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Maker Faire Panel Shares Tips For Turning Ideas Into Businesses

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Moderator Jonathan Robinson (far left) and panelists Rich Melton, Ran Ma and Justin Berger (second from left to right) discuss tips for startups at the Maker to Market panel at Maker Faire KC June 29. | Sarah Darby/Missouri Business Alert

Moderator Jonathan Robinson (from left) and panelists Rich Melton, Ran Ma and Justin Berger discuss tips for startups at the Maker to Market panel on Saturday at Maker Faire KC. | Sarah Darby/Missouri Business Alert

A plethora of do-it-yourself, or DIY, projects were on display at Maker Faire KC on Saturday and Sunday. Although a number of the makers at the event created their projects just for fun, there were also many examples of makers who have turned their ideas into successful companies. Several such makers came together Saturday for a panel discussion.

The Maker to Market panel featured Cover 6 Gear founder Rich Melton, Voltset co-founder Ran Ma and FirstBuild lead community champion Justin Berger. Jonathan Robinson, a manager of entrepreneurship programs at the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, moderated the discussion.

Here are some of the best pieces of business advice the panelists shared:

‘Ideation without execution is hallucination’

Robinson shared a quote — “Ideation without execution is hallucination” — and asked panelists how they determined if their idea could become a successful product. Melton, who founded Cover 6 Gear, a gun holster company, said it was initially hard to make his idea take off in Kansas City. Based on his experience, he had a few thoughts for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“You’ve got to really look at something that’s got mass appeal,” Melton said. “If you don’t have the driving force that’s going to keep you up until midnight and get you up at 3 a.m., you’re not going to get very far,” he later said.

Ma, co-founder of Voltset, which makes a multimeter for smartphones, said customer validation helped her company execute its idea. Voltset started a Kickstarter campaign after attending a Maker Faire in California and modified its product based around customer feedback. The Kickstarter, which ended at Maker Faire KC, raised more than double its $50,000 goal.

“We basically decided to follow the money,” Ma said. “We took all the comments we got and acted on it. If you listen to what people want, you’ll make something people will buy.”

Berger of FirstBuild added that the lean startup method of building 10 products before jumping to 100 was a good validation method. FirstBuild is a partnership between GE Appliances and Local Motors to create an online community working to build smarter appliances.

Companies can create demand

Once an idea is validated, a company can create demand for a product through promotion strategies, several of the panelists said. Melton said social media is a great tool to help companies get off the ground in the 21st century. Short, 30-second videos and social media helped get the word out about Cover 6 Gear, he said.

Voltset’s Kickstarter campaign helped to validate and promote a product, Ma said. Ma recommended preparing for a campaign three months in advance by networking in the community, creating videos, crafting graphics, building relationships with media and showing customers how to use the product.

“Most importantly,” Ma said, “preparation is key.”

Collaboration fuels innovation

In addition to talking about building an independent company, Berger addressed the kind of collaborative innovation that FirstBuild represents. He said that GE Appliances and other larger companies have a culture of keeping good ideas within the company, but he said crowdsourcing and collaboration with people outside of the company can bring the best ideas to companies.

“Bring as many interested minds into the room as possible,” Berger said.

Source from local manufacturers first

Scaling a project into a larger company is one of the first big steps a company must take to distribute its product. Melton said he was initially told to look to China for inexpensive manufacturers for his gun holsters. However, he knew his target customers would value more local products, and he eventually found a group of Amish manufacturers to make his product. The novelty of the makers only added to the appeal of his product.

“My customer base really likes to buy American stuff,” Melton said.

Berger added that looking to any local manufacturers first is the best way to build the product in low volume to start off with.

Jumping from hobbyist to entrepreneur is rewarding

To close the panel, Robinson asked the entrepreneurs why they took steps to become business owners. Ma of Voltset said the demand for her product made the jump easier.

“For us, we first made something we wanted,” Ma said. “Then Maker Faire really changed our mind because people said, ‘We want this, we want this.’”

Melton said he is a serial entrepreneur, but he wanted to work on Cover 6 Gear full-time for the schedule benefits. He worked on the idea on nights and weekends for a year before he was let go at his day job.

“I love the flexibility,” Melton said. “The paycheck gets cut, but the potential’s there.”

Ewing Kauffman followed a similar path to some of the panelists, Robinson said, sharing an anecdote about Kauffman to end the panel. Kauffman returned from World War II to a job in the pharmaceutical industry, and continued to receive cuts to his sales territory when the CEO became angry that Kauffman was making more money than he was. Kauffman than started Marion Laboratories, the immensely successful pharmaceutical company. Robinson said today the Kauffman Foundation is dedicated to helping companies get started and stay in business.

“At Kauffman, we are passionate and believe that innovation happens everywhere,” Robinson said. “We are a nation of tinkerers.”