The Challenges of Making a Living as a Living Maker.
Like many of my peers I think of myself as a “maker” – a creative inventor of new art, ideas and things. Every so often one of my projects will strike me as so cool, so useful and timely (or ahead of it’s time), that it just begs to be developed into a product available to everyone. As a person who is usually positioned as an “industry outsider,” I often watch in frustration as my unrealized ideas are brought to market by someone else. In fact, I know many people who have experienced the same excitement and disappointment of a “Hey, I thought of that years ago!” moment.
With the popularity of Make, Instructables and online streaming video, the self-distribution process has become a common routine for thousands of do-it-yourselfer’s looking to share their ideas, and I am no exception. When I get a new idea for a project, I generally draw up some plans, shoot a how-to video, post it to my blog and move on. Like so many others, I send the idea out to the world with a bit of online promotion and let the crowd determine the project’s usefulness for itself. Some projects will gain a small following, some will fall flat, and a few will go viral and get thousands of views.
But what do you do when you have a prototype for a new product or idea that has the potential to disrupt an entire industry and possibly create another? How do you serve the conflicting needs of A) protecting your idea while simultaneously B) trying to spread the word? Sure there are patents, copyrights and trademarks, but intellectual property theft is still rampant and easy. Even the standard non-disclosure agreement (the dreaded NDA) carries very little weight when potential investors or partners refuse to sign them.
Whether in the fields of robotics, TV, interactive media or green technology, as an outsider to all the industries in which I develop new products and ideas, I have become all-too-familiar with the “glazed over” look of someone forced to listen to my pitch for a new show or product. As a rule, people in these industries generally refuse to look any unsolicited material, which means that without an agent, manager, lawyer, or some kind of rep, I am viewed more as a potential legal risk than as a resource for fresh ideas. Is it any wonder that I start to position any work I make as postmodern “fine art” – a category in which almost anything goes, if properly contextualized.
Recently I resolved to openly share my next DIY project with the world. I developed a version of the Sparky telepresence robot on an entirely open and available platform, using open source software, Skype, old computer technology, Vex robot building kit parts, and many other commonly available bits and pieces. I posted the step-by-step video and plans online and even wrote an article for Make magazine detailing the decision to “open source” the project. (The full story is available here. The step-by-step DIY plans are here.)
More recently, while continuing to refine the robot, I stumbled on yet another innovation to the Sparky idea – something so simple, yet so remarkably powerful that it could easily jumpstart the nascent mobile telepresence industry by overcoming the remaining hurdles to wider acceptance of the format – and do it at a pricepoint several orders of magnitude cheaper than any other robot with similar capabilities (Sorry, I can’t say more…).
But this time I hesitated before openly sharing it. This new idea seems too revolutionary, too valuable to just “give away.” Maker or not, it should be reasonable to want to capitalize on such a personal invention. You know, actually pay some bills or buy food with the fruits of my labor… So how does my prototype get developed into a manufactured product when I have no money, no investors, and no industry “experience?” How do I sell my interactive robot idea to a toy or technology company when they refuse to take a call or meeting?
A few years ago, the answer seemed easy. Posting work to the web was the way to get noticed – and for a brief window you couldn’t miss. My first foray online, a personal art gallery, was wildly successful – back in 1996, when such sites were still rare. As recently as 3 years ago, my modestly popular DIY videos on youtube actually landed me a TV development deal with a major network (it fell through). However those opportunities seem increasingly rare these days.
In all honesty, how likely is being discovered on Youtube today? Consider this… With an average of 10 hours worth of video clips uploaded to youtube every minute, there is a lot of material to sift through for even the most determined researcher. 15 minutes of fame? 15 seconds? How about 15 clicks?
Every new self-promotion technology can seem like an opportunity, so just to be safe I personally operate my online art gallery, 2 blogs, an email listserve, Facebook group and a Ning social network.
I fear Twitter is inevitable I just joined Twitter– all just to distribute and promote my work, plus I have a TV pilot “in the can” and pitches for several other shows at the ready. If you are adverse to self-promotion, you don’t want to get stuck in an elevator with me.
So I command an arsenal of weapons of mass promotion, but these tools I use to move my career forward can just as easily be the stumbling blocks to my success. After all, they are also being used by millions of others with the same aspirations. As the networked world continues to offer more people an onramp to the information highway for driving forward their goals and dreams, that highway becomes increasingly gridlocked.
Where does this democratized, gridlocked, mega-promotion environment leave the maker with a really good idea or new product? Does one simply accept their fate and let their work rise or fall based on Diggs, youtube rankings and other external forces, or does one become a “PromoSexual,” willing to do anything and everything to pitch their idea to anyone who will listen? (Shameless plug: I have a 26-minute pilot for a TV show about this very topic called, no surprise, PromoSexual).
In fact, maybe that’s the answer right there – the shameless plug; the willingness to act utterly and completely shameless when promoting one’s work, essentially embodying a commitment to self-promotion that is so complete, that there is no way to separate one’s real life from their “reel” life. Andy Warhol pulled it off for decades, and it seems to be the standard M.O. for Joaquin, Paris, Miley and most of today’s Hollywood. Why shouldn’t it work for anyone? I recommend you try it.
Sure, there is bound to be some backlash. In some ways, no one likes a showoff, and your new “in your face” attitude will certainly chafe old friends on Facebook. But to constantly Twit-cast your every little thought or move is becoming the way to network. So, with that realization in mind let me just plug these projects I’m excited to share with you, and as always, feel free to contact my rep with offers…
Marque Cornblatt Fine Art: Sculpture, performance and conceptual art gallery
Gomi Style: DIY, green lifestyle and design series
MediaSapien: The art and culture of virtual identity
PromoSexual: TV follow-doc series pitch
SparkyJr: social network for DIY, mobile telepresence enthusiasts