A business movement focused on the little guy
FORTUNE — When Dale Dougherty first published
in 2006, he didn’t suspect that he would catalyze backyard tinkerers and hobbyists into a worldwide movement. Make Magazine and Maker Faire, Maker Media’s two largest endeavors, have spawned Maker Spaces — places where people gather to tinker and build — around the globe; Maker Shed, a marketplace for kits and equipment; and the non-profit Maker Education Initiative.
In 2013, there were over 100 different Maker Faires, many of them independently organized and community-driven. In the San Francisco Bay Area and New York, more than 195,000 people attended the events, many for the first time.
Makers build and create a growing array of things — everything from robots and drones to shoes and jewelry. Think of them as the next generation of the Do It Yourself (DIY) crowd.
Ever since Malcolm Gladwell started to talk about David and Goliath in October, there’s been a lot of interest in how the little guy prevails. In the business world, the traditional inventor or tinkerer is the epitome of the underdog — a self-taught individual with limited tools, toiling alone in a workshop or garage on some project that has as much passion as purpose. It’s not exactly the type of trend that catches an executive’s attention, certainly not as a competitive threat. But when you add digital technologies that allow individuals to connect with each other, to learn new skills, to access designs and tools, and to more easily use these tools, suddenly the hobbyist becomes a maker. The maker has a movement, and the movement has an industry. Now, corporations need to pay attention.
An entire network of companies and organizations have sprung from, or for, the maker community. These organizations aim to help individual creators compete with the largest companies for consumer attention. Some of these companies are already familiar names, others will be. From websites and communities that provide inspiration, instruction, and designs — such as Pinterest and Instructables — to companies like Tech Shop that provide access to tools, to the tool-makers themselves, such as MakerBot and ShopBot, supporting services and platforms are enabling more people to make things.
For the makers who believe others might also want to see and use their creations, companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer access to funding, firms like Quirky and Shapeways help take ideas to market, while Etsy and Threadless provide marketplaces that can connect makers to consumers. For those who want to reach a larger audience, a growing host of companies are acting as incubators and orchestrators to connect makers with production, manufacturing, and distribution channels.
The rapidly growing network around makers has enabled a significant shift in power from large companies to individuals. In effect, this network has allowed the little guy, in many cases an individual, to punch above his weight and start nibbling away at the big guys’ market share. In Gladwell’s view, the underdog has a competitive advantage precisely because he has lacked advantages, making him scrappier, more capable of improvisation, and, most notably, less invested in winning.
The maker trend represents the democratization of the means of production. And it is happening on a broad scale. It might be tempting, as a big company, to be complacent, to wave this off as a phenomenon limited to the coasts or big cities. That would be a mistake. In the same way that newspapers or the music industry dismissed early Internet efforts and suffered the disruptive consequences, makers are encroaching on the traditional domains of consumer goods and manufacturing. Our colleague Duleesha Kulasooriya notes that, “increasingly, any entrepreneur can have a global storefront and a global audience. Now that building new products is easier, competition can, and will, come from everywhere.”
We use the term “maker movement” for a reason. A movement implies a shared view that is motivating people to participate and collaborate. Overall, participants in the maker movement share a vision of nothing less than changing the world, “freeing the worker” from the rote and unempowered work of corporations and into doing something fulfilling and creative that may well transcend the profit motive.
This type of group is sometimes referred to as a “community of action,” which means it is a group coming together to change something. This is more than just semantics. Participants in a community of action tend to identify with the community, and that helps accelerate the formation of deep relationships. This commitment helps take participants beyond the relationships, practices, and motivations of traditional business. It may cause some tension with the corporate world, but companies may also discover the maker movement to be a source of inspiration, innovation, and talent.
John Hagel III is a director at Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.