It’s taken me 27 years to really understand what really excited me in this world (STEAM & the Maker Movement). Now I have a plan to make it my life.
When I first parted ways with academia back in 2013, I was a fledgling engineer with no ambitions beyond achieving a sustainable income and comfortable routine. If I could slog through work and enjoy my evenings/weekends, I would’ve been content. But a strange thing happened going into 2014. After several months of making crappy gadgets by hand as a hobby, and knowing there was a better way for someone of my lowly manual talent to create things, I purchased a desktop CNC kit. Not only did it introduce me to the Maker Movement, but it also opened up so many doors for me and stretched my creativity in ways that made projects approachable, refreshing, and exciting…. This is the seed of my restlessness.
The metaphorical water for this seed is the allure of turning my hobby into a full-time endeavor and source of income. To be able to take something I may not enjoy 100% of the time (20% of the time things go wrong and it can be quite frustrating), but always find rewarding, and be able to run with it unconstrained is an immensely appealing idea.
My first CNC.
On top of this, my notions about geographic stability have been shattered (a couple of my good friends have talked about moving around or out of the country), Central/South Jersey is a depressing swamp of innovation-less stagnation, and my travel experiences over the past 2 years have ruined my satisfaction with the East Coast.
None of this is to say that I’m dissatisfied with being gainfully employed and paying my rent, but my god is NJ an uninspiring place to live… I need to get out.
The following is a living document describing my possible avenues to escape New Jersey. It exists more for my own benefit more than anyone else’s…
If the preceding paragraphs haven’t clued you in to this point, South/Central Jersey (where I am currently employed) is depressingly far from everything (other than friends and family) I hold dear in my life: Innovation and Adventure. Yes, there are maker spaces here and there, and vendors for all manner of supplies and services in the state, but their distribution and density are pretty appalling out here. Mostly you have construction and remodeling companies sprinkled around New Jersey, so if you’re looking for granite counter tops and maybe some quality plywood you’re in luck. But if you’re looking for metal stock, or anodizing services, or glass blowing, or a good hobby shop, they are few and far between.
Compared to CA, everything from Atlantic City to Long Branch is a de-industrialized stretch of despair to me.
There are glimmers of the Maker Revolution on the East coast, but they are few and far between. You need not look farther than where TechShops exist in this country to see that the East Coast doesn’t have much Maker momentum behind it. The industrial infrastructure and cultural mindset just don’t exist yet to keep the “innovation industry” afloat here.
I will concede that there are some (expensive) membership-based woodworking shops around NYC, Adafruit is based in SoHo, and Google has a token presence in Chelsea… But the general vibe I’m getting is that the Tri-state area is pretty innovation-neutral. The last headline-worthy piece of Maker news to come from around here was when Makerbot was still relevant. I used to think without a doubt that NYC was the greatest city in America. Now there’s a hesitation when I say that.
Also, I’m over 5 hours from the nearest national park (an uninspiring one at that), and about as far from anywhere free of light pollution. *sigh*.
This is where things get interesting. Right now I’m sitting on a slowly, but steadily growing YouTube channel. What started as an educational experience for myself has also become an informative source for thousands of fellow community members. (Which is both staggering and humbling.) But this could also be an opportunity, as digital fabrication is still a relatively young field and the knowledge of how to use it is still not fully democratized. Not only do millions of people not know how to use a CNC, millions more don’t realize what you can do with one. I can make a difference here. (<– That belief is something I think many people don’t get from their work, which is why I don’t want to give up on this perceived opportunity without a fight.)
At this point, it would be foolish to think that I could keep making my videos using the same formula and expect exponential growth until I’m rolling in the YouTube cash. My addressable audience is way too small. We’re probably still years away from household penetration of CNC milling machines on the scale of 3D printers today. In fact, we may never get to that point… though I have faith we will. BUT, I suspect I could use digital fabrication to springboard my way to a broader audience.
There are also many monetization avenues I haven’t fully pursued yet. Patreon, selling, sponsorships, etc are all on the table. These will need to be explored. And to define my objectives in a way that holds me accountable, pushes me to work harder, and prevents me from chasing the rabbit indefinitely, I’m setting time-based evaluation points (a necessary limitation learned from Bob Clagett).
Officially, I will be pushing full steam ahead with content creation in June 2017. This gives me enough time to finish: my part time (second) Masters degree, training for a half-marathon, and go on my annual national park pilgrimage (and visit Bay Area Maker Faire 2017).
