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The Maker Movement: 5 Tips to Turn Your Bright Product Idea into a Business

by: | 11/07/2013

There’s a growing movement that turns computer hackers, DIY adepts, and weekend hobbyists into successful product designers and business owners. In his book, The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers, TechShop CEO Mark Hatch plots the course of the Maker Movement, and how it can help you turn bench ideas into world-revered products.

A former Green Beret, Hatch’s TechShop workshops (nine locations and growing) have been the incubator for such innovative start-ups as Square (credit-card processor), MakerBot (3D printer), DODOcase (for iPad), and Embrace (infant warmers). These products were realized through a DIY ethic and pioneering tools and software.

“The Maker Movement is about getting people involved in making something,” Hatch says. “The tools for making things have never been cheaper, more powerful, or easier to use. The ability to use software to manipulate models in three dimensions, then move those to computer-controlled machines, is now accessible to the layperson. Twelve-hundred-dollar 3D printers are a great example of that and the associated online content in Thingiverse or other online repositories. For the first time ever, you can download some software, manipulate a 3D file, and physically print your idea.”

the maker movement

The prototypes for peer-to-peer credit-processing dongle maker Square originated at TechShop, where for a membership fee of $125 per month, you have access to classes and equipment, and, perhaps most importantly, an inspiring community of like-minded individuals.

“The business model for Square was to give it away instead of charging $135 a month for a terminal, and no monthly fee. Square takes 2.7 percent of each transaction instead of the 3.7 percent the banks charge. It’s better, faster, cheaper. It opened up the entire lower end of the market to credit for the first time. The dongle was created by a software designer and a glassblower.”

MakerBot, which sold for $409 million, is home to Thingiverse, which offers downloadable files that can be turned into computer-controlled code and crafted on a CNC ShopBot router or lathe.

“That is revolutionary,” Hatch says. “Now you can produce a 3D model for thirty bucks; a skill that in the past had to be learned over time. And Tinkercad allows you to turn ideas into CAD designs that can be printed on 3D printers. We’re in the early stages of a new industrial revolution.”

the maker movement

Mark Hatch holding a Square reader. Photo courtesy of Signe Brewster, Gigaom.

Also created at TechShop via the Maker Movement were DODOcase for iPads (carried by Jay-Z and President Obama); Clustered Systems, a data cooling system; C-Loop camera accessories; Driptech, which produces affordable, high-quality irrigation systems for small-plot farmers; and Adafruit Industries, an electronics instructional site founded by MIT engineer Limor “Ladyada” Fried.

“If you give the tools of the industrial revolution to the creative class for the cost of a coffee addiction,” Hatch says, “they can and will change the world.”

The Maker Movement is creating tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Hatch offers five tips on how to join this revolution.

1. Get Started in the Maker Movement. “Download some software and play with it. A program like Polygon will be the new Microsoft Word. And it won’t take six months of training to understand it. The Maker Movement requires you to make something and give it away, then analyze your feelings and emotions. Giving away something you’ve just made is fundamentally different than going to the store and buying someone a gift.”

2. Turn Ideas Into Scalable Products. “Make sure you have a designer who can turn your prototype into a scalable product. Then find great partners. Pulling that team together is critical. Being able to fire them at the right time is also critical. Not everyone you start with will have the skills, passion, and patience you need. Focus on your core; outsource the rest. [TechShop outsources HR, accounting, and IT.] And get some great advisors and the right support, including attorneys, accountants, payroll, etc. Also, watch your cash flow. Many of the most promising start-ups fail because they run out of cash. On a related point, get to cash-flow-positive as fast as possible. Once you’re there, the sky is the limit.”

the maker movement

3. Avoid Start-Up Pitfalls. “First, design for manufacturing. Many designers don’t have experience reducing their designs to something that can actually be made at scale. A great deal of thought has to go into the actual methods that are going to be used for producing each component—those tolerances, materials, and characteristics, including fit and finish. Many start-ups struggle with this critical step. In a sense, the prototype is easy; manufacturing at scale is much harder. Most start-ups need to spend as much or more time on sales and marketing as they do on design and development. There is a reason that great companies like IBM, Oracle, Starbucks, and Apple were led by great marketers.”

4. Go from Maker to Business Owner. “Etsy, Kickstarter, and Startup Weekend are all great for exposure. One of the keys though is to either focus on your deepest passions, so you can wait out the potential years it takes to get something going, or try a lot of different things in rapid succession. I actually prefer the latter, as one learns from each ‘failure’ and builds on that learning each time.”

5. Spark the Inner Creative Spirit. “Join a local making club where people have more experience; they will inspire you. You can do it alone, but it’s not as efficient and not as fun. An Arduino electronics club built a robot at TechShop. They started by using the laser cutter to cut test cuts from discarded cardboard, and the cardboard robot—built from an Android phone and an Arduino board—actually worked! The key is making something, even if it is ‘just’ a craft. Also, you have to get to a place where you’re laughing and batting ideas around and thinking outside the box. If you aren’t thinking crazy—you aren’t thinking.”

the maker movement

For more information about the Maker Movement, check out What Is the Maker Movement and Why Should You Care?, The Maker Movement, and Why the Maker Movement Is Here to Stay.

Are you part of the Maker Movement? Have you turned an idea into a product? Please share you experiences below in the comments section.

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef is a New York–based writer and photographer.

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