Chris Anderson, author of the book The Long Tail and editor in chief of Wired magazine, has joined the advisory board of Wellington-based company Ponoko.
Established in 2007, Ponoko’s software has been used by designers and DIY manufacturers to make more than 100,000 products, ranging from small jewellery to large pieces of furniture. Co-founder Derek Elley says the addition of Anderson – who will not be paid – will help lift the company’s profile in the US.
Elley says that around 85 per cent of Ponoko's customers are based in the US and the company’s staff of 13 is split between offices in Wellington and San Francisco. It has a manufacturing footprint in Wellington, US, London, Milan, and Berlin.
Where Anderson made his name describing the concept of the long tail – the idea that products with a low demand can establish a large market share if the distribution channel is big enough – Elley says Ponoko represents the “all tail”.
“This is a technology that enables people to make almost anything. So what you’re seeing is a lot of one-off stuff and it’s just massive. It’s every individual expressing themselves in their own personal way,” he says. “What we’ve built is a system to be able to bring the cost of specialised product down.”
Next week, Ponoko plans to announce it is moving further into the consumer market in the US with “companies that are 50 times bigger than Telecom” and which will open up “10 million new customers”. Elley also says Ponoko will be opening a further four manufacturing 'hubs' in the US.
But when asked about the strategic goal for Ponoko – that is how many customers, turn over, staff numbers and manufacturing hubs it would like to reach in a certain time frame – Elley was unable to answer.
“This is not another software application like a time management application, or another accounting piece of software. Where there is an established market, an established track record of people buying stuff and planning is certain,” he says.
“We’re the first people in the world to enable anyone to make and sell their product ideas online. It had never been done before until we did it. So there’s no model.”
The company has benefited from angel investors with MOVAC and Fred Durham the co-founder of cafepress.com, which Elley describes as “about three or four times bigger than Trade Me”.
Elley describes the Ponoko system as enabling the 'Star Trek Replicator' – a machine from the popular television science fiction show that is capable of creating or recycling products. The idea that customised manufacturing can be carried out locally, and ultimately in the home.
“One day you or your children will be able to sit in their living room and wave their arms around and magically design a product and push a button and it will come out of a pipe in the wall,” he says.
The concept is best illustrated in the video created by Nueveojos and posted on Ponoko's website: