This article first appeared in Make: Magazine
I’ve been a “maker” my whole life. I was introduced to making by my parents through construction toys like LEGOs, Duplos, Construx, Tinker Toys, Cardboard Red Bricks, and just about every other construction toy on the market. My grandfather got me my first soldering iron and my first remote control car, the Futaba FX-10 that you had to assemble. After that experience I was hooked. The struggle I felt growing up was that my imagination was way ahead of my ability to make. This frustrated me, but also motivated me to pursue a career working with professional product developers. I was inspired by the tools, techniques, and talent they used when bringing products to store shelves. I was also baffled by the fact that I could go to a big box retailer and buy a product like a cool plastic plate for less than I could buy a rectangular sheet of plastic. Also I could only buy a sheet of plastic in primary colors and the products in the store had all sorts of fancy colors. It felt so unfair! It felt like the professionals had access to materials and tools that I didn’t.
The Maker Movement – an unsuspecting skeptic
When I first heard the phrase “Maker Movement” I rolled my eyes. I appreciated Make Magazine and Maker Faire personally, but I thought it was a far cry from a movement. I have a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois. I craved doing projects, but most of my formal education revolved around the analytical part of engineering, calculus…and multivariable calculus. While I appreciated the beauty in the equations to explain our world from a 10,000 foot view, doing page after page of integrations was not my idea of a fun Sunday afternoon. I wished my engineering education had been more hands on, more experiential. That being said when I first heard the term “Maker Movement” I thought it was trivializing what academics call STEM education and trivializing the fields of product development and industrial design. I thought it was putting great industrial designers on the level of a high school science fair. In my heart of hearts I kind of wished it would all go away. I thought the professionals should distance themselves from these new “maker” hobbyists to maintain their dignity.
The origins of MAKE: and Maker Faire
In January 2005 Dale Dougherty, launched the first issue of MAKE magazine. I had bumped into Dale a few times while going to Web 2.0 type conferences and he described it as “Martha Stewart for geeks”. I instantly understood what he was trying to describe and I was excited and disappointed all at the same time. I was excited because I thought this type of magazine should exist. The focus at the time in the valley was Facebook. Facebook apps, Likes, Facebook games, digital gifts. It all felt very saccharine. What Dale was describing seemed to have a bit more depth. It seemed to encourage the kind of hands on exploration and learning that I relished as a kid and wanted to get more of in my life. At the same time I was frustrated that the projects featured in the magazine were so DIY that I was worried others wouldn’t take it seriously. From a personal standpoint I wished MAKE nothing but success. From a professional standpoint I felt they had missed the mark.
Maker Faire came a year later in 2006. Dubbed “The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth” riffing off the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey “The Greatest Show on Earth”. When I walked around my first Maker Faire it confirmed everything I was reading and feeling. It was a celebration of arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset, but I saw more celebrating than actual good work. As an entrepreneur I appreciated MAKE’s bias towards action. They had done it. However, I felt like the first Maker Faire didn’t do justice to the ideas and vision they set out to embody.
A decade before the mainstream
Maker Faire started a decade before “Main Street” became interested. The first Maker Faire was truly the grassroots beginning of a movement. American’s have always had an affinity and appreciation for making things, from the original blacksmiths to our history of celebrating inventors and invention. In the middle part of the last century hobby making with Heathkits and Radio Shack gave birth to the cell phone and computer industries. As the technology got more advanced it became harder and harder to start from scratch. “MAKE”, “Maker Faire”, and the “Maker Movement” cracked that wide open. They became the “containers in our collective minds” that made experiential learning, design, engineering, tinkering, and all the rest of it cool, socially understood, and a domain for investment
The positioning of “making” helped put our collective social pressure on celebrating the beginner. It encouraged companies and startups to use open source technology and produce tools like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Prusa, Shapeoko, Open ROV, and other similar projects. This made it possible for the tinkerers to roll up their sleeves and get involved in technology again rather than just consume technology. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s being in technology meant being in software. The open source software movement brought industrial strength tools to anyone with the wherewithal to dig in. Open Source hardware has stared down that same path. Maker Faire provided a venue for these people to do a big show and tell.
From 2005 to 2014 a lot changed. The Maker Movement built steam. The concepts of a hackerspace or a makerspace started to emerge. These are collective organizations where folks pooled their money together to buy tools and rent workshop space that they couldn’t afford by themselves. These locations are and were just as much a social hang out as a place to work on projects. Like the homebrew computer club in the late 1970’s and early 80’s the folks that participated in these clubs were on the fringes. They were far from the mainstream. Businesses did not play a sponsorship role in these spaces. They were mostly grassroots organizations.
Startups gave it legs
During this time the startup community started contributing to this maker movement without knowing they were doing it. Web startups emerged that started changing who could bring a physical product to market. For example Etsy started a “hand made” marketplace. Kickstarter launched as a place for artists and other creatives to get their dream projects funded if they didn’t have access to traditional foundations. Amazon launched a program called “Fulfillment by Amazon”. These three companies essentially eliminated the prior requirement to go through a “gatekeeper” known as the “buyer” to get your product on the store shelves. These gatekeepers were the ones tasked with deciding what products were worth investing in. They used pattern recognition to decide where to make the bets and reduce the risk of losing money. The three aforementioned websites took a different approach. They let the customers decide. They all made it possible for the creative entrepreneur to sell their idea or product without judgment. They created a forum where new ideas were celebrated successes were lauded and failures quietly got replaced with new successes. They all reduced the amount of financial risk and inventory risk an entrepreneur had to take on to sell a physical product. This is a big deal. It dramatically increased the number of people that could launch a physical product because you could gauge product market fit before investing in inventory. In the beginning the projects were arts and crafty. I worked professionally with industrial designers and collectively, as an industry, they were very dismissive of Kickstarter, Maker Faire and the Maker Movement. I’ll admit it – I was too until December 16th, 2010.
