The infamous 580-pound, 105-speed BEHEMOTH, with Mac, SPARC, and DOS environments as well as satellite datacomm, HF/VHF/UHF ham radio, heads-up display, head mouse, handlebar keyboard, 6-level security system, speech synthesis, 72 watt solar array, and deployable landing gear to keep the monster upright on killer hills. The bike now resides in The Computer History Museum.
This is the third installment in a series of articles unlike anything we’ve ever published. Steven K. Roberts has figured out how to live passionately, pursuing crazy dreams and building fantastic machines (like BEHEMOTH and Microship, both of which are pictured and briefly described here) and going on amazing adventures. He calls what he does Gonzo Engineering, and in this series he tells you everything you need to know in order to pursue your own crazy gonzo engineering dream.
The Business Angle
Before your eyes glaze over at the word “business,” let me hastily say that there is nothing in here about setting up a company! Lots of people can tell you more about that than I can, and although this discussion covers a lot of territory, you won’t find me talking about how to run a corporation, nor even a sole proprietorship with shoebox accounting. I find that stuff hopelessly confusing, and am thus perennially at the mercy of people who are comfortable with financial and legal matters.
Still, you can use the system to your advantage (even without running a shell game, which I don’t recommend... stress and creativity don’t mix very well). An obvious requirement of managing a huge under-funded project is to minimize your costs, and the first step in that direction is to create a bona fide business entity encompassing the field in which you are working—an enterprise that actually shows cash flow and can withstand an audit. In my case, since I don’t want to be a boat builder, I have to come up with something (besides manufacturing Microship clones) that renders all project expenses honestly tax deductible. Fortunately, I’ve been a writer for a long time, and with an endless stream of articles and the occasional book about these projects, they can legitimately be defined as “research.” The only tax-law requirement is that I show a profit occasionally, and somehow, bad work habits notwithstanding, I manage to do so now and then (with a little help from an online store, affiliate links, and spin-off nickel generators).
I want to give you a couple of basic ideas that can help cover the costs while wrapping your pet obsession in a cloak of business legitimacy.
It has become axiomatic that a key component of a large independent project is “buy-in” by the public (and, as we shall see shortly, a volunteer community). This has certainly been the case with the Microship and its land-based predecessors, but you also see it in open-source development communities such as those hosted on Sourceforge: there is a sort of “critical mass of publicity” that has to be achieved for a project to take on a life of its own. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to build a related business based on information and spin-off dissemination... magazine writing, self-published technical monographs, system documentation, shareware authoring, project kits, or anything else that leverages the work you actually want to do in order to simultaneously generate income and build exposure. There are very few professions in which you get paid to advertise, but that’s basically what publishing is all about—the more you do, the more you create brand recognition and demand (assuming you’re reasonably good at it). Magazine articles can lead to columns, which in turn can lead to books, which eventually, if you’re lucky, can lead to a lucrative speaking career and a royalty stream.
Alas, many technical people either can’t write very well or just don’t want to; an old wag once said that writing is accomplished by staring at a blank page until little drops of blood appear on your forehead, and I know a lot of brilliant geeks who just don’t have the patience or skills to make a go of it. But there are other means to the same end. Let’s talk about consulting.
The Microship, the result of an 8-year development project involving extensive sponsorship, students, and volunteer teams. This is an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran with retractible wheels, hydraulic systems, 480 watts of peak-power-tracked solar panels, and zippy performance under sail. BEHEMOTH, the Microship, and the later Nomadness project are all documented at microship.com.
The best generalization I can give you is that the boundaries between specialties are where it’s at. It is no accident that most projects in the domain of gonzo engineering are, by their nature, comprised more of new ways of combining existing technologies than of linear envelope-pushing; the latter, while honorable and necessary for ongoing industrial progress, is less likely to yield the kinds of breakthroughs that make the media flock to your door. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that individuals have a much harder time with “straight ahead” advances in the state of the art than do well-funded companies... that sort of work does lend itself well to structured engineering methods and thus tends to be the most likely course of corporate product development (think Moore’s Law).
But an obsessed individual making leaps of intuition in the middle of the night is almost inevitably looking at new interactions between existing ideas—making novel connections across great chasms (like finding a mathematical hack to avoid the rotation and scaling problem associated with image recognition, based on the logarithmic polar mapping discovered through end-to-end electron microscopy of the optic nerve). So it is likely that a gonzo engineering project already has some of this cross-boundary action happening. Why is this relevant?