Eventually this will bring me to a juncture with three outcomes:
- I plateau at a point where revenue from YouTube and its associated creative ventures is unable to sustain me. In this case, I will need to keep my day job. Hopefully part time, but full time wouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s what I’m doing now, it just means I’ll need to keep exercising patience to continue balancing my work-hobby life.
- YouTube et al provide income at a level below a living wage, but continue to trend upwards. In this case I would probably remain in a holding pattern until either option 1 or 3 becomes the dominant mode. This is the expected outcome by the end of 2017… This may lead to a revised plan called #California2019.
- I will reach a point where YouTube et al becomes a substantial source of income, at which point the case for leaving my day job is clear. Not only am I already self-sufficient, but by leaving my job I’m able to further increase my commitment to creative ventures. This is the least likely scenario.
I will decide which criteria I meet in May 2018. This is when my service commitment to the DoN will be fulfilled and I am free to seek employment anywhere else without penalty.
This is the tricky part. My heart is dead set on the Bay Area*. It’s a gorgeous swath of land where civilization clings tenuously to the landscape, filled with some of America’s best and brightest. But it’s also stupidly expensive, and I haven’t spent nearly enough time in the area to know if it’s some place I would want to stay. Vacationing is very different from actually living there. In addition to finding more excuses to visit California, I’m going to re-calibrate my expectations at Bay Area MakerFaire 2017. At that point I’ll decide whether or not the Greater SF area is everything I’ve been dreaming it would be; whether or not the West Coast can really muster a display that makes World MakerFaire NY feel like a stroll through a quaint toy shop.
Financial conditions would also play a role in where I aim to settle. Unless I continue my service as a (full time ◕︵◕ ) federal employee at my current pay grade, I may have to accept a place further out from the Bay Area as a stepping stone. Somewhere between San Jose and Sacramento. (Farther from SF traffic may not be a bad thing…) But being able to make a day trip into Silicon Valley on a whim is important. It doesn’t need to be commutable, but I need access to Silicon Valley.
Note: I may need an intermediate step between NJ and CA. Somewhere with a relatively low cost of living so I can get my bearings and ease the financial transition into full independence.
What I want to get out of it:
It’s great to be “immersed” in the culture of the Maker capital, but without tangible benefits this is just a really stupid dream. These are my hopes:
- Networking. Whether for collaboration, or learning, or just making friends, I’m hoping the density of creative, technically-minded people and companies in the area will lead to more rewarding connections with people. (I literally only know one or two other Makers/CNC hobbyists out in NJ). In the back of my mind, I always hoped my channel would be a collaborative effort.
- Community. It’s great to reach people on the internet, but influencing people on a personal level is equally powerful. My ideal “Plan B” options for part time employment/income-supplementation would be in an educational capacity. Either in an official teaching capacity, or as a contributor in another organization. (ex. Make Magazine? Probably not, but anything along those lines would be awesome.) And those jobs just don’t exist in any appreciable quantity in NJ.
- Supply Chain. You can acquire basically any material or service within half an hour of San Jose. Metal supply shops, hobby shops, anodizing/finishing facilities, etc. All there. I will never again have want for an unobtainable capability.
- Catalyst. This is my chance to start with a blank slate. I can re-imagine my workshop, be free to adventure into the wilderness, and embrace new hobbies. I don’t know what I’d do with all that new-found freedom, but I know that unexplored potential is the most exciting thing I’ve ever felt.
- Adventure: You could go somewhere new every single weekend for a year and still have new sights to see. New sights that are worth seeing. Unlike NJ. Knowing me though, I’ll probably be in my workshop still. But that’s okay, because…
- Weather: Bonus! I get to work outside without stupid-high humidity or freezing cold temperatures. YEAR-ROUND WOODWORKING!
- Rockets: Bonus! Vandenberg AFB recently completed an overhaul to it’s Western Range control facilities, so it’s full-steam ahead for rocket launches in 2017 and beyond!
What I’m losing:
- Probably a painful chunk of my income to accepting pay cuts and higher rent.
- RIP Tesla ownership dreams.
- RIP any
If I am still in the East Coast in 2020, I have either failed… or I’ve found the perfect affordable home/workshop, fallen in love, am influencing government/education policy in a way that promotes STEAM, AND have a crap ton of valuable local connections that are integral to my business. Or bankrupted myself.
But for my own sanity: I need to leave this state, and I need to scratch this creative itch. #California2018 is the most fulfilling plan I can come up with.
*National League of Cities – How Cities Can Grow the Maker Movement – An interesting synopsis of ways cities are trying and/or succeeding at fostering the Maker movement, entrepreneurship, and innovation.