Exploring the business of making


For the next few months, in concert with our “Your Desktop Factory” themed issue of MAKE (Volume 21), we’re going to be exploring the world of “maker business,” turning your passion for making things into a means of making money. We’ll look at everything from casual commerce, selling small numbers of goods online, at places like Etsy and the upcoming Makers Market, to the running of a more serious and sustainable small business. We’ll be talking to, and have guest articles by, maker businessfolk across this spectrum, from those just starting out, to those who are making a comfortable living as self-employed makers. We’ll also be touching on everything from the most philosophical questions of why to the more pragmatic nuts and bolts of how.

Do you run a small “maker business?” If so, we’d love to hear from you. If creating such a business is something you’ve thought about, what questions/concerns do you have? What would you like to see us cover in this series? Let us know in the comments, or email me (gareth at makezine). We’d love for this series to be a useful service to you, especially if going into such a business is a fantasy, but you have nagging questions or reservations that hold you back, or just need a little encouragement from those who’ve made this sort of career change work for them.


From MAKE magazine:

make volume 21 little cover.jpg

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!

6 thoughts on “Exploring the business of making

  1. julienj says:

    I would have to say that most of my apprehension about starting a business falls back upon what exactly to make. I can never decide exactly what products would be best suited for me to take the time to develop and put out there for all to use/buy. I see products that others have developed, most notably Limor over at Adafruit, and I can’t help but have the deepest adoration for the things that she and her group do. I would love to start a “kitting” business such as hers, but I feel that the majority of the worthwhile kit ideas seem to be already taken.

    1. Jeffrey McGrew says:

      It’s a great question, and one we still struggle with all the time honestly. For once you launch a few things, make a few ideas, you find out the truth that you can pretty much make almost anything, but not everything is profitable!

      So what do you do? Well, two things: do what you know and love (even if other people are doing it) and do it anyways, but do it cheap.

      There certainly have to be kits that you think are cooler than others. And certain types of kits that you just know you’ve got the skills to make great. You just don’t know right now which are which. So as Gareth wisely points out, the first thing to do is to just start paying attention and thinking about things in a different context. One easy way to do this is to make something that YOU want, but that isn’t out there right now. Don’t even worry if it will sell. But just from getting one thing to market you’ll learn so much about yourself and your potential customers that the next kit you do will be a lot better. We’ve found our best sellers are all things we made just because we wanted them, or thought they were cool, instead of stuff for a certain market.

      Which brings us to the second thing: do it anyways, but do it cheap. Just because someone else is doing something doesn’t mean you can’t too. Don’t rip people off mind you, but instead think of how YOUR nixie tube clock or useless machine or whatever kit will be a little different or better. Do the least amount of work and spend the least amount of money possible to get something to market. Don’t spend tons on setup costs. For example, you could make just one kit, but really document it’s assembly and the final result, and then take the finished thing around to local places where like-minded people hang out. See what they have to say about it. Post it up here on the Make: Blog and see what people online have to say. You want to do the least amount of work possible to get feedback. Heck, you might not even need to make the kits with the idea of ‘verbal prototyping’. Once you start getting feedback, you can refine the idea until you start getting people wanting to order one. THEN you figure out if you can really make money with the idea (sometimes you can’t) by figuring out pricing and how the kits are gonna get made. FINALLY you actually spend some money setting up a webstore, or on marketing, or on going to a faire: but only once you know that you’ve got something that’s likely to sell!

      Hope this helps!

  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Thanks for posting that, Julien. That’s one of the questions we get asked the most: How do I come up with a product to sell/make into a kit, and if I have several possible ideas, how do I know which one is the idea I should invest in?

    The first part is a toughie. I think probably the best ideas are ones that have sprang out of passions or in a real a-ha moment of insight. I think a lot of it has to do with changing your mentality so that you see an opportunity where you might otherwise not (you see a true need to fill, or you see something in your day-to-day and see a way to create something to improve it). A somewhat tangential example, but the same mental switch: When I used to do the “Jargon Watch” column for Wired, at first, I had a hard time finding terms to include, but once I started to have that filter in place to look for new and emerging terms, they started leaping out at me. They were there all along, I just hadn’t trained myself to focus on them. It’s amazing, when you make this switch, how many new words and slang one encounters every day. Which leads me to:

    “Visual prototyping,” the word that Dale coined in Jeffrey’s article on “Venturing out…” Once you DO have a potential idea, you can get SO much free design feedback and pre-production advice even before you make the thing, or after you’ve made one. Put it online, on your blog, send it here to MAKE, put up an Instructable, whatever. You’ll gain so much insight from people’s reactions, their questions/comments, how much it gets re-blogged, etc.

    I’d love to have folks who actually have a “maker business” chime in here. What advice would you give Julien?

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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