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The number of businesses selling very cool electronic bits (and every handmade item for that matter) has exploded over the past few years. It's been really exciting to see all the new products hit the market, but what surprised me was the reoccurring challenges those companies face. We've seen these new products fall into three "buckets": the happy bucket, the work bucket, and the pit of despair. I presented the concept of the pit of despair at the Hardware Innovation Workshop. You can see the video over here, and you can get a PDF of the presentation here.
A portion of products and projects fall into the first bucket. I call this the happy bucket. These products sell a few per week and the creator can fulfill the orders that come in over the web while keeping their day job. Maybe it's a messenger bag made from recycled bike tubes, or a laser cut kids' toy. If they can make enough extra money to buy some new tools, they consider it a win. These folks really enjoy making things and the reward that comes with them.
A very, very small portion fall into the second bucket -- the work bucket. These products have enough wild demand that it makes financial and mental sense to quit the day job and concentrate on building this product. Like I said, very few projects have this clear a delineation.
Painful assembly: From Nonolith Labs - “This is what you'll get. It took us about six minutes to test/cal, screw, and kit this. We just have... 150 to go...”
A surprising amount of products fall into the third bucket. I call this bucket the pit of despair. These products get far more attention than the creator(s) expected. The product was well-designed but may have been designed for kitchen production, where they planned to build tens of units. When demand grows beyond thousands, the creators are often forced to make tough decisions: the income may not be enough to release them from their day job, and the amount of time required to build the product begins to gobble up evenings and entire weekends. If you've ever had to count out 150 bags of resistors and LEDs, you know what I'm talking about. It's really painful.
We've even brought some pain on ourselves with MaKey MaKey. We figured 300 units would be a win, 500 would be a slam dunk. We are currently building 13,000 units without too much handwringing, but it's not something we're used to seeing.
It's at this point, when folks are thrust unceremoniously from tens of units to thousands of units, when they contact us to collaborate. We've seen an explosion recently with the popularity of KickStarter to raise funds and get pre-orders.
We love having the opportunity to work with folks to bring their ideas to life. It's always fun, but collaborations are really challenging. An idea is a great place to start, but there are a tremendous number of details that can cause the project to fold long before it sees e-commerce goodness. Questions like:
As I said, this is a tough nut to crack, and we're not the ones to crack it (our job is to build shortcuts). So if you've got some free time, could you just whip this up for us? It would significantly ease the problems that small- to medium-sized innovators are running up against. It's going to take the long tail of products to a place where we all get what we want. Who doesn't want that?