whatever you want, if you are determined enough,” is how she expresses her drive and ambition.
Van Der Berg’s career took her to London for 15 years, then five years in Singapore, and a further five years in Australia. Her leadership in international high-growth arenas has taken her into senior roles at AWS, Optus, Autodesk, and Dell. But she was lured back to Scotland. “It’s strange. I’d lived away from Scotland most of my adult life, but I felt it pulling me back.”
She is separated from her husband, and shares the responsibility of looking after their 13-year-old autistic son, Cade. “We’ve had to deal with a lot of childcare challenges with Cade, as have several of my team members with their children, but I think it has helped create an open culture at work, where people can be honest about all of the responsibilities, the need to juggle their lives.”
This is a defining factor in how Van Der Berg continues to work and rebuild Pufferfish as a company that understands the relationships people have outwith the office.
Van Der Berg has a hard-working, sleeves-rolled-up ethos, which she believes delivers the best results. “What I learned from working at Dell was that Michael Dell would ask lots of questions. Then he would take them away and these would be discussed and considered before answers were found. I learned a great deal from watching this approach.”