Scotland’s ‘best-kept secret’ ready to come out shadows

Elaine Van Der Berg
Elaine Van Der Berg

By Scott Wright

IF you have interacted with a spherical display in one of Scotland’s biggest visitor attractions, you may well have encountered its work – even without realising it.

Edinburgh-based Pufferfish designs and manufactures digital spheres offering immersive experiences that are found commonly in museums, aquariums, and science centres around the world, ranging from Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh to the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Australia.

They are also deployed in the corporate world as communications tools for events and exhibitions, and in science and education, given their ability to communicate large amounts data in an understandable, pictorial format.

Microsoft, NASA, the Met Office, and the BBC are among its illustrious rollcall of clients.

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“We’re definitely one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets, although those that know us call us the longest-running start-up in Edinburgh,” Elaine Van Der Berg, the company’s chief executive, told The Herald.

“We are addressing that. If you are in the market, you probably know of us, but we have by no means saturated the market. We are doing really well but there is vast scope for us. The market is growing exponentially.

“We are not as well-known as we should be, and we really just want to radically drive quicker growth.”

Having previously worked for major corporates such as Dell, Autodesk, and Amazon, frequently in divisional turnaround roles, Ms Van Der Berg is relishing the impact she has been able to quickly make at the much smaller concern of Pufferfish. The remit at Pufferfish is to grow a brand that she believes has enormous potential – the market for digital display technology is growing at an annual rate 35 per cent, she notes – but has also needed care and attention following a difficult period during the pandemic.

There was little demand for interactive displays when visitor attractions were closed during long periods of lockdown.

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Noting that the previous chairman, chief executive, and chief technology officer had all exited prior to her arrival, Ms Van Der Berg said: “I think Covid was the crunch point for the business. It probably should not have survived, because everybody we sell to pretty much shut down. But it did survive.

“There were financial challenges in the business, so it did need somebody who had the experience of taking a business that had huge potential that was challenged [and] putting quite radical changes in place.

“This is not a slow turnaround, we have turned around the business quite quickly and we have already seen [growth] in the last five months. It was a time to bring in a different type of leader.”

Pufferfish is currently pitching to investors to raise £600,000 to help it capitalise on its growth potential.

The new strategy will see it invest in outbound marketing for the first time, with the business having been built to date on orders from incoming enquires arising from the brand’s reputation.

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“But that is why is has grown to a certain level but not grown any further,” Ms Van Der Berg said. “I have just hired a new head of marketing. I will be out in the market for a new chief stills officer, and we will put in place quite significant customer acquisition activity over the next six months.

“It is great that it has been able to grow on word of mouth, but it means we are still leaving opportunities on the table by not shouting loud enough, to be perfectly honest.

“The market is growing exponentially. We have a client list to die for, so we need to be shouting much louder. Orders have been inbound, but we are about to get seriously outbound driven.”

Moves have been made to boost the senior leadership team, augmenting the long-standing experience already in the ranks.

Key hires have included Brian Henderson, formerly of DC Thomson, as chief operating officer, and Garry Sinclair whose CV includes stints with Disney, Warner Bros, and MTV, as head of creative.

Overall, the company currently employs 22 people in its Edinburgh office, in addition to the contractors it utilises around the world.

When it comes to making the spheres, Ms Van Der Berg explained that some of the components are imported before the products are assembled in Edinburgh. But the intention is to shorten the supply chain.

“We actually manufacture the end components,” she said. “We build chassis, we do the collaboration on lenses and all that good stuff. But they are actually built in the warehouse in Causewayside.

“One of the things we want to improve is the optimisation of the supply chain, so we are not flying things all over the world into Edinburgh to then fly them back all over the world. The plan will definitely be for Edinburgh to stay as the head office for the business as we move forward.”

As far as her own role in the development of Pufferfish is concerned, it is a case of so far, so good for Ms Van der Berg. “I’m absolutely loving it,” she said. “When it’s a smaller business, even the small changes you make have almost an immediate impact. Sometimes with these big organisations it takes a long time for the ship to turn.”

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
I have been fortunate to have seen a lot of the world travelling for work, and could name many cities and countries I have enjoyed, but I recently visited Venice in Italy and was dumbstruck by its beauty and wonder. It’s left me wanting to return as soon as I can.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a criminologist. I wanted to investigate and understand whether it was nature or nurture that made people do bad things.

What was your biggest break in business?
Joining Dell. I thrived in the fast-paced and results-driven culture. 
What was your worst moment in business?
A bit of a cryptic answer here, but it was when something completely outside my control happened that resulted in the collapse of a dream I had given my heart and soul to.

Who do you most admire and why?
Anyone that picks themselves up time and time again,  in business or their personal life,  when others would have given up long before.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? 
I am reading Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh. I have not given up on my criminology passion. On the music front, I am obsessed with anything from Gregory Porter just now. His music makes me want to relax in front of a roaring fire with great company and a large glass of red in my hand.