Tim O'Reilly believes in fun first, business second. Looking at past technological success stories like the computer, the World Wide Web, and the touch screen, he argues that having fun with technology is the best way to unlock its potential.

Written by
Tim O’Reilly
July 2012

There is a prevailing mythology that new industries start when creative entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses meet venture capitalists. The reality turns out to be different. New industries start with people having fun.

Most of the people who launched the personal computer industry three decades ago weren’t entrepreneurs; they were kids to whom the idea of owning their own computer was absurdly exciting. Programming was like a drug – no, better than a drug, or joining a rock band, and certainly better than any job they could imagine. The Homebrew Computer Club (founded in Silicon Valley in the mid 1970s and with a membership including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) was just that – a place where enthusiasts shared their projects and grew their knowledge.

The World Wide Web started out just the same. At first, no one took it seriously as a place to make money. It was all about the joy of sharing your work, the rush of clicking on a link and connecting with another computer half the world away, and constructing similar destinations for your peers. We were all enthusiasts, but only some of us were entrepreneurs.

To be sure, it is those entrepreneurs – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell in the personal computer era; Jerry Yang, David Filo, Pierre Omidyar, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin in the web era – who saw that this world driven by a passion for discovery and sharing could become the cradle of a new economy. They found backers, shaped the toy into a tool, and built the businesses that turned a movement into an industry.

This same enthusiast-to-entrepreneur transition is playing out right now in the Maker movement – that sprawling mélange of joyful play with sensors and robots and 3D printers that has been growing unseen under the noses of venture capitalists for years.

At first, no one took the web seriously as a place to make money. It was all about the joy of sharing your work. We were all enthusiasts, but only some of us were entrepreneurs.

When we launched Make: magazine in 2005, the first issues featured projects such as James Larsson’s programmable cat feeder built from an old VCR, Charles Benton’s rig for aerial photography from kites, and a stun-gun triggered, high-powered, see-through potato cannon.

When we launched Maker Faire in 2006, it featured a life-sized version of the Mousetrap game, bamboo bicycles, and a fairground with pedal-powered versions of rides from traditional county fairs, along with DIY projects like the Alameda-Contra Costa Computer Recycling Society’s demonstration biodiesel-powered supercomputer running Linux and made out of recycled PCs.

By 2011, when the Faire had grown to more than 100,000 attendees – most of them families celebrating the joy of discovery and invention – it also featured prominent venture capitalists walking around with business cards, wooing the entrepreneurs who had, seemingly, appeared magically out of this chaotic stew of people having a blast.

DIY drones (do-it-yourself unmanned aerial vehicles), MakerBot (a 3D printer kit), the Arduino sensor and control platform, parts supplier Sparkfun Electronics, Adafruit Industries, Shopbot, and a host of other small companies were suddenly registering millions of dollars in sales and were ready for an infusion of capital to take their homegrown businesses to the next level.

You can even argue that the first ‘wow’ moment for multi-touch computing wasn’t the iPhone, but Jeff Han’s homebrew large screen multi-touch display, which amazed attendees at TED and O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference in 2006. (Jeff went on to sell these devices to media outlets like CNN.)

At the Open Hardware Summit, held in conjunction with Maker Faire New York in 2011, one attendee lamented the lack of coverage from Silicon Valley tech media. It turns out that they were all at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference, covering, among a bunch of interesting stuff, too many me-too start-ups funded by entrepreneurs chasing dollars rather than passion, or venture capitalists with more money than sense.

The lesson is clear: If you want to get out front as an investor or as an entrepreneur, treat joy and passion as your guide.