DIY, or "do-it-yourself," is a broad term that encompasses everyone from computer hackers to builders of mutant bicycles to arts and crafts enthusiasts. But what all these groups share is a desire to tinker, to tweak, to take an existing product or technology and bend it to their own whims.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN LEE
Since its launch in 2005, the quarterly Make magazine has been fostering this DIY mindset, offering step-by-step instructions on everything from irrigating your own garden to modifying your Guitar Hero controller into an actual musical instrument. Along with the similarly motivated publication ReadyMade and the decade-old DIY Network, this burgeoning movement is challenging passive consumerism, encouraging people to head into the garage or basement and come up with their own products.
The DIY spirit was alive and well earlier this year at Maker Faire, the annual gathering from Make magazine, as hobbyists showed off their latest whiz-bang projects. Air-pump rockets blasted in the air, bicycle-powered guitar amps provided music, and robotic warships battled to the delight of more than 60,000 attendees.
But the "Makers" who filled the fairgrounds in San Mateo, CA, also included a number of forward-thinking entrepreneurs-those brave enough to transform their hobbies and passions into viable businesses.
"I like to think of it as 'innovation in the wild,' rather than innovation that's domesticated inside of companies," says Make editor and publisher Dale Dougherty, of those hoping to use Maker Faire as a springboard for their start-ups. "Learning to prototype stuff is one of the key skills here… so you can take your idea and make it into something other people can react to."
Here's a look at a few entrepreneurs from Maker Faire.
DIYer: Hayes Raffle
Company: Topobo (www.topobo.com)
BY DAY, Hayes Raffle is a research scientist for Nokia-but he spends his nights and weekends playing with toys. The 35-year-old from Palo Alto, CA, is the founder of Topobo, a year-old company that produces robotic toys that utilize kinetic memory, meaning they can record and play back physical motion.
Unlike playing with static LEGOs, kids can teach their own creations to dance and walk by snapping multicolored pieces together and pushing a small button that starts the recording process on a built-in computer. Raffle had the inspiration for Topobo while working at a company that designed a moveable, LEGO-esque toy called ZOOB.
"We did a project where we hired animators to take the toy and make some stop-motion cartoons," he says. "I always thought it would be amazing if kids could do that themselves: take their plastic toys and bring them to life. Most electronics in toys are extremely simple and don't really leave any room for children's creativity. I really wanted to change that."
In 2002, Raffle enrolled in a PhD program at MIT, which allowed him to realize his big idea of applying kinetic memory technology to a construction toy. His Topobo prototype came together in 2004. He's been providing 1,000-piece toy sets for children's museums for $5,000, and offers starter sets starting at $250, but his real goal is to find a suitable partner to take the product into the mass market. "I have a real desire to have this see the light of day. That's why I got it into production," he says.
DIYer: Kathy Cano-Murillo
Company: Crafty Chica (www.craftychica.com)
KATHY CANO-MURILLO, 44, had been making her own jewelry and painting colorful, Mexican pop art imagery onto everything from flowerpots to tote bags long before she realized there was a whole universe of fellow "craftaholics" just like her. "I was just expressing myself," she says, surrounded by a small army of mostly young girls gluing sequins and cutting paper at her Maker Faire booth.
Now she's growing her own one-woman empire-seven books, a successful blog, and a line of glitter and art supplies.
Her journey from DIYer to successful brand began in 1999, when the then-entertainment reporter for Phoenix's Arizona Republic started writing a crafting column. She launched her own website in 2001 to provide crafting advice and display her art projects. Within six months, she had a book offer.
In 2006, she left the newspaper to focus on Crafty Chica full-time. Today, her line includes iron-on appliqués of folksy images like smiling suns and "workshops-in-a-box" that help budding crafters make charm bracelets. "I want to show people how to make hip Latin-centric things to express themselves… whether they're Latino or not," Cano-Murillo says. "My purpose is to just get people sprinkling the glitter."
DIYer: Kyle Wiens
Company: iFixit (www.ifixit.com)
THE IDEA behind iFixit originated in a college dorm room in 2003, when buddies Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules needed $900 for a movie projector. Lacking cash, they bought some old computers on eBay and sold the parts. The plan worked-and the pair saw the makings of a business.
A few months later, they built an e-commerce platform and launched iFixit.com to sell Macintosh computer parts. They had their first sale within days when someone looking for a PowerBook AC adaptor found them on Google.
In 2004, they came up with a way to boost sales: teach people how to fix their own computers, which would generate a need for used parts. While behemoths like Apple have internal manuals, they're not available to the public. So the duo wrote their own manuals from scratch.
They recently expanded to offer parts and repair instructions for iPods and iPhones. And at Maker Faire, they announced the next step: free, open-source manuals for everything from washing machines to car engines.
While expanding inventory helps revenue (more than $2 million last year), the company's goal is to show people how to fix anything (while keeping parts out of landfills). "Our business is predicated on empowering people," he says.
DIYer: Alex Andon
Company: Jellyfish Art (www.jellyfishart.com)
WHILE VISITING the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, Alex Andon noticed people going nuts for jellyfish, with their crazy shapes, pulsing movements and colors straight out of a fireworks display. He assumed there must be an affordable way to show off these living lava lamps at home, but there wasn't. Recently laid off from a Bay Area biotech company, he decided to find out why.
Andon discovered a number of barriers to selling jellyfish as pets: They require special cylindrical tanks so they don't get sucked into pumps; most people don't have the time or resources to grow live brine shrimp, the species' preferred food; and there's a daunting number of species, only some of which can survive in a smaller setting.
"I looked at what barriers there were, and I thought I could break them down," says the 25-year-old from San Francisco. "It seemed like the perfect opportunity."
He modified a pre-fabricated fish tank, started growing plankton on his roof and freezing it, and experimented until he found some hearty species. He launched Jellyfish Art last fall and, from his website, sells everything from blue jellies 1 inch in diameter to Japanese sea nettles with 3-foot long tentacles-along with all the necessary accoutrements. His biggest sale so far: a custom aquarium for a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle for $25,000.
Based on the reaction of the crowd at Maker Faire-the floating blobs at his booth elicit the same oohs and ahhs as the exhibits at public aquariums-Andon may have just stumbled upon the next big thing in aquatic pets.
DIYer: Dan Goldwater
Company: MonkeyLectric (www.monkeylectric.com)
AN AVID CYCLIST, Dan Goldwater found the generic, red blinking light he used for nighttime bike riding decidedly dull. To add some style, the electrical engineer built his own version: an all-weather, 32-color LED one he called Monkey Light, which attaches to the spokes. "It started out as an artistic project four years ago," he says, "but everywhere I went people asked where they could buy it."
Noticing an increase in commuter biking near his Bay Area home, as well as a tendency for cyclists to customize their bikes with paint jobs and chrome, Goldwater thought the product had potential. He just didn't know how much.
A co-founder of two tech start-ups, he launched MonkeyLectric in 2007. But the big difference this time around: His new company was self-funded. "It's much more stressful," he says. "It's always easier to play with other people's money."
One of the keys to getting MonkeyLectric off the ground was the existence of rapid prototype technologies that let garage entrepreneurs produce small batches. "Twenty years ago, you needed a lot of capital to do any kind of physical object, particular electronics. Now, you can do a decent run for $10,000 and risk a lot less money," he says.
His did a first run of 1,000 units, which sold out in six weeks. Now, the company sells a video version with a rotating wheel display system that can stabilize solid images on nearly any bike wheel. "My goal is [to show that] bike lighting doesn't have to be just a boring red blinking thing," he says.