Invasion of the one person maker enterprises

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Interesting blog post over at the Royal Society of Arts that picks up on recent UK employment data. An edited extract is below.

“New data from the Business Population Estimates highlights a remarkable amount of growth in the number of one-man makers… The population of manufacturing firms with zero employees (i.e. just the owners) has increased by nearly 40 percent over the past 3 years alone, mostly in the last 12 months. By 2013 there were 50,000 more one-man makers than there were in 2010. This stands in stark contrast with the other manufacturing firm sizes, which have all shrunk in number… But what’s causing the boom? One explanation is that the proliferation of 3D printers is finally taking hold…”

OK, if it was me I would have preferred the phrase “one person makers”, but let’s move onto the substantive argument here. There is very little data to go on, but to claim that 3D printers have created 50,000 new one person manufacturing enterprises seems speculative in the extreme. However, I would say that there is something interesting happening and that technology has something to do with it – but enabling it, not causing it.

I’ve made the case before that in our world of Kickstarter, social media, flexible production systems, Amazon, Etsy and the like, then it has never been easier to finance, promote, manufacture and distribute. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review – Economies of Unscale: Why Business Has Never Been Easier for the Little Guy – makes this very case: “in a world with economies of unscale, we are empowered to take advantage of an extensive array of new, amazing services to build sustainable companies.”

From my perspective, one of the most significant aspects of the new enterprise landscape are the opportunities for collaboration and co-operative enterprise. We are not simply witnessing the invasion of a hoard of solo businesses all out for themselves like neo-Thatcherite zombies. In my home city of Dundee, collaborative networks and workspaces like Fleet Collective and Vanilla Ink provide co-operative frameworks that enable and support individual enterprise. And of course we find them throughout the world. Ironically as the UK Co-operative Movement lurches into an ever-worse crisis, so the principles of co-operation are being applied in new and highly relevant ways by a new generation of makers. These new entrepreneurs are not out for themselves. They are out for each other, recognising the value of sharing expertise, skills and celebrations of success. And money.

Kickstarter isn’t driving change – but it’s enabling that change to transform the financing of enterprise, pulling the gift economy into the mainstream. The latest data from Kickstarter suggests this is not trivial finance. To date over $1 billion has been pledged on Kickstarter, and design projects alone have brought in $127 million of support. The success rate for design projects is a remarkable 38%. Kickstarter’s first month of operating in the UK (which is the only data available) shows something else very significant. For US projects, 78% of backers have been from the US and 22% outside of it, yet in the UK 39% of backers have come from within the UK and 61% have come from outside of it. The gift economy transcends immediate family and friends. It transcends the idea of nation. The gift economy is global.

The new making economy is very diverse, and increasingly female. More than half of the 573,000 people who joined the ranks of the self-employed between 2008 and 2013 are women. A new generation of self-employed multi-tasking enterprising mothers have been dubbed mumpreneurs, and are driving change and new patterns of work and childcare in many communities. So, a trivial development perhaps? Well, not trivial when data suggests mumpreneurs contribute £7.4bn to the UK economy each year. Again, this is all tied in to collaboration and mutual support.

Yes, 3D printing does represent an emergent revolution in the world of manufacturing, and this will surely transform opportunities for makers in the years ahead. But it is the far more significant and well established revolution in the world of entrepreneurship that is promoting and sustaining new business in the manufacture of crafted, bespoke and small batch production. In co-working spaces and on kitchen tables people are collaborating and supporting each other to make a living making things. And that collaboration and support is fanning out across the world. It’s an internationalism of making – in the making!

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