03/05/2013 01:22 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

The DIY Revolution -- How to Remove 99 Percent of the Cost from Your Product

In this blog, I'm introducing you to one of the premier do-it-yourself sites out there, Chris Anderson's DIY Drones, and how his kind of open-source innovation is changing the way products are created.

I'm a huge fan of Chris Anderson's DIY Drones, and how his model of creating a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) community allows him (and YOU) to be surrounded by the smartest people around the world to help implement a dream.

Anderson has been the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and, not surprisingly, something of a geek dad (Note: He stepped down at the end of 2012 to concentrate on his new business and to write his next book). In 2008, he decided to spend the weekend with his kids building a LEGO Mindstorms robot and a remote-control airplane. But nothing went as planned. The robots bored the kids -- "Dad, where are the lasers?" -- and the airplane crashed into a tree right out of the gate. While Anderson was cleaning up the wreckage, he began wondering what would happen if he used the LEGO autopilot to fly the plane. His kids thought the idea was cool -- for about four hours -- but Anderson was hooked. "I didn't know anything about the subject," he says, "but I recognized that I could buy a gyro from LEGO for $20 and turn it into an autopilot that my nine-year-old could program. That was mind-blowing. Equally amazing was the fact that an autonomous flying aircraft is on the Department of Commerce's export-control restrictions list -- so my nine-year-old had just weaponized LEGO."

Curious to learn more, Anderson started a nonprofit online community called DIY Drones. In the beginning, the projects were simple, but as his community grew (quickly surpassing 10,000 members), so did its ambition. The cheapest military-grade unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on the market is the Raven. Built by AeroVironment, this drone retails for $35,000, with the full system for $250,000. One of DIY Drones' first major projects was an attempt to build an autonomous flying platform with 90 percent of Raven's functionality at a radically reduced price. The members wrote and tested software, designed and tested hardware, and ended up with the QuadCopter. It was an impressive feat. In less than a year, and with almost no development costs, they created a homebrew drone with 90 percent of the Raven's functionality for just $300 -- literally 1 percent of the military's price. Nor was this a one-off demonstration. The DIY Drones community has developed 100 different products in the same way, each in under a year, for essentially zero out-of-pocket development cost.

I invited Chris Anderson to Singularity University to deliver a lecture and be interviewed for this blog. First and foremost on my mind was the question about how one goes about creating a community and securing the talent to do something as incredible as DIY Drones.

"Bill Joy's famous quote, 'Whoever you are, the smartest people in the world don't work for you' is as valid as ever," Anderson said. "This was a paradox of 20th-century management. The reason companies were created in the first place was to minimize transaction costs through a shared vision and shared responsibility. You hire people and you put them under one roof and you give them roles and responsibilities so that you can get things done. The consequences of this approach, of course, means that you needed to first find the people, hire them, use some filter to determine whether they were sufficiently qualified. We end up focused on people's 'credentials.' The reality is that most of the world's smartest people don't have the right credentials," he said.

"They don't speak the right language. They didn't grow up in the right country. They didn't go to the right university. They don't know about you and you don't know about them. They're not available, they already have a job. All of these issues are barriers to putting them under one roof to solve the employment equation of 20th-century management," he said. "We now have an alternative to this approach. The alternative is building a team in public: If you build communities first and open source them, you don't have to find the right people. They find you."

Anderson started the DIY Drones community fueled by his enthusiasm around what he had discovered and what he hoped to do. Chief among his learning on making the community work was his willingness to be open, authentic and intimate. "I created a social network," he said, "this simple act of chronicling my journey of discovery in this field I knew nothing about, doing it in public on a site that invited other people to participate. The simple act of choosing to share my ignorance, my discoveries and be willing to be stupid in public invited other people to say, 'I've been wondering that too, and here's an answer.' If you're stupid, then people will help you, but if you act super-smart, people will be scared to help you."

This openness invites openness. "It's intimacy, it's authenticity, it's willingness to ask dumb questions in public," Anderson said. "That simple lowering of the barrier to entry along with things like Arduino [the open-source electronics prototyping platform], which was the platform we ended up choosing, allowed people to see that it was really easy to get started."

DIY Drones now has 30,000 members, with 1.5 million pageviews a month. Not large by media standards, "but big by robotic standards," Anderson said. The site offers kits for UAV copters, planes and more.

Chris built the site not by emphasizing its high-tech credentials, but by opening it up to innovation from the crowd. By choosing to work with Arduino, which offers accessibility but not the highest-tech products, Anderson was mocked at first. But in the end, he said, that accessibility was what was important. "It's easy to pick up, hard to master -- and we bet on social rather than technology," allowing the community to come back with better ideas for using it.

"We bet that the community-accessibility aspects of Arduino would ultimately overwhelm any of the kind of technical specs," he said. "That proved out to be right. Today we have one of the highest-performing autopilots out there with one of the lowest-performing hardware platforms. What does that tell you? It tells you that smart people and great algorithms at the end of the day are the most important things. It's not about your clock speed. It's about the brains and the vision and the talents that went into the crowd."

So how do you use a community to drive innovation in a new product? Here are Chris Anderson's top three lessons learned:
  1. Be open in everything. "There was so much to learn, and everything I learned I'd share because I didn't have any particular pride in what I was supposed to know," Anderson said. "Everybody had permission to post, and we had guidelines. Over time, others started following the guide, the same style and format, and then people started working on projects together and posting videos of those. They shared."
  2. Use version control. In other words, make it understandable. "The first thing we realized is that the secret to open source is two words: version control," Anderson said. "Sharing is necessary but not sufficient. You need to share in a way that invites other people to participate. Until you commit something to a version-control system (i.e., a format where people understand how you're documenting it, where changes can be made, tracked and reverted to if they're wrong), it never takes off."
  3. Encourage participation. "We call it architecture participation," Anderson said. "Architecture participation is like a great videogame: easy to start, hard to master. Architecture participation means that everybody sees this project and says there's something for me to do, and whether that something is simple as correcting a typo in the documentation or submitting an incredible algorithm they've been working on for five years, you just find a way to plug it right into the existing architecture. It's hard," Anderson added. "It requires things that engineers don't like to do, such as documentation, clear comments, being transparent about the plan, sharing stuff before it's ready. That's the hardest thing: getting people to share stuff before it's done. Nothing good has ever happened by waiting until it's done. It happens by putting it out there when you're embarrassed about it and having people help you finish it."
In my next blog, I'm going to continue exploring Chris Anderson's DIY Drones. We'll discuss how his model of creating a DIY community has also developed into new ways of hiring talented people, and of getting super-talented people to work for free.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.