This had already been a very good year for the rapidly growing DIY, tech hobbyist scene before Entrepreneur magazine named Limor Fried (aka “Ladyada”), founder and CEO of New York-based Adafruit Industries, its Entrepreneur of the Year. This was the year that coding and hacking went mainstream. It was a time when some of the most interesting and often quirky startups being launched around concepts such as open source and crowdsourcing began to find their way onto the cover of magazines. Companies such as Adafruit Industries, are at the forefront of helping tens of thousands of tech hobbyists create objects that have never before existed.
That, in fact, is perhaps why you’ve never heard of Adafruit Industries. Unlike a traditional tech company — companies such as Apple, Samsung or Microsoft — Adafruit does not manufacture, design or sell what many would consider a mainstream consumer gadget. Instead, the company sells electronic kits that help people assemble their own products. And when the company does sell an item, it comes with an open-source license, meaning that you’re basically free to hack it apart and sell a better one yourself. That’s an extremely powerful idea.
Adafruit also has an intensely loyal community of people who, well, make things. They tinker. They hack. They ask questions like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to...?” The best-selling item at Adafruit is something called a Minty Boost, which is basically a hacked-together power source for your smart phone that fits into an Altoids case and runs on a pair of AA batteries.
From one perspective, of course, it would be easy to dismiss Adafruit Industries (and companies like it, such as MakerBot and 3D Robotics) as nothing more than a capitalistic anomaly — the type of company that somehow missed the memo about selling tech gadgets with outrageous profit margins and zealously protecting intellectual property. Some of the products you could theoretically make with the electronic kits at Adafruit - like a device that can jam cellphones in a public place that's camouflaged as a pack of Marlboros - would probably never make it out of a brainstorming session at a mainstream technology company. And, let’s be honest, how many CEOs do you know with neon pink hair who also know how to program and solder?
Once you start to view the world through a hacker’s eyes, though, you begin to appreciate what a fundamental change we may be witnessing in the tech sector. We Make things is the emerging mantra now, rather than We Buy things. The open-source mentality, which once only applied to the online world and software, is now starting to take over hardware. Futuristic areas such as robotics, wearable tech and 3D printing are being energized not by millions of dollars in venture capital, but by millions of tech hobbyists, all lending their ideas and support to each other as part of a massive community that rewards creativity and innovation.
Still not convinced? Consider for a moment that mayors are now putting programming on their list of New Year's resolutions. Hackathons are now part of presidential elections. Consulting firms are examining how Maker technologies such as 3D printing could become the stimulus for an American manufacturing renaissance. Even the U.S. military is embracing the open-source hardware movement. There is, as Victor Hugo once noted, nothing more powerful than “an idea whose time has come.”
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