I want to introduce you to someone. Let’s call this person Gary. Gary works nights and weekends in a garage on a project based on the same technology you work on.
Gary is a Maker.
Picture this, you stand around the water cooler complaining about how last year’s holiday party was better because they had crab claws and this year they just had shrimp. Meanwhile, Gary eats burritos he partially thaws with a heat gun in his garage as he continues working. Gary doesn’t care about seafood.
Gary is passionate and singularly focused on creating something. No market research will uncover Gary because nobody knows he exists. He shows up on nobody’s radar. The question is this; is Gary an underdog, an ankle biter, a long shot to be brushed aside and ignored? Or is Gary an invisible ninja assassin coming for you under the cloak of darkness; completely undetectable except by the lingering odor his burrito farts?
Let’s take a closer look.
Round 1 | Barrier to Entry
Historically, there has been a major barrier to entry into the manufacturing world. Factories, computers, and goods were all very expensive. Too high for your average Gary. Companies wanted to make sure they hired people that could manage and use this stuff, and limited their risk so they imposed a rigorous qualification process. They would only hire people with degrees and advanced degrees from prestigious institutions. While ensuring they hired people with pedigrees, they missed important attributes like creativity and drive. This hierarchical mentality then permeated the organization’s structure. Even if one did manage to gain entry, they still had to “pay their dues” and do menial work, before finally being given the authority to do work where they could exercise some degree of freedom. Even if one made it into the inner sanctum, they would ultimately hit the limit of “that’s just not the way we do things here”. Well, the internet has leveled the playing field, and we now live in a meritocracy. It is now possible to make a product and get it out there, without the name recognition of a brand and eschew the traditional methods. Just look at someone like Joey Roth, who designs and sells his own products. Or the myriad of Kickstarter success stories. Gary doesn’t care about a corner office and a Mahogany table. Gary has a work bench made of plywood stacked on milk crates, and a boom box with a Rush tape he listens to on repeat.
Round 2 | Price
Gary is working on a shoestring. I see this not as a limitation but as a benefit. Abundance is not always a good thing. Having strict constraints can force creative solutions. Gary has no choice but to find creative ways to make off the shelf items and low cost manufacturing processes work. The big guys may have ignored these items, considering them too rinky dink. Gary can’t afford, nor does he have the name recognition, to work with expensive hardware and exotic materials. And while these things give benefits in performance they come at a cost. Gary has to boil the problem down to its essence. Gary has to utilize design to its fullest, and maximize the potential of the materials and components. Gary’s product may not have the performance or longevity; but costs a fraction of the price. People make decisions based on price. If someone can buy ten of Gary’s for the same price as one of yours, they may not care about longevity. Additionally, price makes the risk of adoption lower. This gets Gary’s foot in the door to work on the next generation. The big guy has the upfront capital to lower prices through expensive tooling and volume purchasing, but Gary can win through design.
Round 3 | Passion
What Gary is working on is a “passion project”. So by definition Gary wins this round. The author of this article works for a company, and is very passionate about his work, as I am sure you the reader are. But ultimately, working on someone else’s vision just can’t compete with the passion of ownership. The passion of creating something from a blank canvas. The drive to bring an idea to the world, become wealthy, or just to prove others wrong. But why does passion matter? Passion is what allows mothers to lift cars to save their child, and small groups to defend their homeland against much larger groups of invading mercenaries. Passion is what gives people the discipline to say no to all distractions around them, including personal hygiene, and be singularly focused. And Gary has passion.
Round 4 | Speed
Gary is one person, working on found time, and learning on the go. However, Gary also has no red tape. Gary doesn’t need approval, have to go to meetings, or wait on others to do their part; all roadblocks on the design, build, test, and iterate cycle. Gary’s only limitation is Gary himself. While there is a race to come out with the next incrementally better thing before your competitors, Gary may be competing in a different race all together. Gary may be working on a “blue ocean strategy”. He may have an idea that competes with yours, not based on the same criteria, but by redefining the problem, competing on a totally different scale or price, or maybe by opening completely new niche markets. While you are on a linear race of deadlines and milestones, Gary is spray painting his own finish line. Gary doesn’t wear spandex, he wears a Surge energy drink (yes, its back) stained undershirt.
Round 5 | Resources
Ultimately, the big guy has way more resources. Arguably, Gary has the option of going open source. Thereby, pulling on the resources of a seemingly limitless network of other Gary’s. Companies like, Local Motors, and others have been doing this with success and taking on large projects. When it comes to resources, previously, the cost and access to the needed tools may have been an insurmountable barrier that stopped projects before they could even get started. Increasingly, there are more free or low cost design software packages. Some, like OnShape, even run on the cloud so they don’t require expensive computers. Additionally, getting prototypes made is much more accessible through online fabrication shops, makerspaces, and lower cost hobbyist versions of industrial machines. The increasing ease of use of these tools has removed a lot of the technical know-how and expertise that was once required. I believe that the accessibility people now have to these tools, in conjunction with a zeitgeist of creation and entrepreneurship, is the number one factor that is allowing the maker revolution to happen. The flood gates have been opened, the Gary’s have been let out of their cages, and there is no putting them back in.
Final score 3-2. The big guy wins, only slightly. But this isn’t a sanctioned pay per view match. This is a no holds barred, 3D printed, nunchuck surprise legal attack, back alley street brawl. My final recommendation, you have nights and weekends, and the ability to put aside personal hygiene and cultural norms. Find your passion project or else else be afraid. Be Gary afraid.