The Faustian Bargain of the Maker
The end of Make: Magazine and the rise and fall of a community?
The news today that Maker Media, the company behind both Maker Faire and Make: Magazine, has closed its doors for the last and final time is going to come as a shock to a lot of people. Because while there have always been makers, what we think of today as the maker movement began in the early naughties, and a big part of that movement was built around both Maker Faire and Make: Magazine. I know. I was there.
The early Maker Faires were a special place, and while perhaps they weren’t the cause of the growing maker movement they gave it a home. I wasn’t the only person I know to have found my people amongst the makers of the faire. However this year’s Bay Area faire, held only a couple of weeks ago, may well now turn out to have have been the last of the big Maker Faires.
I first worked a faire back in 2011 as part of the Maker Media editorial team. The Maker Faire crew was a tight knit bunch, we thought of ourselves as the carnies of the next industrial revolution. A renaissance in manufacturing was coming, and we were at the heart of it.
“…we thought of ourselves as the carnies of the next industrial revolution. A renaissance in manufacturing was coming, and we were at the heart of it.”
I grew up in a steel making town just as the steel mills were closing, so I know exactly what the loss of manufacturing jobs mean to a community, and how it changes the way of life for the people in that community. I understand why the calls for the return of manufacturing are strong, because life for many people really was better back then. But those manufacturing jobs are never coming back. However different jobs, maker jobs, could replace them, and we could make that happen.
It’s been an open secret in the community for a few years now that there were financial difficulties at Maker Media. The lay offs in March that triggered the recent story in the Chronicle, ahead of this year’s Bay Area faire, were hardly the first round, just the most recent. So the news today that Maker Media is shuttering isn’t that surprising, just regrettable.
Like any professional show the cracks behind the scenes were rarely visible, and even as recently as five years ago things looked very different than how they stand today. With the first Maker Faire being held in the White House, at least from the outside, the faires looked unstoppable.
But it wasn’t just the faires, there were any number of other signs of health in the maker community, the Hackaday Prize had appeared and suddenly being a maker could be rather profitable. The winner of the first Hackday Prize back in 2014 was SatNOGS, who took their winnings and founded the Libre Space Foundation, and then went on to build and launch the first open hardware satellite.
But if the cracks weren’t evident there, they were evident elsewhere. The maker companies that had grown up with and around the faires were feeling pressure. Because I think, the problems with the faires are really just a shadow of a deeper malaise in the wider maker community. It turns out making money from the maker movement is hard, at least if you’re a maker.
“The problem is that, as has often been said about AI as well, as soon as something crosses over into the consumer realm, it’s no longer seen as makerish.” – Tim O’Reilly, Founder of O’Reilly Media
Starting a company as a maker involves a Faustian bargain, the same one Maker Media itself made when it accepted venture capital. The movement is about sharing resources, and it depends on a free flow of information. So, much like open source software before it, the maker movement has struggled to fit the idea of marketing or making a profit into its ideology.
The best outcome for maker run companies in the medium term seems to be acquisition; SupplyFrame acquired Hackaday back in 2013, and picked up Tindie a couple of years later, while Avnet acquired Hackster.io in 2016, and Tinkercad was rescued by Autodesk. Small maker companies that stayed independent didn’t fare as well, with Printrbot and TechShop both closing their doors, along with le FabShop and others.
Growing maker companies seems to be especially hard, with a lot of hardware companies making fatal errors when trying to scale to production, like Next Thing Co. who infamously shuttered with little warning to their community.
However mostly the acquisitions that mean the survival for these companies are by much larger companies that see each other as direct competitors, and that puts the flow of information and resources inside the community at risk.
Acquisitions and mergers also don’t always go particularly well, the one between MakerBot and Stratasys back in 2013 was perhaps particularly nasty. Their fall from grace in 2015, with a class action lawsuit and the closing of their brick and mortar stores, prophetic.
The ignominious Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Quirky that same year, a company that had promised to be a platform for inventors, was perhaps inevitable. Underwritten in later years by the industrial giant General Electric, the Quirky bankruptcy foreshadowed the exit of Intel from the maker market.
It’s that exit that perhaps makes me the most worried about the survival of maker companies in the longer term. Arriving dramatically on a white horse the year of the Quirky bankruptcy, claiming to be the corporate champion of the movement, Intel had lasted only two years before it too quietly exited stage left. Which illustrates rather succinctly a stark warning for those maker companies that got acquired, never be the pet project of an outgoing CEO.
Although to be fair to Intel, OKdo, the latest entrant in the somewhat crowded supply chain management market, which spun out back in the middle of April by the industry giant Electrocomponents—who owns both Allied in the States, and RS Components in the United Kingdom—lasted only a couple of months before their credibility in the community was essentially demolished. That’s something that took Intel two years to accomplish.
But the news that Maker Media is shuttering is still going to send shock waves through the community, an open secret or not, the real seriousness of their financial difficulties wasn’t really widely known. Today’s news will therefore come as a surprise to even some people that thought they were on the inside. News of the company’s imminent demise had been shared so many times before, the company had been teetering on the edge for so long, the idea that it might finally shutter became less of a real prospect for people.
However in the wake of the company’s demise you have to hope that some way can be found to save the faires, only two of which after all—Maker Faire Bay Area and World Maker Faire in New York—were managed and run directly by Maker Media itself.
One of the unique things about the Maker Faires was that they brought the disparate maker communities together. There are few other places on Earth where radio hams brush shoulders with model train enthusiasts, burners, cosplayers, and extreme knitters. It’s unlikely that’s going to be replicated again elsewhere.
“…in time there will be other homes for the makers of the faire, and eventually I guess we’ll be okay with that.”
Although I’m not quite ready yet to say goodbye to “the Greatest Show and Tell on Earth,” if this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area does none the less prove to be the last of the big maker faires, other centers of gravity for the community will surely emerge.
Because if this year’s faire proved anything, it is that the community, and the makers that build and fed it, is still here. So in time there will be other homes for the makers of the faire, and eventually I guess we’ll be okay with that.