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I think we need a new measurement for tracking the success of our maker ventures, a new yardstick. I propose “Return on Adventure,” something perhaps intangible, but no less important in factoring into your “ROI.” Here’s a report on my ROA:

“Excuse me sir, is this your luggage?”

Without fail, the TSA agent walked out from behind the scanning machine and directly over to us. Eric and I looked at each other and grinned. We were used to it at this point, and we didn’t blame them. I would be just as suspicious if I saw a yellow pelican case stuffed with plastic tubes, electronics, and batteries coming through the X-Ray machine. Frankly, I’d be worried if they didn’t stop and chat with us.

“What have you got in here?” The TSA Agent questioned. “Is there anything sharp inside?”

“Nothing sharp, sir,” Eric answered. “These are underwater robots. We’re headed to the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory off the coast of Key Largo to participate in NASA’s NEEMO mission this week. We’re going to be testing our robots there.”

We couldn’t hold our smiles back. The moment was just as surreal for us as it was for the TSA Agent. I mean, really, how cool was this?

Earlier that morning, I had seen a tweet from Chris Anderson, Founder of DIY Drones, that said:


I was feeling the same way. It was fun to know that Chris and the DIY Drones community were having the same experience. Then I started thinking about other maker groups and companies. I thought about MakerBot, and their event at the Met last month where they scanned and 3D printed the entire museum. I thought about Oru Kayak and the “product testing” I did with Anton Willis, the designer of the origami vessel, last month, kayaking around the San Francisco Bay. I thought about my tour of Jellyfish Art last week where Alex Andon, the founder, showed me his experiments trying to breed a species of upside-down jellyfish.

As I daydreamed about the other groups, it slowly dawned on me: maker groups and businesses have more fun!

I’m surprised that more people haven’t caught on to this, that there aren’t more people hanging around TechShops trying to engineer their dream job. If startups are so risky, and so statistically destined to fail, why would anyone waste their time trying another daily deals site or Facebook clone? Why not go down swinging and try to create something truly amazing, never before seen? Something exciting and fun. Something that, even if you fail, helps make the world a more delightful and inspired place?

The maker movement and the accessibility of the rapid prototyping tools are opening up a whole new world of possibilities. I often read complaints that the startup world isn’t being creative enough, notably in Alexis Madrigal’s The Jig is Up and Steve Blank’s Why Facebook is Killing Silicon Valley, but only occasionally do I see interpretations of a future I want to live in.

I’d like to offer the idea that the truly innovative startups coming down the pipe will be less about what more about how. Their process will be just as important as their product: community-centric, open and crowd sources, inclusive. And I think they’ll emerge from the people and groups that are having the most fun.

Eric Stackpole, my partner in the OpenROV project, and I actually never intended to turn this into a business – it was always about the adventure. When we first met, having been introduced by a mutual friend, we both had other jobs that we loved. We spent a solid three hours just talking about adventures we dreamed of having, and what kinds of tools we would need to make them happen: what if we had an ROV that was cheap enough for us to use but was also really capable? What if you could explore a coral reef across the globe by controlling an ROV over the internet? What if thousands of people had them and shared their experiences and data online?

Photo credit: SpaceAppsChallenge

Eric and I discovered our overlapping passion for exploration. That conversation still drives everything we do. Every time we’ve had a tough decision to make, we always bring it back to those shared values.

At the time, making OpenROV an open source and open hardware project was a no brainer. We saw what was happening with groups like DIY Drones and MakerBot and thought maybe we could find a community of people who were equally excited about underwater exploration. Well, we found them. And we’re gathering more everyday.

Now, the biggest obstacle holding us back is not having enough OpenROV’s in the wild. We hope to solve that problem by distributing kits through Kickstarter, and getting more people’s hands on the project. We’ve worked tirelessly to get the ROV to the point where it’s “good enough.” There’s a long to-do list. We haven’t had time to build in the compass or pressure sensor yet, we’re still working on ways to perform better in salt water (although the brushless motors have worked very well so far), and we know we need a more hydrodynamic prop. But we know the community can come up with better solutions than we can. It’s time to ship!

Of course, in order for the OpenROV project to continue to grow into its full potential as a data sharing platform and underwater telepresence hub it’s going to need a healthy bottom line. Eric and I know this, but we also want to make sure we stay true to our initial conversation. As Tim O’Reilly has said:

“Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.”

We feel confident that if we’re able to create enough value, everything will work out just fine. Besides, the best part about the OpenROV project has been the terrific people we’ve met along the way and the experiences we’ve been able to share with them.

We’re not out to become the wealthiest mini-sub builders in the world. We don’t aspire to sell our company to Facebook for a zillion dollars. We just want to maximize the ROA, for ourselves and for our community. I hope this idea catches on and more startups begin factoring the ROA into the ROI.

David Lang

Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!


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