Steve Roberts is a maker OG (original gangsta). With his amazing Winnebiko and BEHEMOTH projects, and his longtime evangelizing of “high-tech nomadness,” he’s been a leading light in the maker movement for decades. I definitely count him as one of my great inspirations in pursuing artful-engineering (or is it engineered artfulness?) as a lifestyle. Steve has recently published an awesome book, called Reaching Escape Velocity. I review it in the current issue of MAKE, Volume 21. The book is subtitled: “Launching gonzo engineering projects with sponsors, media, volunteers, and other potent forces.” It’s a thin volume, but it’s jam-packed with grand inspiration and practical ideas. I asked Steve if we could share some of it here, and he kindly obliged. — Gareth
From the Foreword: A Grand Vision is only the beginning. No matter how much passion you bring to bear on the project of your dreams, the odds of actually escaping the “gravity well” are low… unless you find a way to leverage larger forces. This document, derived from 25 years of audacious feats of gonzo engineering, presents the keys to six tools that are essential to a large-scale project:
[ ] A Business Angle [ ] Your Own Education [ ] Corporate Sponsorship [ ] Media Coverage [ ] A Public Presence [ ] The Team of Volunteers
I have contemplated publishing a book on this subject for years, and only now (2009) have decided to do so. It can be considered the collection of “trade secrets” that have made my adventures possible… the art of working with sponsors, media, and volunteers to get an insanely ambitious project off the ground and keep it moving on its own momentum.
From Chapter 1: The Business Angle: The best generalization I can give you is that the boundaries between specialties are where it’s at. It is no accident that most projects in the domain of gonzo engineering are, by their nature, comprised more of new ways of combining existing technologies than of linear envelope-pushing; the latter, while honorable and necessary for ongoing industrial progress, is less likely to yield the kinds of breakthroughs that make the media flock to your door. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that individuals have a much harder time with “straight ahead” advances in the state of the art than do well-funded companies… that sort of work does lend itself well to structured engineering methods and thus tends to be the most likely course of corporate product development (think Moore’s Law).
But an obsessed individual making leaps of intuition in the middle of the night is almost inevitably looking at new interactions between existing ideas–making novel connections across great chasms (like finding a mathematical hack to avoid the rotation and scaling problem associated with image recognition, based on the logarithmic polar mapping discovered through end-to-end electron microscopy of the optic nerve). So it is likely that a gonzo engineering project already has some of this cross-boundary action happening. Why is this relevant? Because the hottest consulting action is almost never within your own specialty; it’s when you take your accumulated knowledge, cross over to a client who speaks a different language in an unrelated field, and solve Major Problems. If you know a lot about spread-spectrum data transmission, do you try to sell yourself to radio manufacturers that already have cubicles full of experts? Or do you become the hero of the hour to some company that has run into a wall trying to move data between ceramic foundries, deploying a few off-the-shelf radios and beam antennas along with a nice fat invoice for your trouble?
From Chapter 3: Sponsorship
3.1 Product versus Cash First, let’s get one thing straight. Asking companies for money is a lot harder than asking them for products, and if you plan to use the money to buy products anyway, you might as well eliminate those troublesome intermediate value states and their associated end-of-year implications. Besides, when you ask for money you end up dealing with the kinds of people who think in terms of return on investment, deliverables, tax laws, penalty clauses, and all that other weird stuff that causes the eyes of most geeks to glaze over. But when you go looking for goodies, you find yourself talking with engineers (sometimes even kindred spirits who wish they were doing something so cool), company principals (they may be suits, but they can make the instant decision to support you without having to sell the idea upstairs), and the aforementioned marketroids (hey, they may not always be the most creative folk, but they are usually friendly people who understand the value of good PR–and can be very helpful).
There is a counter-argument that applies in some situations: a big “title sponsor” who gives you a pile of dollars translates onto only one relationship to maintain. Seeking a separate sponsorship deal for every component can gobble months of schmoozing time, and you can even find yourself having to delicately balance relationships with companies who see each other as competitors. This can get a little tricky, especially where IP or pre-release products are involved.
From Chapter 4: The Media Dance:
4.2 The Project Moniker Much of the art of being interesting to the media is simply having an image that can be grasped and communicated in a short news segment. Think about a spot on the evening news, or a 300-word “tight and bright” piece in the inside pages of USA Today: if it takes an hour to explain to a fellow geek what you’re doing, it might be impossible to get it across effectively to a bright-eyed reporter whose last assignment involved converting a consumer product press release into a photo/caption puff piece. In other words, those sound bites we talked about above aren’t just for use during the artificial reality of being on camera; you have to be able to convey the essence of your project in few words with startling clarity, tweak it in various compelling ways to appeal to different markets, then keep it dynamic as the years pass so it doesn’t fade into the static.
The entertainment industry has a name for this: the elevator pitch. If you can’t get the story idea across in the time it takes to ride the elevator, then it is too complicated.
Three-way symbiosis of project, sponsors, and media. Everybody wins as long as the process keeps moving forward, and it is up to you to drive that. New toys are inspiring; build something amazing with them, and the press will tell your story. If you craft interviews to honestly underscore the role of your sponsor(s) without blatant flag-flying, then you can keep the outer loop going indefinitely. The hard part is the leap of faith on all sides necessary to get it started.
Inner, direct connections are just as important, and the most productive relationships contain all the elements shown here.
From Chapter 6: Building the Team
The Bottom Line is Fun All that seductive fame ‘n glory aside, I have found over the years that the best motivation happens to be the most pure: fun. This is, after all, why most techies do what they do, and one of the best compliments I ever received on the project was from a fellow who dropped by for an afternoon of brainstorming: “Thanks for reminding me why I became an engineer.”
I am convinced that the best way to build a team is to simply do something so cool, so exciting, that people jump at the chance to participate. This is the kind of energy that gets creative juices pumping, and feeds the project… I dunno about you, but after a few years of pushing toward the same goal I tend to get a bit jaded. There’s nothing like the arrival of someone who’s turned on by the Microship fantasy to get fresh ideas percolating and knock a few jobs off the list, especially TBDWLs (To Be Dealt with Later).
- Maker Business: Zeichen Press
- Maker Business: Magnolia Atomworks, part 4
- Maker Business: Magnolia Atomworks, part 3
- Maker Business: Magnolia Atomworks, part 2
- Maker Business: Magnolia Atomworks
- Exploring the business of making
- Maker Business: Venturing out…
From MAKE magazine:
MAKE Volume 21 is the Desktop Manufacturing issue, with how-to articles on making three-dimensional parts using inexpensive computer-controlled manufacturing equipment. Both additive (RepRap, CandyFab) and subtractive (Lumenlab Micro CNC) systems are covered. Also in this issue: instructions for making a cigar box guitar, building your own CNC for under $800, running a mini electric bike with a cordless drill, making a magic photo cube, and tons more. If you’re a subscriber, you may have your issue in hand already, and can access the Digital Edition. Otherwise, you can pick up MAKE 21 in the Maker Shed or look for it on newsstands near you!