The only reason our company exists today, and is successful, is because we threw the conventional wisdom playbook in the trash. If you have a great product, you don’t need a huge factory or more money than God. You just need your hands.
As maker everywhere know, immense joy comes from building things with our hands. The excitement of creating prototypes is exhilarating and that energy fuels ideas for growth and dreams of putting our design into people’s hands around the world. A lucky few of us have achieved this dream and started manufacturing businesses that allow us make livings as full time makers. We’re here to tell you that there should be, and can be, a lot more of us.
Manufacturing is often viewed as a dirty, antiquated industry, and one in which makers have to hand over control of their designs to foreign corporations if they ever want to get past design challenges in the prototyping phase, and achieve scalable production. We’re here to tell you that it can be done, without giving up control, and all it takes is a little creative thinking — something that we Makers have in spades — and honoring our Maker roots.
We know, we know. “But you’re already a company! And you make stuff. For money!” We’re not just saying all of this. We are DIYers. We’re small-batch-ers. We see our manufacturing enterprise as an extension of the DIY experience, because that’s how it started, we’re a little bigger now. We think our story, from Maker to manufacturer, is an important object lesson for the manufacturing industry and for fellow makers who want to go pro, but don’t know where to start.
As anyone who has considered manufacturing could probably surmise, the primary barriers to getting a product from the idea or prototype phase into production are, at least in the traditional understanding, money-related. Conventional wisdom dictates that once a product is prototyped, the process should be revamped to make as many of the item as quickly and as cheaply as possible. This requires jumping from the prototype process, in which you make one or five or ten or one hundred of something by whittling them or 3D printing them, to a production run in which you buy big new machines and a factory and hire workers and with these new things economists call K and L, you make thousands of widgets. But inevitably, a bunch of those thousands will be garbage, or you’ll have to re-design the item and it won’t be as awesome, risking unsold inventory when you’ve already bought these huge machines or paid some third-party manufacturer the value of your house to make all this stuff for you. This might be fine for ballpoint pens (sorry ballpoint pens), but it’s definitely not great if you have a product with an intricate design, or one that requires any kind of safety mechanism. And it’s definitely not great if you’ve leveraged your house.
In our thought experiment, this is an easy place to stop. “I don’t have millions of dollars, so I totally can’t become a manufacturer and make my product and sell it to people across the country and make them happy.” Well, no. Chances are you’re not going to become the next Elon Musk. But do you really want to? Is that really the goal?
Before you get mired in this bog of outrageous capital expenditure, consider where you started. Did you get into this because you loved making things? Because you were solving a problem? Because you’re a Maker at heart? Then why give all that up, and hand over control to someone that doesn’t respect your design or your process? You don’t have to, no matter what anyone tells you. Except us. Listen to us. None of us are in it for the widgets, we’re in it for the Making. So what’s a Maker to do? You already know how to make your product, and you make it better than anyone. In fact, you’re the only one who can make it. So, make it! The way you want to. It will still be your product, made exactly the way you want it to be made, reaching exactly the people you want it to reach.
You don’t have to give up on being a Maker to be a manufacturer. Think about it this way: If you’re making one or five or ten or one hundred of your product right now, what would it take to double that, and then sell them all? Would you still consider yourself a Maker, a DIYer? And then double that, and then sell them all? How about now, still a Maker? How far can you get without sacrificing your design, your integrity, or your values, still having your hands directly on your project? You Maker, you. We’re betting that you can get pretty far, because we did, and we’re not so different, you and I.
At first, we, too, thought we’d have to follow the yellow brick road straight to China, which we knew we didn’t want. Even looking at contract manufacturers here, the numbers just didn’t add up. We wanted high quality, and we wanted a decent price point. The only word we heard? “Impossible!” Everyone said our design was too complicated and it couldn’t be done. But we knew we could do it. We had a prototype that worked, so we just made it, over and over and over again. And people kept wanting it. We were able to bring our product to market only because we realized that in order to do so on our terms, we would have to manufacture it ourselves. And we could only manufacture it ourselves and achieve the quality, price point, and provenance that we wanted by running our prototype process over and over again.
Viewing manufacturing and Making from this perspective means that Maker-turned-manufacturer is an attainable business model for any Maker to work towards. It doesn’t require millions of dollars of capital expenditure, months of waiting on shipping, or assets tied up in negotiations with an offshore manufacturer or unsold inventory. Plus, the beauty of doing it yourself is that you have precise control over the product you’re creating. You can make something that fills a niche you need filled, no worry that it might not be marketable on a huge scale. Or maybe it’s super complicated, or hand-made one by one or in small batches. Does this mean it’s not worthy of a company, not viable as a business? It means it absolutely is, and you should join the ranks of Makers-turned-manufacturers with us.
Just to make it even easier, shared manufacturing and Maker spaces are springing up across the country, making a manufacturing venture ever more accessible to the common man or woman. There also might be small manufacturers in your area — like Zootility — who would jump at the chance to help an up-and-coming designer and manufacturer get off the ground. Zootility’s success is the proof of concept you’ve been waiting for that DIY, Maker, iterative manufacturing as a manufacturing business model can work, with the right spirit and the right product. Make away!