Makers through the eyes of newbie

My notes from Makerland conference

Makerland 2014 (makerland.org)was very interesting and fun event. Up till now maker events in Poland were for me all about doing stuff from anything around you. I saw vertical gardens, pieces of furniture, cardboard prototypes of some interesting devices, building a house of clay etc. Makerland was different. It was true tech event. Amount of electronics in the room was astonishing. Everybody was concentrated on building a robot, learning to code one, or really any possible device connected to arduino, raspberry pi, spark core or something similar. But you could learn much more than only making some sensors generate signals that will steer the small car.

1. You can forget about accessing web when more than 100 geeks try to connect ca. 3 devices per capita in one not so huge room :)

2. Hardware startups are more difficult to set up than typical ones because of few things: Scaling with hardware is much more difficult. Doing stuff, making a prototype is very easy today, but manufacturing product is very difficult. As Brady Forrest said there is no 'China button'. You can't just go and start producing your device in thousands in China. I think that the best sentence describing this was 'It is easy to design something that is to be made, but it's very difficult to design to be made in thousands'. Distribution is totally new area of startup operations. So you have all sales and outreach activities like in typical startup but now you have to send the stuff to customers. Almost all experienced makers said that you should outsource it and add the cost to final price of the product. You don't want to fill all those papers about exporting goods to dozens of countries. The pricing is also more difficult, not only because of additional services you have to buy but also because of shipping. Your customer will take this into account when making a purchase decision. And of course it is much easier to experiment with the price of mobile app than a price of real device. Lean startup? Yes there are some hardware lean start ups but really they are rare. Usually the first version ready to testing has to be ordered in big quantities and investment of money and time to make a prototype is much higher. Also the development is slower. Team - hacker hustler and designer won't do. You need much more guys on board, at least some engineers.

3. Doing stuff is fun. I think I knew it already but during Makerland this simple thing appeared in front of me very strongly.

4. Doing stuff is horrible struggle: I think that I also knew it before conference but now I experienced it. Something is incompatible... You need to download 500Mb before you start coding... You know, Windows is just like that, I can't help you... The sensor is not so accurate as we thought, there is some strange noise in the readings... We drained the battery out... We should not have put it there... It's to heavy... I heard this to many times during the workshops and hackathon. Do I have to explain something more? :)

5. There is an alternative to crowdfunding: tindie.com. Emile Petrone founder of Tindie gave great speech about turning the idea into business and not necessarily going global from the first moment and becoming a maker celebrity. At Tindie you can start a business that is bootstrapping. Of course the development of the business will be much slower but also more flexible and safer.

6. Zach Suppalla — founder and CEO of Spark.io is awesome.

7. Tinkering in the BA era (‘Before Arduino’) was much harder.

Project: From zero to working cell phone detector in 30 minutes

Last thing I would like to say that after this 3 days of tinkering, soldering, coding I have this feeling that makers will be a huge minority still for many years. In spite of all stories about how easy it became to code and play with electronics I think that it will be for long still a niche. Being a maker is very interdisciplinary. There were moments during workshops when tasks were very easy for me, but when something stopped working I was hopeless. When I couldn’t (caution, geek talk) use Firmata to program in Python my Arduino, because I couldn’t install johnny-five framework in Node.js because I didn’t had a “pip” command activated no instruction could help me. For a typical amateur almost every problem is a game killer. Suddenly it appears that when you don’t understand basics of programming, electronics, engineering the whole fun will stop.

From the one hand it is a good sign. There is still growing incentive to learn and study math, programming, engineering, physics. From the other hand the dream that in every house we will be fixing stuff using some 3D prints and a bit of electronics is still story of the future. We will adapt new Internet of Things products when they will be pretty, easy to use, and not complicated. But we need a lot of time to move from consumption toward more creation.

    Bartosz Józefowski

    Written by

    Head of Startup Acceleration Programme, Board Member at Seed VC Fund (Krakow/Poland)