Monday, December 6, 2010

DIYers and Big Dogs Unite! (Or maybe not)

DIY Lid for the Snow Peak 600.  What if Snowpeak made one?
The other day I was thinking about some of the major gear manufacturers (Golite, Gregory, MSR, Evernew, GSI, etc.) and what I like and don’t like about their designs.   Let’s call them the “big dogs” from here on out.  I recently gave a presentation in which I talked about DIY gear leading to innovations in commercially-available gear.  And this got me thinking.  What if all the big dogs gathered a group of us DIYers and just listened.  What if they put us all in a room together to show our designs and see if they could produce any of them?  Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

At first, it seemed like a good idea.  I’d love to see some DIY designs be brought to the mass market so people could get more exposure to lightweight backpacking.  I’d also like to see them be able to produce higher-quality gear than I can make with the tools I’m limited to in my apartment.  Maybe we could even convince a decision maker at Snowpeak to finally make a production-quality titanium lid for the Snowpeak 600!

While at first glance, it seemed like a good fantasy, I immediately came up with two potential cons to this scenario:

1.  It could put the cottage industry out of business.  What would happen to the likes of the great cottage gear companies like Gossamer Gear, Trail Designs, and Tarp Tent if the big dogs can mass produce the same gear they make at a lower cost and higher volume?  One distinct advantage that cottage gear companies have is that they are brave enough to step up and fill a niche that the big dogs largely ignore.  What happens if that niche is now filled by companies like MSR?

While it is a possibility, I think it’s unlikely.  Here’s why:  Big dogs want to appeal to big markets.  Even if they did pick up a few innovative designs to fill some niches, they probably wouldn’t pick up all of them.  Their model is to focus on mass appeal.  So this would likely leaving enough room in the niche markets for cottage gear companies to survive.  Another reason is that Big dogs move slowly.  The larger the company, the more bureaucracy and the more time it takes to get a product to market.  By contrast, smaller companies are more nimble and could probably bring new designs to market faster, giving them a competitive edge.  So because of the very nature of big dogs and the agility and bravery of cottage gear companies, I think the two could coexist even if the big dogs started incorporating DIY-inspired gear into their product lines.

2.  It could put DIYers "out of business".  If the big dogs suddenly start incorporating our designs into products you can buy at REI what will be left for us to tinker with?

I also think this is unlikely.  Again, no big dog would take on every design idea so there would still be plenty of room left for experimentation and modification.  Also, there are products we’ll have in the future that haven’t even been imagined yet and I’m sure we’ll have plenty to say about (and probably snip off of) them.  I think we’ll probably never reach the end of the road in terms of opportunities for creativity.  

Conclusion

It's entirely possible this whole discussion is moot.  Maybe we already have the right balance: DIYers can build, big dogs can satisfy the masses, and the cottage gear companies fill in what’s in between.  Maybe this is the perfect balance and changing that would do nothing but upset our equilibrium. 

What do you think?  If you could sit down with a gear manufacturer, who would it be and what would you tell them?  What would be some DIY designs you’d like to see manufactured?
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17 comments:

Dave said...

Speaking from the viewpoint of a Cottage player, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The DIYers come up with great ideas, the cottage guys make the ones that sell enough to justify the cost of small scale production, and the big dogs sell the mainstream ideas that justify making thousands of something. It is an ecosystem that works well.

Kyle said...

What about a DIYers co-op?

Instead of all fo the DIYers struggling individually and seeding R&D for the big dogs, they could band together and benefit from shared resources. I am sure there is a viable business model for maintaining DIYers independence, providing business resources and protection, and actually giving the big dogs a little competition.

Heck, it would likely provide larger profits for DIYers and wider reaching marketing.

Maz said...

A few bloggers have noticed that some cottage manufacturers, as they get bigger, sacrifice customer service, and even workmanship, in favour of satisfying increased demand. One of the strengths of cottage industries should be their direct customer service but as they grow, I am finding some become victims of their own success in terms of customer service and sometimes even quality or workmanship to satisfy orders. That said, cottage industries have a tighter finger on the pulse of what the UL market actually wants - bigger manufacturers take longer to fill those needs (if they ever do - it is a niche market). I don't think DIY will recede - part of the fun is actually doing it rather than needing to do it - you DIY chaps do it as much for fun as anything else. It is, however, a wonderful thing when a bit of DIY becomes a genuine product for sale. I think the balance is fine, but cottage manufacturers need to remember why they have become successful - the support of their customers. Sometimes, some seem to forget. It may not be a popular thing to say, but I am not the only one coming to that view and some manufacturers will suffer if they do not realise it.

Jason Klass said...

Maz,
Right on--especially about cottage companies having their finger on the pulse of what UL backpackers actually want. I think that's another distinc advantage they have.

Kyle,
I like that idea a LOT! But instead of the big dogs, I'd rather use it to support the cottage industry companies. If you're interested in discussing further, call or email me.

Devin Montgomery said...

This post and particularly Kyle's comment are very timely for some of the things I've been thinking about recently - I'm working on a project that's in the middle of making the move from DIY to cottage industry (I'm actually not here to hawk my wares, but I'm sure one can find it).

From the perspective of someone who is now independently making some gear (and really enjoys the independently-made gear of others), I think a lot is lost when "the big dogs" come in to the picture - and not just design compromises and the export of manufacturing, but the CHARACTER of the gear is lost. Sure Budweiser can make specialty beers, but are they really the same as that local micro-brew or the one your buddy cooked up in his kitchen? Is eating a store-bought tomato (even an organic one) the same as one you bought from a guy on the side of the highway or grew in your own garden? I don't think so.

