What's All This Maker Movement Hubbub?
Written by Akiba   
Tuesday, 04 June 2013

Whew! Just got back from vacation in the US visiting family and also getting the chance to see the Bay Area Maker Faire for the first time. Actually, it was my first Maker Faire outside of Japan and it blew my mind. The scale of the projects were just on a different level compared to Maker Faire Japan. Projects in Japan are much smaller, mostly because we canít fit three story fire breathing, steel dragons inside our tiny cramped apartments.

I was on the train coming back from the airport last night when I saw an interesting article at Make Magazine called Why the Maker Movement is Here to Stay. The author, Ken Denmead, discusses an article written on the tech blogging site gigaOm about Sparkfun. Actually, the gigaOm article starts out being about Sparkfun, but towards the end, the author generalizes Sparkfunís business and business model into the recent surge in popularity of the maker movement. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have thought too deeply about that article except that Ken made some interesting points that got me thinking. In the latter part of the gigaOm article, the author makes an effort to end on a thought provoking note:

"To me, and for others watching the maker movement unfold, SparkFun is a chance to answer what is an important question. How big can the maker movement get?"

This statement makes no sense to me because she implies that thereís a correlation between the growth of maker culture and Sparkfunís business. If I were to make a similar analogy, the absurdity becomes much more obvious:

"To me, and for others watching the music movement unfold, Sony Music is a chance to answer what is an important question. How big can the music movement get?"

When I replace a few names but keep the analogy intact, it sounds really bizarre. Iím implying a correlation between Sony Musicís business performance and people that make and listen to music. Is Sony Musicís growth (or lack of it) indicative of trends like electronic dance music, classical, Okinawan shamisen, or Justin Bieber? Iíd be hesitant to make such a broad assumption without supporting evidence. A more believable correlation might be if I equated Sony Musicís business performance with something like CD sales or even better, Sony Musicís performance in relation to other similarly sized companies in the music industry like Universal Music.

The maker culture and movement encompasses all types of communities such as UAVs, sports enthusiasts, bicycle makers, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, welders, fetishists, hackers, educators, librarians, molecular gastronomists, homebrewers, and the list goes on. Sparkfunís business performance could possibly be an indicator for the electronics kits business or other companies that are in the kits industry but I canít agree that theyíre a reliable indicator for the maker movement which is obviously growing. The assumption that the article makes reveals a common misconception to people that are new to maker, hacker, and DIY culture: that itís all about tech. We choose to see what we want to see, but there's a lot more depth in the scene that just the technology/electronics/hardware aspect. If I could try and summarize what I think this culture is about, Iíd say itís all about craftsmanship.

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Hmmm someone who doesn't understand SparkFun's business model
written by MRE, June 05, 2013
I have two issues with the comments made in the "how big can the DIY and maker movement get?"
(in addition to your own. I mean, its a well written article, but the premise is totally broken, based on assumptions and filled with false analogies, as you pointed out.)

1: To understand SparkFun's business model, you have to actually research the market. They are, perhaps, the highest priced outlet in the industry. They seem to have a high markup on a lot of their products.

I get that businesses have to make a profit (trying to start one myself, and having watched Akiba of Freaklabs go through the process). And if you ever hope to be a big business, you have to make big profits. But anyone in the know, knows that you only buy from SparkFun if you have no other choice, need the fast delivery, or are bundling a lot of bits and pieces onto one order.

but on any given inventory part they have, you can easily find other retailers online selling the same conceptual material for 1/4 of the price. One just needs to be tenacious in searching out alternative retailers, and unconcerned about dealing with smaller shops, Chinese distributors, and pcb colors other than red.

SparkFun is the Radio Shack of online retailers. With a similar "you'll pay extra for convenience" business model. Nothing wrong with that. But I know a whole lot of people "window shop" at SparkFun, but actually spend their money everywhere else, and get more for it.
So, If one wants to question why they are not growing faster, or how long they think the DIY bubble will last, then SparkFun is NOT the signpost to navigate by. If anything, Adafruit is a better indication of how the DIY/Maker movement really likes to operate (not necessarily on the point of price, but on loyalty. Adafruit has ONE face to the company, and that face actively engages every customer with advice, ideas, and demonstrations).

2: The second point I take issue with is the use of the phrase "... when cheaper imitations hit the market." As if somehow they are the market leader in all products, and everyone else is a Chinese knockoff. First and foremost, it is an open source market, meaning anyone can clone anyone else's breakout board, project or kit and sell it. If those people happen to sell it for a smaller profit margin, great! (see No1). The phrase "cheaper imitation" implies lower quality. That is far from the truth. In fact, it is often true that another companies' version of a product is BETTER in many respects, while remaining at a lower MSRP.
Finally, only about 0 of the time are SparkFun the first innovator and not the copier. Again... an open source market. They copy off everyone else as much as anyone.
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written by MRE, June 05, 2013
hmmm apparently the percent sign is a format token.
That last sentence should read "only about 30 percent of the time are Sparkfun the first innovator and not the copier."
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written by Kevin Townsend, June 06, 2013
That article kind of rubbed me the wrong way as well. If Sparkfun isn't seeing the growth they expect, the most probable explanation is that they aren't as well aligned with their target customer base as they might have been in the past, or that more compelling competitors are outpacing them in the same field. Nothing ominous there ... it's just the way competition works.

I still see massive growth in this sector and no sign of slowing down so far, but clearly companies are all communicating (and producing) with their own nuances and not everyone has their finger on the same pulse or the same priorities. Personally, I haven't been on the same page as SFE for many years (long before I had any professional bias in the maker world), and I have my own reservations about them as a company, and those numbers seem like more of an indication that SFE is losing market share in the Maker movement more than that we're hitting any ceiling yet. I think we're still a long way from that scenario!

In some ways, the maker movement is still in first gear as far as technical complexity is concerned, and there is still a lot of room to grow moving into more mature product types and needs (things that can be manufactured in the real world, and more advanced tools and breakouts), and there are a lot of customers that still aren't be catered to as well as they could be. There's many tens of millions in potential revenue that aren't being tapped in my opinion, and there's still room to grow and for new companies to get involved if they have the right ethics, products, know-how and above all willingness to participate in a meaningful way and give back more than you take.
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From our perspective...
written by Lindsay L, June 06, 2013
As I mentioned on Ken's article in MAKE, we do not share the perspective given in this article. In fact, this was not really the conversation we had during the interview for this article. We don't correlate our growth with that of the market. It's unnatural for a company to continue to percentage growth we saw in our early years and are quite happy to be hitting a stride. We are very proud of all of the success of the whole community and don't see anything slowing down. I believe the opinions expressed are that of the author and should not be extended to SparkFun. We're quite happy with the community and we don't see any signs that things are hitting a ceiling. It's the natural response of there being many more awesome companies and resources in this community.
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written by Akkiba, June 06, 2013
Hi Lindsay. Yeah, I'm sorry you guys got pulled into it. I've had some interviews where the article turned out completely different than the conversation and it sucked. I'm referring mainly to the gigaOm article and not Sparkfun. They could have just as easily referenced a potato and maintained the same amount of absurdity.
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written by Lindsay L, June 07, 2013
Thanks - I think it's just part of the business. It's a shame it has gotten so much attention, no doubt because of the absurdity. That being said, the backlash presents an opportunity to hear the community's thoughts and address them.
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