The Maker Culture

London’s newly re-opened Design Museum welcomes visitors with a bold defining statement of intent. According to the curators, there are only designers, makers and users. To me, this speaks volumes about how the “makers” are now at the forefront of economic activity, and how they are challenging key post-industrial notions of mass-production, mass-consumption and even mass-employment. Above all, as users, we are becoming far more engaged with why, how and where something is designed, made and distributed. And as consumers we are being encouraged to think about and take some responsibility for our choices in terms of environmental impact and sustainability.

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

There are several social, economic, technological and environmental movements that have helped to define “maker culture”, so there isn’t really a single, neat theory sitting behind it all. Here is a (highly selective) list of the key elements that have directly or indirectly contributed to this trend:

Hacking – this is not about cracking network security systems, but about learning how to make fixes when things that don’t work the way that we want them to, or for creating new solutions to existing problems – see also “life hacks”, hackathons or something like BBC’s Big Life Fix. Sort of “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Open source – providing easier access to coding tools, software programs, computing components and data sources has helped to reduce setup costs for new businesses and tech startups, and deconstructed/demystified traditional development processes. Encompasses everything from Linux to Arduino; from Github to public APIs; from AI bots to widget libraries; from Touch Board to F.A.T. Lab; from SaaS to small-scale 3-D printers.

Getting Sh*t Done – from the Fitzroy Academy, to Andrea de Chirico’s SUPERLOCAL projects, maker culture can be characterised by those who want: to make things happen; to make a difference; to create (social) impact; to get their hands dirty; to connect with the materials, people, communities and cultures they work with; to disrupt the status quo; to embrace DIY solutions; to learn by doing.

The Etsy Effect – just part of the response to a widespread consumer demand for personalised, customised, hand-made, individual, artisan, crafted, unique and bespoke products. In turn, platforms like the Etsy and Craftsy market places have sparked a whole raft of self-help video guides and online tutorials, where people can not only learn new skills to make things, they can also learn how to patch, repair, re-use, recycle and re-purpose. Also loosely linked to the recent publishing phenomena for new magazines that combine lifestyle, new age culture, philosophy, sustainability, mindfulness, and entrepreneurism with a social conscience.

Startups, Meetups and Co-working Spaces – if the data is to be believed, more and more people want to start their own ventures rather than find employment with an existing organisation. (Under the gig economy, around 40% of the workforce will be self-employed, freelance or contractors within 5 years, so naturally people are having to consider their employment options more carefully.) While starting your own business is not for everyone, the expanding ecosystem of meetups and co-working spaces is enabling would-be entrepreneurs to experiment and explore what’s possible, and to network with like-minded people.

Maker Spaces – also known as fabrication labs (“FabLabs”), they offer direct access to tools and equipment, mostly for things like 3-D printing, laser-cutting and circuit-board assembly, but some commercial facilities have the capacity to support new product prototyping, test manufacturing processes or short-run production lines. (I see this  interface between “cottage industry” digital studios and full-blown production plants as being critical to the development of high-end, niche and specialist engineering and manufacturing services to replace the declining, traditional manufacturing sectors.) Some of the activity is formed around local communities of independent makers, some offer shared workshop spaces and resources. Elsewhere, they are also run as innovation hubs and learning labs.

Analogue Warmth – I’ve written before about my appreciation for all things analogue, and the increased sales of vinyl records and even music cassettes demonstrate that among audiophiles, digital is not always better, that there is something to be said for the tangible format. This preference for analogue, combined with a love of tactile objects and a spirit of DIY has probably reached its apotheosis (in photography at least) through Kelli Anderson’s “This Book Is A Camera”.

Finally, a positive knock-on effect of maker culture is the growing number of educational resources for learning coding, computing, maths and robotics: Raspberry PI, Kano and Tech Will Save Us; KidsLogic, Creative Coding HK and Machinam; Robogals, Techcamp and robokids. We can all understand the importance of learning these skills as part of a well-rounded education, because as Mark Pascall, founder of 3months.com, recently commented:

“I’m not going to advise my kids to embark on careers that have long expensive training programs (e.g. doctors/lawyer etc). AI is already starting to give better results.”

Better to learn how things work, how to design and make them, how to repair them etc., so that we have core skills that can adapt as technology changes.