Because the hottest consulting action is almost never within your own specialty; it’s when you take your accumulated knowledge, cross over to a client who speaks a different language in an unrelated field, and solve Major Problems. If you know a lot about spread-spectrum data transmission, do you try to sell yourself to radio manufacturers that already have cubicles full of experts? Or do you become the hero of the hour to some company that has run into a wall trying to move data between ceramic foundries, deploying a few off-the-shelf radios and beam antennas along with a nice fat invoice for your trouble?
Note the parallel here. The best consulting opportunities feel a lot like a gonzo engineering project, and, if you’re clever, can even use the same components and tools. So at the beginning of the mad quest to build your system, whether it’s a Microship or the world’s first standalone Refrangible Densiosity Enhancement Device, try to associate a business model with the project that can realistically turn all your R&D into a valid business expense and let you depreciate capital expenditures. If the coupling between the business and the project is close enough to stand up to the scrutiny of a bean counter, you not only save a ton of money but also create an aura of professionalism that will pay off again and again. Bankers, insurance companies, vendors, and even the trade press will take you much more seriously if that contraption you’re building looks like part of a business instead of a “hobby.”
Only you have to know the truth about the underlying motives... and won’t you be surprised when the business angle is self-fulfilling and you really DO find yourself making a living from what you love?
Once that tiresome money-making stuff is out of the way, we can start to play. One of my primary motives for taking on an increasingly complex series of technomadic projects has been to provide context and justification for learning curves—half the fun of this stuff is diving into something you know almost nothing about and becoming expert enough to do an end run around traditional approaches and make a contribution to the field. If you’re driven by personal motives like passion, that can happen surprisingly quickly.
You are probably already aware of an important phenomenon: the nonlinearity of learning curves and their eventual asymptotic leveling. Since you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that your brain is a rather AC-coupled affair, implying that some degree of change and growth is necessary to keep you interested. If you find yourself getting bored and restless in a job (or relationship, or town...) when the slope of the learning curve approaches zero, prompting you to migrate from one situation to the next just to prevent intellectual atrophy, then you already know exactly what I’m talking about.
So how do we arrange our lives to keep this from happening? Easy... just take on a massive project, then redefine it and add components as required over time to keep it interesting. A nice side effect of this is that if you play your cards right, you can keep yourself surrounded by experts who know a lot more than you do about various parts of the system, even while you become the world’s leading guru on the thing you’re building.
The Microship project is a perfect example. I had just spent a decade focusing my life on the bike, and for all its complexity and unfinished subsystems, it had become pretty stale in my mind. Few surprises lurked in the bicycle-touring lifestyle after 17,000 miles, and even though BEHEMOTH was intended to be a development platform, it was hard enough to hack that I didn’t find myself rushing to build new bike subsystems nearly as much as I thought I would. The truth was that I was just burned out, so when I fell in love with tiny boats I was lured wide-eyed into a whole new world of unfamiliar knowledge: navigation, hull design, oceanography, harsh-environment packaging, composite materials, and more. I started reading again, finding and hanging out with experts whose language I could barely understand, slowly building a dream evocative enough to attract the people from whom I most needed to learn. This was profoundly energizing.
I subscribed to nautical magazines, loaded up on books, and hit trade shows. I posted questions to newsgroups and forums, built up a stable of advisors, and seized every opportunity to get on the water in boats of any size and configuration—learning every time. I played experts against each other by striking up 3-way email exchanges on diverse topics like HF antenna coupling to a rotating mast, participating in discussions with people who have spent years accumulating arcane wisdom far beyond my own, interjecting questions to keep things moving in the right direction. I was careful to establish engineering contacts within sponsoring companies, learning as much as possible about the constraints, problems, and unexplored potential inherent in their product design (stuff that’s hard to get from marketroids). I even leveraged my bike-era notoriety to cozy up to authors and recognized gurus in these unfamiliar new fields, sometimes embarrassing myself with stupid questions but in the process building an incredibly potent database of experts—most of whom were remarkably patient with the early phases of my simultaneous learning curves because the dream itself had sparked their curiosity.
Although there is some risk in issuing “forward-looking statements,” as corporate types like to say, I have also found considerable educational value in opening the design process to public scrutiny. I blog weekly about the ongoing development of my new ship (Nomadness), and am not at all shy about discussing plans... or admitting my uncertainty about how to address a problem.
Surprisingly often, this is all it takes to pull answers out of the ether. Somebody who knows way more than I do about the subject will submit a blog comment, send an email, or utter a quick tweet... basically giving me the benefit of their experience with the problem that has me stymied. Whole comment threads (and in some cases, friendships) have emerged from this, which would have been impossible had I waited until a design was a fait accompli before going public with the details.