A million dollars
Between 2002 and 2009 I had done some work with Nike. Through that experience I got to meet Scott Wilson who led the Nike Timing and Tech Lab. Scott was responsible for the Nike Presto watches. To say Scott is prolific would be an understatement. You can’t stop the guy. He’s designing objects while he sleeps. Even while at Nike he carved out a clause in his contract to be able to continue his furniture design projects. So when Scott saw Kickstarter he saw an opportunity. He launched a Kickstarter for a product that would “Transform your iPod Nano into the world’s coolest multi-touch watch”. He called them TikTok + LunaTik by Scott Wilson and MINIMAL. His Kickstarter had 13,512 backers who gave him $942,578 which was a lot more than the $15,000 he needed for tooling. When I saw this, I thought ‘well, that makes sense’ – Scott is a pro at the top of his game, so of course he should be able to get that kind of money for a design. At this time most of the products on Kickstarter were very DIY. Scott’s Kickstarter made me realize that the world was changing. There was no reason to be dismissive anymore. He prompted everyone to think where the value was. Was the value in the Nike Brand or Scott’s ability to design the product? The short answer is both, but the long answer is that Scott didn’t need the Nike Brand to come to market in a big way. This got the attention of a whole new class of what MAKE would think of as “Makers” and what I thought of as “Designers”. This is an important distinction. MAKE was thinking of anyone making something on any level as a “Maker” while I was distinguishing between the output I saw at Maker Faire and Make as “DIY” or “Hobbyist”. The power of the positioning over the next few years started blurring the lines between who was a maker and who was a designer.
The gatekeepers are no longer in control
In 1977 there were 134,043 books published in the US. The personal computer and the internet made the tools required to publish a book accessible to almost anyone. Access to computers is free in every library in America and the majority of US Households now have at least one. One result of this widespread access was that by 2010 there were 316,480 books published in the US. It’s impressive that as a country we tripled the number of books that we published through traditional publishers like Random House and Hyperion. However what’s even more impressive is the 2,776,260 on-demand books were cranked out by presses for self-publishers. These titles did not need the permission, blessing, or funding of the gatekeepers.
In my hometown of Northbrook Illinois the corner of Lake-Cook Rd and Waukegan Rd is a major intersection. Three of the four corners have shopping malls with big box retail. When I was in high school Borders opened an enormous two story store on one corner and Barnes & Noble opened up an equally larger store on a corner directly across the street. I remember feeling bad for the much smaller Walden Books store that was in the shopping mall. There was no way they could compete. Their entire store could fit in the vestibule of the Borders. While visiting my family for Father’s day I recently drove past that corner and noticed all 3 bookstores are out of business. The number of books increased 30x and all three bookstores went out of business.
Tools became affordable
By 2012, the world now had a $999 3D printer, a laser cutter that cost about $2000, a vinyl cutter for $299 and Inventables launched the Shapeoko CNC Mill which costs $600. This was a milestone for digital fabrication. It meant that for less than $5000 you could build a Maker Lab.
Why is all of this important? “It’s the economy, stupid”
Manufacturing makes up 12.5% of the US economy. At the same time 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms are small businesses. Net new jobs are a measure of economic growth and 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs are found in small businesses. The Maker Movement is far more important than a faire or a magazine. It’s a symbol of how our manufacturing economy is adding on a new tier. It used to be that manufacturing meant big factories with assembly lines and huge costs for capital equipment. In the 1960’s and 70’s manufacturing equipment and computers looked similar. They were so big they took up an entire room. Computers got smaller and more powerful and now the same is happening with manufacturing tools. These megatrends mean that the grass roots displays at Maker Faire, STEM education, big companies, and startups that are part of the maker movement are building the tools that will give rise to a new breed of manufacturer. They are giving rise to millions of Indie Manufacturers, soul crafters, making products they are passionate about. This new tier is a tremendous source of net new jobs and they act more like authors or rock bands in that they do work for fans, not just for customers.
This year’s Maker Faire was different. I felt the change. I felt the momentum. This wasn’t fleeting or shiny. It was real. It wasn’t filled with the hype around 3D printing. In the early days of Maker Faire, it didn’t feel like a trade show, it felt like a hobbyist gathering. The exhibitors were from the fringes, folks deeply passionate about whatever they made. Over time some of these passion projects turned into businesses. Eventually those “maker businesses” grew up and started exhibiting like major corporations.
In the early days the major corporations that participated did so for philanthropic reasons, but also to try and figure out what this movement was all about. Many of them are still trying to figure it out, but they believe there is something there. As I walked around this year I noticed the visitors are interested, engaged, and bringing it into their lives. This wasn’t a curiosity – it was the beginning of adoption.
My prediction is the next few years will get better and better, and by the 10th anniversary it will be a mainstream cultural phenomenon that started from the fringes and MAKE coalesced it into the mainstream.
Maker Faire turned the corner this year. They built something for the ages. They caught the attention of President Obama and on Wednesday June 18th the Office of Science and Technology Policy is hosting the first ever White House Maker Faire. Our country is now taking “making” seriously and that is something to celebrate.