08 October 2008

There’s some interesting discussion around Matt Jones’ post over at Schulze & Webb‘s Pulse Laser, where he considers what happens when you apply Kevin Kelly’s ideas around “new economics of scale” for craftsmen and artists to products.

Matt writes:

I joked with Matt and Jack that they should put the price tag of producing a prototype out there, and see who wanted one – or perhaps the price of a short-run of limited edition Olinda, which would reduce it perhaps from four figures a piece to three… Or perhaps the next generation of Olinda, with their input?

There’s some interesting discussion in the comments on the post around whether fans would be interested in constructing or assembling products they’re fans of: Chris Hand comments that

…it’s the soldering and assembly that’s the stumbling block for most who want to [look into limited runs]…

I really like the idea of products having fans. It’s often the early adopters of new products who convince their friends (who often represent a more traditional market) to make the leap. Those thousand “true fans” have the potential to be the people who take the product to a wider audience.

“Fans” act as an intermediate layer between the product and a mass market: they evangelise and amplify it. If you want to make a pun out of it, you could call them middle fan-agement. They take a product and enthuse about it to a wider audience; crowdsourced marketing, if you like.

But what if you went a step further – what if you called upon your fans to actually build the product, in the kind of short runs Jones hints at?

Imagine, for my purposes, a product along the lines of Schulze and Webb’s Olinda, but perhaps in a slightly cheaper price bracket – low three figures at most. The device is still reasonably expensive; however, it has enough fans to easily justify a short run. Rather than consuming S&W’s valuable time with soldering, the early adopters – the fans – buy low volumes of kits. More than one kit per fan – ideally, we’d want people to purchase around five. There are 1000 units of the product, but we only need 200 people to assemble them. Maybe even fewer than that, if somebody’s particularly talented or enthusiastic. There’s no burn-out, and the expense is much more reasonable: everybody’s only making five devices, rather than a thousand.

To continue with the puns, we could call this fanufacture.

Your fans manufacture five kits, and resell four, keeping one for themselves. Of course, they’ve already paid for the kits (much like a Big Issue vendor buys all his magazines up front before he resells them), so S&W are in pocket, and sales is being performed by someone already enthusiastic about the product.

And you don’t have to sell – you could give them away, to parents, or to friends, to seed the network of a social product with keen, happy users, and at the top of the network, a layer of fans.

There are obvious catches – quality control is a screamingly obvious one. But it’s always amazing how far fans will go for a product they like. Look at the community around Moo‘s printed products, for instance: full of enthusiastic fans, ready to not only spend more money, but evangelise about the product to friends and family.

Fans don’t just exist as the core audience you need to make a product successful on any terms; they could also act as a gateway to widespread, mass-market success, and embracing their skills and enthusiasm to outsource tasks you might not otherwise have the time or budget to perform seems like a logical evolution of the fandom Matt describes around products.