It can be embarrassing, of course... a major hazard of life on the bleeding edge is that one is a newbie much of the time. But I will accept the occasional public cringe if it prevents a large-scale screwup. More than once, an idea that I just knew was brilliant got shot down by someone who had spent a whole career developing intuition about the subject. This was painful at the time, but I realized in retrospect that I was saved from pouring resources into any more dead ends than absolutely necessary.
The counter-argument, of course, is that often said experts are inculturated in old methods, and can’t resist snorting in derision at the exuberant yammerings of a noob who doesn’t even know what’s impossible... but who ends up successfully breaking all the rules with a crazy design that nobody took seriously. You have to listen to even the most constructive criticism with a finely tuned discriminator, and not be afraid to stay the course if you’re really sure you’re on to something. Just don’t let ego get in the way, especially early in the process when you aren’t yet sure how much you don’t know.
All those dynamics, coupled with IP-centric nervousness about revealing potentially valuable new ideas, conspire to enforce paranoid secrecy in the early stages of a project. But if you are serious about maximizing free education, try to publish early and often... it will attract teachers of every form.
Three-way symbiosis of project, sponsors, and media. Everybody wins as long as the process keeps moving forward, and it is up to you to drive that. New toys are inspiring; build something amazing with them, and the press will tell your story. If you craft interviews to honestly underscore the role of your sponsor(s) without blatant flag-flying, then you can keep the outer loop going indefinitely. The hard part is the leap of faith on all sides necessary to get it started. Inner, direct connections are just as important, and the most productive relationships contain all the elements shown here.
This is a subject that gets everybody excited. Every few months, I receive email from somebody who has surfed across my list of hundreds of sponsors, basically asking: “How do I get companies to give me stuff for free?”
I’ve probably dashed a few hopes with terse responses that convey basic realities, the most important of which is rather obvious: the only realistic sponsorship deal is a win-win. Vague plans for media coverage are usually not enough to convince people with budgets that they should send out free goodies, and some companies that make particularly alluring adventure tools receive so many proposals (on the order of dozens per week) that they have instituted formal procedures and tough filters; others have adopted a firm policy of only donating to nonprofit corporations.
Yet, there are times when it feels like Christmas every few days around here, with the UPS and Fedex guys dropping off new toys and a half-dozen new proposals always in the works. How do we do it?
Product versus Cash
First, let’s get one thing straight. Asking companies for money is a lot harder than asking them for products, and if you plan to use the money to buy products anyway, you might as well eliminate those troublesome intermediate value states and their associated end-of-year implications. Besides, when you ask for money you end up dealing with the kinds of people who think in terms of return on investment, deliverables, tax laws, penalty clauses, and all that other weird stuff that causes the eyes of most geeks to glaze over. But when you go looking for goodies, you find yourself talking with engineers (sometimes even kindred spirits who wish they were doing something so cool), company principals (they may be suits, but they can make the instant decision to support you without having to sell the idea upstairs), and the aforementioned marketroids (hey, they may not always be the most creative folk, but they are usually friendly people who understand the value of good PR—and can be very helpful).
There is a counter-argument that applies in some situations: a big “title sponsor” who gives you a pile of dollars translates into only one relationship to maintain. Seeking a separate sponsorship deal for every component can gobble months of schmoozing time, and you can even find yourself having to delicately balance relationships with companies who see each other as competitors. This can get a little tricky, especially where IP or pre-release products are involved.
Between the bikes and the boats, we’ve had well over 200 corporate sponsors, and with only two exceptions they have all provided products or services, not dollars. The two who provided money did so in a very structured way—one as a consulting contract with a defined (albeit very liberal) deliverable, the other in the form of covering the lease on a lab building. No company has ever just handed us a lump sum of cash, although we’ve had a few individual donors.
Some projects (like alpine “first ascents”) seem to need direct financial support to pay for people or logistics, but from my perspective that appears to be a much more stressful relationship, both in terms of the difficulty of finding major sponsors and providing a return that fulfills contract terms. This typically involves large-scale logo display, scheduled appearances, or serious product placement. The problem with all that is that it can really define your media image... and be difficult to change without stepping on toes if you suddenly find another brand you prefer (sports stars do this dance all the time). Best to sidestep the whole issue if you can.
In the early days of my bicycle travels, I was offered a significant monthly stipend—more than I had ever made in my life, although that’s not as dramatic as it sounds—to pedal an epic South American journey while promoting a particular brand of tobacco. As a militant anti-smoker, it was not difficult to politely decline, though I was terribly broke at the time and did timidly ask if they could launder it through their beer subsidiary (they were not amused). That was an easy decision, and it’s a good thing: other than the obvious hypocrisy of promoting cigarettes on a bicycle tour, the one-shot hype experience would almost inevitably have prevented my nomadness from becoming self-supporting over the long haul.
