One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

Unfiltered: Jules Pieri on Looking Back -- at the Faire and Detroit

One more time from Maker Faire. I bring you...the conclusion of what all involved said was an amazing event.

Today, we hear from Jules Pieri, who attended the weekend event at The Henry Ford. The former Michigan resident sits at the driver's seat of the Citizen Commerce movement as the CEO of DailyGrommet.com, an online marketplace that tells the story of one inventive product a day.

Daily Grommet curates and tests the best product ideas submitted from consumers, and tells product stories via a home-grown video which is distributed across the web. Between the flood of product submissions, and the exceptional effort people put into telling and sharing the product stories, Daily Grommet is taking a leadership role in enabling Citizen Commerce.

She was wowed by what she saw at the event...and in Detroit. Check it out.

Innovation at the Detroit Maker Faire

By Jules Pieri

In traveling around Detroit for various Maker Faire events, my GPS seemed to think it was still in Boston. It kept avoiding highways (did it not realize Detroit is highway heaven?) and directing me onto surface streets. The one time I did not mind the GPS confusion was when the surface streets took me by the west-side neighborhood where I grew up. I'd been meaning to stop by that tidy grid of modest postwar brick bungalows.

Growing up, everyone on my street earned a living making or fixing things. The sights and sounds of manufacturing punctuated our days and nights: bone-rattling roars of the freight train line, the constant throbbing of a massive Detroit Diesel Allison plant just past the railroad. My nostalgia turned to analysis during my 72-hour visit, especially because I met many Detroiters who convinced me that the city's competitive advantages were just below the surface.

As an adult, life deposited me in Boston, where I am the CEO of an e-commerce startup and I raise three sons. I think of my boys' neighborhood life, surrounded by “knowledge workers” whose livelihoods are opaque and mysterious and, at least to a kid, probably a bit on the boring side. It's partly because of my kids that I founded a company that does something very simple and compelling. I call it Daily Grommet, an ecommerce marketplace where we tell the story of one inspired product a day, launching it across the web at noon ET.

My work brought me back to Detroit this past weekend to the city's first-ever installation of the Maker Faire. It's the brainchild of the O'Reilly Media publication Make Magazine. The Faire is a cross between a grown-up science fair, a crafting convention and a political happening. The politics are not overt, but they have a lot to do with a major shift in consumer consumption that Harvard professor and business historian Nancy Koehn terms “the new normal.”

Koehn contends ordinary people are “taking back the night” of their economic futures.  Not every “Maker” displaying at the Maker Faire intends to make a living with their creations, but I bet only a precious few would refuse the opportunity. This is where I knew my company could help.

I kicked off a “Great Grommet Search” in Detroit where I was on the lookout for products to evaluate as possible Grommets. One man immediately slipped a brightly-colored duo of plastic disks into my hand. He calls it the “Yop-Yop” after the huge 1960's toy the “Op-Yop.” It's a mesmerizing, chattering, sideways yoyo. The founder, Jim Bronersky, spent his entire career in automotive plastics, until the bottom fell out at GM.

Sometime after he disbanded his plastics company, Jim's daughter Darcy spotted an ad on Craigslist in which someone was looking to sell the original injection plastic molds and a carton of vintage Op-Yops. She told Jim and immediately knew he could take his deep knowledge of the plastics business in new directions. He dallied with a Wal-Mart deal for distribution but backed away when he realized he'd clear a paltry 3 cents a unit. He said, “No way was I going down that road after 30 years of blood sweat and tears. I am doing this my way.” This prompted Jim's appearance at the Maker Faire, where he was looking to connect with customers and other Makers on a path to build a new company.

Jim was not alone. I saw young but commercially viable products born out of passions ranging from silk screening at the CyberOptix Tie Lab, to electric vehicles like the Current Motor Company's Electric Scooter. I had an intriguing conversation with Bryce Moore of Context Furniture, who is leasing space in the condemned basement space of Northland Mall to create a “Design Democracy,” and give furniture designers access to serious tools of production.

At the Maker Faire, I also gave a few presentations about a growing movement I call “Citizen Commerce.” I believe everything we buy (or don't buy) amplifies something in the world. My mission is to find products that propel Citizen Commerce and make a difference in someone's life—including the creators.

During one of my presentations, I met the Myerly family. They had driven 2.5 hours up from Westlake, Ohio. The Myerlys have been subscribers to Make for a year and have become enthusiastic electronics hackers and hobbyists.

I spoke to11-year-old Jillian who said, “I've always been good at art, and when I started reading Make magazine, I realized I could make science into art.” Jillian's 16-year-old sister Alyssa told me about the family's latest hacker project. Avid karate practitioners, the girls and their dad Rich are using an accelerometer and various electronic components to build a device that measures the relative force of karate punches. They will share it with other karate students to help everyone improve their skills. Alyssa said, “I like working with electronic components because it's more physical than just programming and it's more than just math.”

As a child of the Motor City, being around people who make things has shaped me.  I studied at the University of Michigan and became the first industrial designer to graduate from Harvard Business School. I know my way around a blueprint, a CNC machine, and a production plant. I have learned that people who make things are a rare and special breed. Andrew Grove of Intel has been writing impassioned articles describing how true innovation usually originates somewhere on the shop floor, not on a computer screen. I tend to agree with him.

Touring the Maker Faire, I know the innovation that lies in Detroit. Having access to people like Jim Bronersky, I'm banking on my hometown's ability to grab that competitive edge and ride it to success. You never really know about the place you come from until you leave. The people of Detroit could run circles around knowledge workers if they realize their own power and use it.


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