Next week: Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

 

StartupVic’s #Pitch Night for October

The crowds are getting bigger, the list of sponsors is getting longer, there’s a new logo, and they’ve even managed to (sort of) fix the PA system. The Startup Victoria monthly pitch night is now a firm fixture on Melbourne’s Meetup calendar…

Image sourced from Startup Vic's Meetup page (Photo by Daniel)

Image sourced from Startup Vic’s Meetup page (Photo by Daniel)

As usual, there were 4 startup pitches, and I’ll comment on each in order of their presentations:

Next Address

This Ballarat-based startup has built a P2P website that offers “direct to market” property sales, removing the need for traditional estate agents. Recognising that the real estate sector is still ripe for some digital disruption, Next Address is challenging the commission-based fees and cost++ price markup on services that many estate agents charge their clients.

They have established an affiliate programme, and generated some positive media coverage, but have yet to complete any sales. Charging a fee of around $549 to vendors (there is a sliding scale), compared to similar competitors priced at between $800 and $2,000, Next Address is also offering a Facebook package.

I think it’s fair to say that this pitch did not come across as one of the strongest or most compelling presentations at these pitch nights (possibly due to some stage nerves?). There were also questions among people I spoke to about market traction, the customer acquisition model and the conversion process.

Given that there is a lot of competition within real estate listings and aggregation (often backed by major media companies), and given that many vendors still prefer to use the auction process, it was difficult to see how Next Address can cut through, unless they focus on a point of differentiation: geographic market, property type, price range, marketing support or add-on services.

However, the founders must be doing something right, as on the night they managed to attract the attention of a senior executive from a well-known real estate listings website.

DragonBill

DragonBill is an invoicing and remittance solution aimed at sole traders and micro businesses, which has featured in this blog before. The focus is on helping clients manage their cashflow and providing them with a level of financial literacy and education.

Since launching, DragonBill has found a substantial niche market among sporting clubs and associations, in large part because 50% of club members are also SME owners. They are continuing to build partnerships with accountants and are now starting to market themselves via co-working spaces.

Further ahead, there are plans to build some sort of superannuation offering, given that many SME owners and sole traders may not be making sufficient contributions to their personal funds. There are also regulatory changes in payroll administration following the roll out of SuperStream by the ATO.

The judges were interested to know what plans DragonBill has for international growth, and whether the platform can output financial and tax reporting for accounting purposes – both of which are under consideration. Meanwhile, DragonBill was recently shortlisted for an award by VISA.

Spee3d

In short, this business supports “3-D printing of metals at production speeds“. Using a proprietary “Lightspee3d” technology, the goal is to offer a low-cost, high-speed solution for full-scale production output, not just prototypes and medical devices. Primarily manufacturing in copper and aluminium 6061, current output is 100g/minute ( expecting to soon reach 250g/minute), and the maximum size is 300mm x 300mm x 300mm.

For the technically minded, the additive process is described as something like “bugs hitting a windshield”. It does not use any gasses, and deploys a “line of sight” process, meaning that some hollow objects are possible. The business has picked up a Bosch Venture Award.

Targeting products traditionally fabricated by sand casting, Spee3d is working with clients who have a preference for low-cost powders, initially within the university market, then the auto industry. They are also aiming at new products, and not parts manufactured from existing casts that have associated sunk costs. There was quite a lot of excitement around this pitch, judging by the number of questions it prompted.

Foddies

This startup is launching a fructose friendly food business, offering products, recipes and outlets (shops, cafes, catering) that can also appeal to people with other food allergies and dietary requirements. If, like me, you were unaware of the “Low FODMAP” diet,
it was researched and created in Melbourne (Monash Uni), and from my initial reading, it has some similarities with diets designed for people needing gluten-free, lactose free and low GI solutions.

Admittedly not the first to market, Foddies claims to be the first to develop a holistic solution, which includes a wholesale strategy for ready-made meals, a cafe franchise and an online store. Next, they plan to work with airlines and hospitals. Although building on their social media engagement, the biggest challenge, when asked by the judges, was the lack of public awareness or education on the Low FODMAP model.

From a personal perspective, I appreciate the importance of helping people with food allergies or intolerance to manage their condition through appropriate diet. But I can’t be alone in thinking that the higher reported incidence of these complaints may be due to multiple factors such as the increased use of chemicals in the environment (especially food production), the lower resistance in our immune systems caused by too many antibiotics, and our over-reliance on certain strains and varieties of crops. More research is called for.

So, after a very mixed bag of startup pitches, the winner was Spee3d, based on the audience and panel voting.

Next week: Richmond 3121