Of all the learning trends of the past 20 years, one of the most sweeping and impactful has been the rise of the maker movement.
And that means that the aching rift between what people say they believe and where they put their money widened last week. After 15 years of inspiring millions of people to be creative and “make” something out of just about nothing, Maker Media, the company behind much of momentum, shut down due to financial shortfalls.
Now comes the challenge: Will those who believe in the power of “making” find a way to reinvent it?
The story starts in 2005 when Dale Dougherty founded MAKE: magazine as a quarterly publication with his long-time business partner, Tim O’Reilly. Their message was simple: Think creatively about hardware, much like people think about software. Imagine something new from old parts. Mash up ideas. Strap a camera to a kite and take aerial photos. Build a rocket out of discarded soda bottles. Go way beyond “thinking outside of the box.” Imagine an electric amoeba.
Back then, Silicon Valley was aching for creative inspiration and for good news. It was still recovering from the economic crash in 2001. The business message of the day was mostly about retrenching, cutting costs and driving efficiency. Google, a newly public business, reported a mere $6 million in revenue at the end of 2005.
I put the idea of “making” on the cover of Forbes in 2008, calling Dougherty the “Tom Paine” of the revolution of building it yourself. (Full disclosure: Dougherty later became a friend and an investor in EdSurge.)
Dougherty had spent most of his professional career publishing books about software and the internet. So the maker movement started with adults. But it didn’t take long for Dougherty—and the rest of the world—to see that the creativity and playfulness of “making” stuff was the spirit of learning.
Dougherty convened the first Maker Faire in 2006 in San Mateo, Calif., drawing a crowd of 20,000. The faire became a way to foster a sense of community and to give people a place to celebrate and share what they made. Like a sports season or a date to perform a play, Maker Faires became a rallying moment for students. It was the galvanizing deadline for completing a project; a moment in the spotlight.
“What we do is based on a fundamental truth about human nature: We’re born to create. To make stuff. Given the opportunity and the community, we can do that. But without that opportunity we won’t realize that potential in ourselves,” Dougherty says. “It’s like athletic ability. If you didn’t have a team and a coach, would you have student athletes?”
So Maker Faires bloomed. The original Maker Faire in San Mateo ballooned, surpassing 100,000 people over a two-day weekend. The New York Hall of Science became the second largest Maker Faire. People in more than 40 countries convened 200 Maker Faires around the world. Dougherty estimates that in a single year, more than 1.45 million people worldwide, including countless families and students, attend a Maker Faire.
In schools, many teachers saw making as an antidote to the test-driven culture fostered by No Child Left Behind, the federal education policy at the time. Making does not have a prescribed curriculum. Teachers guide students, share principles, remind them to be safe—but the spirit of invention is about doing something original, not formulaic. The only “test” is whether the thing works. Such projects foster collaboration, iteration and, of course, perseverance.
But the business of keeping all that inspiration going? It’s been tough.
Dougherty started Maker Media as a company—rather than a nonprofit—because publishing has historically been a for-profit business and because he wanted to see the work become self-sustaining. Over the past 15 years, Maker Media raised $10 million (in both equity and debt financing) from investors including Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, Floodgate, and O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures (OATV). Over the past two years, Dougherty has also put his own money into Maker Media to cover shortfalls. “I believe in it,” he says.
Most of the revenue for the company came in several forms: the MAKE magazine has an audience of 125,000 paying subscribers. The big Faires in San Mateo and New York attract sponsorship and sold tickets. Efforts to sell “kits” and branded materials generate modest revenue. The organization also licenses the “Maker Faire” brand to small organizations around the world to host local faires.
But corporate sponsorship has been drying up in recent years. Even as corporations have spent millions to create messages that associate their company with innovation and creativity, they have become less enthusiastic of efforts that support students.
“Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Corporate America is not supporting things like this,” Dougherty says. “They have valuations in the billions; that’s a sign of where their attention is. It’s not on youth, education or even culture. That should be disturbing.”
Last week, Dougherty laid off all 22 people who worked for Maker Media. The New York Maker Faire, which would have celebrated its 10th year in September, is cancelled. Other smaller Faires around the world will carry on as they raise local funding. For instance, the largest Faire outside the U.S. takes place in Rome, Italy, and is heavily supported by the Camera di Commercio Roma, or the local chamber of commerce, and Italian companies.
In true maker spirit, Dougherty isn’t ready to call it quits. He is working through a legal process to regain Maker Media’s assets, and could imagine reconfiguring Maker Media, potentially as a nonprofit.
Dougherty hopes the major foundations that support learning, especially those that measure social impact, will take note: The $10 million in venture funding that Maker Media received has fostered the creativity and “can-do” attitude of millions of children and adults of all ages around the world. It starts without fancy or expensive gear. It encourages makers to lift their eyes up from screens, observe the world around them and imagine something new. “Failure” only happens when makers stop trying; otherwise, making is about iteration, experimentation and perseverance.
“One of the lasting impacts of the maker movement is to transform our education system, replacing a standardized curriculum and testing with learn-by-doing experiential learning,” Dougherty told me in 2015. “Kids will lead the way, saying ‘I don't learn the way they are teaching.’ That's how the next generation will learn that they have the freedom to become productive and creative.”
It doesn’t have to be over.
Got an idea? Want to help?
Send Dougherty a note. He would like to hear from you—both about what the maker movement has meant to you and, of course, if you want to see it continue. And yes, he’s looking for a team, for collaborators, including those with funds and the maker spirit of rebuilding. Failure only happens when you quit.
And Dougherty, as maker-in-chief, isn’t ready to quit. But he could use some helping hands to reconstitute Make Media, the Faires and how to keep the community humming. You can reach him at Dale [at] Makermedia [dot] com.