There has been a recent trend of indie makers scratching their own itch and building a product for themselves as well as other indie makers. As an indie maker, it can be tempting to sell to the niche you most relate to: there is an easy access to market, you know the problems, it is easy to get early feedback, and the pricing is all figured out—it can cost as much as you would pay for it yourself.
But the maker scene is incredibly small and there is only so much place for subscription-based products—the preferred model for most indie-made products. Will the community get oversaturated? Will this trend destroy maker-ism as we know it? Is building for makers really the way to go?
The good: know your niche
Makers usually like to build products for the niche that they are most experienced in. For many prominent makers, this wasn’t the maker scene itself. For example, Pieter Levels is building products for Digital Nomads, since he is one himself. While many makers like his products as well, the main focus still stands on digital nomads—an entirely (or at least partially) different niche.
John O’Nolan wasn’t satisfied with WordPress, the most popular general usage blogging and publishing platform. He built Ghost for publishing and sold hosted solutions to big corporations. Before launching a competing solution, he was working on WordPress itself, learning what users loved and hated about it.
Plenty of prominent makers build for their own niche as well. NewCo by Ben Tossell and Mubashar “Mubs” Iqbal’s goal is to empower non-tech makers to build their products without code—and they are having a lot of success with it!
“I think it’s a great trend, I feel most makers have a great desire to help other makers, not just profit from them.” – Mubashar Iqbal.
This seems to be a common argument: the maker scene is incredibly supporting and open, so if somebody makes a product for makers, it is expected to be done to help people, instead of generating profit.
By immersing yourself in a community, an unusual hobby or an odd profession, you will automatically start finding problems in some workflows and little hiccups that could be solved better. With a day job in engineering, as a student or even a full-time maker, many founders tend to exclusively expose themselves to the maker community. This can be a good thing: makers know their own community and their problems extremely well and can start solving problems there. But it also leads to a lot of products focused on the maker space itself.
The maker community is a sub-niche of a range of other niches. Somebody who is solving a problem for indie makers might realize that the same product solves crucial problems for small businesses, VC-funded startups, freelancers or even big corporations as well.
Makers without an unusual lifestyle or hobby tend to find problems in their own communities. With the large growth of the maker space, it is no surprise that these products start popping up more and more.
The bad: buying power
When looking for a niche to build a product in, buying power can be a very important metric. It is easier to charge a bigger amount of money to VC-funded tech startups than to freelancers in developing countries.
The same is true for indie makers. Small one-person bootstrapped companies are strapped for cash and possibly not even profitable. Many of them would probably rather keep their costs low and spend an afternoon hacking together a small tool themselves, than to spend $5 per month on an existing solution. A product targeting this audience has to be outstanding and ideally help the maker to make more money to justify any price.
Ethan sees it similarly. His main product KanbanMail is not specifically targeted towards makers. But during the recent ‘24 Hour Startup Challenge event, he built maker-targeted site maker.rocks. While his second product isn’t monetized yet, Ethan would like to do that at some point in the future: “I think building stuff for the maker community can get you traction, but not sure how it is for getting money. […] I have this feeling that makers are less willing to pay for stuff than other people”.
Makers love products that they can quickly try out and possibly even get a benefit from, but many just don’t like paying for it. So while it is easy to target makers and get a lot of traction, it might be a lot more difficult to convert them to paying customers.
It may make sense to look at the bigger picture and offer the solution to a different business sector—let’s say freelancers—and target people with more buying power with the same product. In many cases, only tweaking the copy is enough.
The ugly: impact on the community
Looking into the future, where is this trend heading? Will makers just keep building products for their own niche, destroying the sense of community in the process? In a few years, will makers selling to other makers be everything that’s left?
The overall consensus on this is ‘probably not’. Mubs puts it very nicely again, saying “That’s certainly possible, but the same way developers selling to developers is very hard, makers are very hard to sell too. By their nature they want to make their own things, not use other people’s. So I’m not worried about people getting stuck in the loop of targeting the maker community.”
As discussed above, getting traction through the maker community is great, but when it comes to selling, many prefer using a free or self-made solution. For many paid maker products, there is at least one free alternative on the market as well.
Sergio Mattei is the founder of MakerLog. This maker community—as opposed to many other similar communities—is completely free. He justifies the decision to keep the community free as a way to minimize gatekeeping: “My motivation to make Makerlog free was the fact that I don’t believe in gating communities to only those who can afford it.” If you make a product to support the maker scene, making it a paid product might keep out many people who need your product.
Sergio also adds that keeping something fully free isn’t sustainable. As we all know, if you don’t pay for a product, there is always another price to pay, such as your personal data. MakerLog is using donations to stay alive: “Makerlog is here to stay. It’s financially in the positive thanks to donations (we have donations to run for the next 2 years!) and there’s a premium plan for supporters in the works.”
Finally, Sergio is a supporter of the ‘Maker building for Makers’ trend, but also speaks a word of caution: “Makers making for makers is a great thing. […] I don’t think at the current pace it’ll destroy the community, but it’s a possibility the market could get saturated, and we need to pay attention to that.”
Makers have to be cautious not to become a target for advertisers and bad actors that will just use the support and kindness of makers for money. Maker culture is about collaboration, help and support. When building or buying a maker-focused product, always think about the ethical aspects of your product, marketing and vision. It is your choice whether you build or support an ethical and inclusive product.
The beauty of the maker culture
In conclusion, building a product for makers can be a great way to get initial traction, prove a hypothesis and possibly even generate some initial revenue.
When it comes to scaling, in many cases it is worth not to position yourself as a product only for makers, but also for freelancers, small businesses, side projects owners or similar—whichever works best. It will not only broaden the audience you can reach, but also expose people with a higher buying power to your product.
Think about the bigger picture: will the size of the maker community be enough to grow the product sustainably? Is the product useful enough to justify yet another subscription? Could another monetization model, such as donations, be more suitable?
Makers can help themselves. That’s the beauty of maker culture: with our hacky approaches we are able to create tools that solve our own problems. Therefore, when building a tiny tool that scratches your own itch and is very specific to the maker audience, consider making the tool available for free to give back to the community. The community will give back to you too!