That difference is even greater when the farmer not only grew the tomato, but also spent the time to research and design it (okay, so maybe the metaphor breaks down a little bit there).

The other thing is that with the proliferation of the means of production (not only favored by Marx, but fundamentally democratic in my view), there's no longer really a need to go to the "big dogs". Just between myself and a couple other cottage guys I'm friendly with, there's very little we couldn't make - and I'm not just talking about fabrics, but hard goods, too. For metals, there's metal spinning, machining, stamping, bending, and welding (all of which can be done by an industrious amateur). For plastics and rubbers, there's casting (something I'm currently teaching myself) and 3d printing (check out the MakerBot).

When volumes get too large for one to make themselves, there's even access to capital from within the community. For my project, I'm getting the help of a local shop for some of the manufacturing, and I was effectively able to "crowd-fund" an initial run that was large enough to be economical.

So I guess that's a bit long-winded, but suffice it to say that I think there's a lot of exciting stuff the DIY and cottage (I prefer the term independent) mfg communities can do. I also think that the smart independent mfgs keep the DIY spirit, but scale it when they hit the right note.

Anonymous said...

Almost what you are suggesting has successfully happened in germany a few years ago, when online-forum outdoorseiten.net and company Wechsel Tents worked together on creating a new tent, resulting in the design of the Wechsel Forum 4 2, that was since then only slightly altered and revised by the manufacturer, but still includes many ideas that where brought up in long discussions and hundreds of postings, sketches and calculations.

John Phillips said...

Interesting discussion. I think with the large companies focused on the bottom line, mainstream market demands drive their choice of inventory. The DIYers and cottage guys are the innovators, the state-of-the-art guys, the tail of the bell curve. As the "typical" comsumer becomes more and more hip to not carrying a gazillion pounds of gear, the bell curve will shift in the direction of UL and the large companies will follow suit. I see that REI now carries Vargo alcohol stoves and the fuel--prime examples. I would assume these large companies have folks that are reading all the same stuff we are. "If I ran the zoo said young Gerald McGrew" I would be busy educating consumers about the joys of carrying lesser loads, thus increasing my market share as the market grew (all those folks that would love backpacking safely and comfortably with 20 pounds but hated their initial trips carrying 45). Someone like REI could carry a whole UL line with attendant workshops and guided outings. They're missing that boat. This partly suits me as less people on the trail is nice. However, I don't want to be selfish and I also know the best way to make a heavy carbon footprint person go green is to have them experience firsthand the joys of the wilderness.

Lawson Kline (Mountainfitter) said...

Maybe in the same conversation the DIY'ers could convince the Big Dogs to stop making their gear in China.

Keep up the good work Jason!

The Velo Hobo said...

I believe most DIYers never intend to sell or market their creations. As for myself, I just enjoy the satisfaction of using something I've made myself. I can buy a better stove than my home-made stove and I can buy a better windscreen/potstand than the one I've made. But like catching a fish on a fly you've tied yourself, building them yourself adds another level of enjoyment being outdoors.

Good post, Jack

**mArC** The Schifano Tribe said...

I think this kind of supporting one another is what this whole thing is all about. We have great ideas, and they have the resources to make it mass produced. Good job man.

mcraw4d said...

I've always had this "if I won the lottery" idea that I think ties into the DIY and cottage market. There's a whole group (apt/loft/ condo dwellers, lower income, etc.) of people that do not have the space, tools, or finances to provide the means for their ideas to come to fruition.

I always thought, "Man! if I could only get access to Norm Abram's shop." I would love to create a community workshop similar to a community garden model. Basic equipment plus specialized equipment based on the needs of he users. Knowledge swapping amongst those with strengths and weaknesses. i.e. Someone with decent welding skills might want to make a tent or sleeping bag but doesn't know squat about sewing. The internet is a great resource for information but nothing beats hands on practical knowledge. A place where retired tradesmen come to hang out drink coffee and enjoy passing on some of their tips and assistance. How many people would actually repair some of their stuff versus buying new or make their own household stuff besides outdoor equipment if they simply had the right tools and resources.

Anne M said...

Perhaps a key point is that those of us buying gear favour the independents over the 'big dogs' in the mass market whenever possible so they remain in business during these relatively hard times.

jeepingetowah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeepingetowah said...

My personal preference is to pay a cottage industry person/company a fair price for a handmade/homemade piece of gear. I cannot say explicity that I live by the code of "No to China and Corporations." However, when possible I am trying to get there. Trying to live frugally and avoid Walmart is nearly impossible. But if there is a chance I can visit a local retailer, I would.

Anonymous said...

It would benefit both. The Big Dogs would actually see what ULer's want and might become part of the solution. The DIYs would benefit from some of the expertise of the Big Dogs on manufacturing and materials. There was doom and gloom when United Artists (a group of exploited actors) got together and changed the movie industry. Innovation in this country has USUALLY come from the mom and pop inventors and fabricators. Keep up the good work.

Paul said...

I think Gossamer Gear actually understands their nich the best (Gossamer Gear's trail ambassador program, downloadable plans for their G4, caldera keg kit). Many could learn from them.

Any backpacking gear company is in a tough category and needs to listen to the little guys. We buy their stuff and we review and recommend their products.

That said, no big company wants to deal with copyright problems. It would be easier for them (legally) to develop their own ideas or license out an already patented idea.

The most successful idea would probably be real world testing of new products, which some already do.

Ben said...

It seems it all goes to pot as soon as they get bigger...quality gets comprimised...which is a shame really