The amazing rise of the do-it-yourself economy
By Daniel Roth

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IT'S DOUBTFUL THAT STEVE JOBS EVER FACED these kinds of interruptions. "Daddy, I want to take a picture," says Owen Misterovich, motioning to a digital camera on his father's desk. "Okay," says Pat Misterovich, handing it to his 5-year-old son, who proceeds to snap a few self-portraits. Then it's back to the work at hand: producing the next great MP3 music player. Only instead of the simple, elegant lines of the iPod, Misterovich's device will look just like a Pez dispenser. Oh, and instead of working from a corporate campus in Cupertino, Calif., with nearly 12,000 employees, Misterovich is a stay-at-home dad, creating his Pez MP3 player from the basement of his Springfield, Mo., home.

Misterovich is the former head of IT at the University of Detroit Mercy. He has few of the engineering skills necessary to build a device like this, no marketing experience, and absolutely no corporate infrastructure. And yet he's got two factories--one in China, one in the U.S.--vying to build the player. He has a small Austin company started by an ex-Apple engineer designing the innards. And on his blog, pezmp3.com, he uses prospective buyers--some 1,500 people have already expressed interest--as an R&D-center-meets-focus-group. What's better, he asks, AAA batteries or Li-Ion? In come dozens of replies ("Go for the AAA with a USB NiMh recharger if possible," suggests one reader). What's a good slogan? Some 50 ideas roll in (one of the best: "Candy for your ears"). By the end of this month the first prototype should be in Misterovich's hands. "I don't know that this product could have come to life years ago," he says. "I seriously doubt it. And if it did, it wouldn't have come through a guy in his basement."

It used to be that a tinkerer like Misterovich could, at best, hope to sell his idea to a big company. More likely, he'd entertain friends with his Pez-sized visions. But a number of factors are coming together to empower amateurs in a way never before possible, blurring the lines between those who make and those who take. Unlike the dot-com fortune hunters of the late 1990s, these do-it-yourselfers aren't deluding themselves with oversized visions of what they might achieve. Instead, they're simply finding a way--in this mass-produced, Wal-Mart world--to take power back, prove that they can make the products that they want to consume, have fun doing so, and, just maybe, make a few dollars. "What's happened is a tremendous change in awareness," says Eric von Hippel, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of the recent Democratizing Innovation. "Conventional wisdom is so strong [in business] about find-a-need-and-fill-it: 'We're the manufacturers; we design products; we ask users what they need; we do it.' That has begun to crack."

Numerous currents have converged to produce this reaction. Bloggers, those do-it-yourself journalists, showed big media that the barriers to entry (like owning a printing press, say) didn't much matter. Podcasters took radio into their own hands, creating audio shows and putting them online. Amateur music producers, using software that was once the province only of major labels, invented mash-ups: combining songs into totally new ones, then giving them away or selling them. And with the advent of services like Google AdSense, which let people easily put advertising on their sites, these tinkerers could--while not vaulting themselves into Bill Gates territory--at least break even.

"Before, only the rich had access to tools and so only the rich were professionals, and the rest were amateurs," says Noah Glass, the co-founder of Odeo, which offers a free service for making, hosting, and distributing podcasts. "But now, as the creation tools have become easier to use and more freely distributed through open source, through the Internet, through awareness, more people have more access to more tools, so the whole amateur-professional dichotomy is dissolving."

Citizen engineers are taking this even further, trying their hand not just in the digital world but in the physical world too. Much as eBay transformed distribution, they're redefining design and manufacture. The infrastructure is there: Yahoo Groups make it easier for people to trade ideas and learn quickly; free or cheap computer-aided-design (CAD) programs allow users to cobble together blueprints; and inexpensive manufacturing in China allows the idea to go from file to factory. There are even websites like Alibaba.com that will help these small-timers find Chinese factories eager for their work, meaning that the amateur nation has its own Match.com.

This may seem like a lot of effort to, say, create a funny-looking MP3 player. But that's not this group's ethos. "DIYers do things for irrational reasons," says Saul Griffith. "If it's your passion and your love, you don't count how many hours you spend doing it. That's why so many of these things end up being great."

Griffith should know. A dedicated kite-surfer--the sport involves riding a small board through water while attached to a parachute-like "kite"--he was unhappy with the goods on the market. In 2001 he started Zeroprestige.com, a website where he posted his kite designs. Soon other amateurs submitted their own concepts, and sail manufacturers with excess capacity offered to make kites from the plans. The amateur designers kept coming back to make exactly what they wanted to buy. And though no one got rich, a few small businesses popped up to sell the finished products. Since then, kites have become commodities, but Griffith hasn't let go of the spirit. His four-person engineering company, Squid Labs, is launching a site this summer tentatively called iFabricate, "a Wikipedia for atoms," he says, referring to the user-created online encyclopedia. Do-it-yourselfers of all stripes will be able to go to the site to trade ideas and work together, get easy access to programs for manipulating materials, and eventually use it to pool their resources for buying raw materials from suppliers.

A few large companies, too, are finding ways to tap into the movement. While most of the leading-edge DIYers view open-source software as their inspiration, Microsoft sees a role for itself. The company's Visual Studio Express software--slated for official release later this year--is designed to bring coding to the masses. Microsoft is also talking about working with things like Phidgets, inexpensive, easily manipulated electronic parts like RFID components--a radio chip expected to supplant the bar code--that would allow you to, say, make your own keyless home-entry system. Microsoft estimates there are six million professional developers and 18 million amateurs: hobbyists, tinkerers, students. The company hopes to make Visual Studio Express the Esperanto of amateur builders. Brian Keller, product manager for Visual Studio, says he looks forward to the day when "my mom can sit down and watch a video and learn how to build an RFID reader for herself."

For those moms who can't wait for the video, publisher O'Reilly Media recently launched what has already become the bible of this new movement, a magazine called Make. It features page after page of geeked-out--but not unachievable--how-tos; the latest issue details the finer points of crafting your own printed circuitboard or building your own teleprompter (anticipating the inevitable rise of video blogging). O'Reilly initially estimated that it could snare about 10,000 people willing to pay the steep $35 a year for the quarterly. Now, four months after the launch--and with almost no advertising--it already has 25,000 subscribers.

To be fair, all this amateur energy isn't exactly a new force. When exciting technologies emerge, Americans have always pounced and created something original. In his 1936 New Yorker article "Farewell, My Lovely," E.B. White eulogized the Model T and the creativity it inspired in its owners: "When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start--a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware.... Gadget bred gadget. Owners not only bought ready-made gadgets, they invented gadgets to meet special needs." The difference today is simply the technology, says University of Virginia technology historian Bernie Carlson: "I would call it the Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau theme, that it's as important to produce as it is to consume."

And so Misterovich, from his not-quite-Walden, keeps at his goal of building the kind of MP3 player that he wants to carry around. One with a collectible head and AAA batteries and a user-created slogan. And even if he pulls it off, it's doubtful that he'll get rich. That's fine with him. The purpose in the amateur economy isn't always the same as in the big-company economy. "My main goal is not to lose my house," he says. "You put it on the line and you want to be rewarded. But when it comes down to it, I just don't want to go broke. It's an amateur attitude--you're doing it for the love." âñ 

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