How big can the DIY and maker movement get? SparkFun wants to know

The SparkFun braintrust of Lara Boudreaux (project manager in marketing), Pete Dokter ( director of Engineering), Lindsay Levkoff, (director of education, and Nathan Seidle (CEO).

The popularity of the maker movement, of Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi hacks and a variety of other DIY electronics projects are stunning. Businesses such as Tindie, AdaFruit and SparkFun have been created to feed the demand for boards, kits and forums built around open hardware.

There are new hacker spaces popping up around the country where people can borrow tools and hang with experts, while sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer a viable venue for people to get their inventions before a wider audience. It really feels like something big, perhaps the third industrial revolution as Chris Anderson has called it. The founder of MAKE magazine has even spoken before a group of people at the White House.

Building a digital rotary phone project at SparkFun.

Building a digital rotary phone project at SparkFun.

And yet…there is a part of me that looks at those engaging in hackathons and learning to solder and wonders, how big is this market? Is it growing? Are these people who are now playing with new tools because those tools are now cheaper and more available, or is the ready availability of cheaper tools opening up a new market for people who had never had an interest in this stuff? In short, are more people actually growing interested in this, or is the existing market just latching onto products that were once out of reach?

To me, that’s the real question looming behind these articles about a 3D printer in every home and the maker movement in general. And I’m not the only one. During a trip to Boulder, Colorado in March, I visited SparkFun, one of the older sites offering DIY electronics kits, for a factory tour and a conversation with its executives. And the questions about the maker market were a big theme running through the entire visit.

The problem for SparkFun is that while it has experienced phenomenal growth, it’s also worried that it’s seeing a plateau. Lara Boudreaux, the project manager for the marketing department at SparkFun, said the company had sales of $27.5 million in 2012 but only grew 9.6 percent year over year.

The fear is that while the marketing interest in DIY and the maker movement is still high, the typical customer has been reached. Growth may now come from getting the established clientele to buy more. And while many DIY hackers are willing to spend on their hobby, growing in a saturated market is tough.

So, what’s SparkFun — or any other company in this market to do? Well, the first step involves a bus and a bunch of boards. Lindsay Levkoff, the director of education at SparkFun, who created an education division inside the company in 2011, has built a program where SparkFun will take its lessons about making on the road to schools and teachers. The program wasn’t created to boost profits, but it could have the added benefit of introducing the idea of making to new audiences.

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And yes, those audiences might be on an allowance, but the idea is that they will grow up to continue to pursue building electronics as a hobby, or maybe even entice their parents to join them in a project or two. Because as a business, running an open source hardware manufacturing business in the U.S. is tough. Matt Bolton, director of production at SparkFun, estimates that any design the company produces will be copied within 12 weeks of hitting the SparkFun web site.

So the company moves quickly from design to design, conducting small runs of each so as not to get caught flat-footed when cheaper imitations hit the market. It also has a DIY ethos that can help keep costs down. It makes its own ads and now does its own marketing. It’s also judicious in its outreach. While it used to operate a big booth at Maker Faire, it has toned that down because the success of the maker movement means that the sponsorship costs SparkFun a lot more at the big events. Instead, it send a smaller cadre of people and is focusing on its own events, such as its Autonomous Vehicle Competition coming up on June 8.

SparkFun's autonomous vehicle competition held in 2012. Shot by Juan Peña for SparkFun.

SparkFun’s autonomous vehicle competition held in 2012. Shot by Juan Peña for SparkFun.

Now these conversations about its growth or decisions to spend its capital in smaller Maker Faires or through its own events don’t necessarily mean SparkFun is in trouble. Having 9 percent year over year growth is nothing to scoff at. In fact, this month it broke ground on a 80,000 square-foot new campus to meet its anticipated growth. And a perusal of the blog post detailing the transaction shows that even if the company’s growth slows, CEO Nathan Seidle is capable of pulling together financially savvy deals that keep SparkFun operating without a lot of debt or financial pressure.

To me, and for others watching the maker movement unfold, SparkFun is a chance to answer what is an important question. How big can the maker movement get?

Because even as the mainstream discovers the maker movement and companies like SparkFun, it’s not clear if a large part of the population really wants to buy kits and make their own devices. Although if you look at other somewhat “alternative” hobbies like yoga or even gourmet cooking that have hit the mainstream there’s clearly the opportunity for a market to emerge that allows SparkFun to grow.

The big question is whether DIY becomes next decade’s yoga or instead is more like home brewing.

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