More interestingly, however, it would also not have been fundamentally different from visibly identifying with, say, Apple or Motorola, companies that make things I actually do use. How would the media ever take me seriously, especially if I was talking about computers and communication tools? A big logo on the side of my machine would taint every statement with obvious bias.
This is the other key reason to try to avoid such relationships: as we shall see later, the media is a critical part of a three-way symbiosis with the project and the sponsors, and it wouldn’t do to look too much like an advertisement. Obviously there is some product promotion going on, but fer chrissake, let’s at least try to be subtle about it!
If we’re not going to do logo decoupage all over the hull, what do we offer sponsors in return for their generosity?
If we think creatively, there are lots of things we can do to help a company that has just donated an essential component to a gonzo engineering project. Frequently, the sponsors are not high-profile purveyors of whizzy consumer goods, but are small, specialized companies that target their wares to industry. In these cases, a little publicity goes a long way, as they’re generally not used to this sort of thing and tend to be more receptive than outfits that get a stack of proposals every day. This is a key point, so I’ll say it again: don’t beat your head against the gates of Microsoft, offering to trade your immortal soul by clicking through the EULA on a free piece of remote-admin spyware with auxiliary productivity features, when some small outfit making valves in Mississippi will fall all over itself for the opportunity to ship you parts in exchange for a little free ink in the trade press.
“Ink,” of course, is the first thing people think of when considering what to do for a sponsor: name mentions during interviews, product-application feature stories in industry trade journals, photos that show their gadgets being used in an unusual way, links on the project website. We pursue every opportunity to do all these things, and some companies with particularly visible or mission-critical components have received piles of media photocopies over the years—name mentions highlighted in yellow and a nice thank-you letter paper-clipped to the top.
But sometimes this doesn’t work very well. Some products are in the class of development tools or are so deeply buried inside subassemblies that they couldn’t be photographed effectively if we tried, and mentioning them in general media interviews would just confuse reporters (“This is the Microship, which uses stacks of DuPont Hytrel crane bumpers from Miner Elastomer as landing-gear shock absorbers.”) Other than slipping plugs into obscure publications like I just did [Editor: Hey!], how can I make sure that all sponsors’ investments are worthwhile—increasing the odds that they will still be receptive if I need to hit them up for more goodies next year?
The first (and easiest) solution is to maintain enough of a public project narrative that everything is automatically included. Feature-length magazine articles are terribly restrictive in length and slant, and a recitation of vendors is boring to readers. But we have a blog, busy websites, and over 5,000 subscribers to an occasional emailed Nomadness posting, and as far as I know every sponsor has been mentioned at least once along with a paragraph or two about the product and a link. These are archived on our site, and are thus Googlable; there is also a sponsor page listing them all, and for many years, entry to the Microship website triggered a Perl script that served up a random logo. The BEHEMOTH bicycle even had a sponsor-logo slideshow that ran on the console Macintosh during media events.
Still, that’s not much exposure, although it is appreciated.
Ideally, I try to do a series of magazine articles in a variety of markets, highlighting each part of the system. This generates a bit of cash flow, while providing lots of opportunities to mention companies within the context of a trade journal targeted to their industry. It’s harder than it sounds, however, as each one has to be pitched and sold to the editors, not to mention the problem of including enough of a general introduction to bring readers up to speed. In practice, this is not an effective way of making sure that every sponsor gets useful return for their donations, as only about half seem to lend themselves to this approach: cutting-edge newsworthy technologies, or highly visible components that show up clearly in photographs. Let’s see what else we can do to make sponsors feel good about helping out with the project.
Enhancing Corporate Culture
Sometimes the decision to make “in-kind product donations” is so casual that companies don’t really expect a lot of flashy media exposure in return... just coverage in their own publications. I have done dozens of interviews or provided photos for various sponsors’ house organs (internal newsletters or magazines). A perfectly reasonable motive for supporting something exciting like this is to get the employees pumped about cool uses for their technology, and this actually can take a variety of forms:
I have camped for months in corporate facilities, building systems and deriving direct support from the employee population. (In such situations, I became a sort of high-tech court jester, adding a buzz of excitement to the routine 40-hour-a-week blahs.) I have conducted brown-bag luncheons for companies that donated equipment, giving energetic speeches that cover the entire project while emphasizing how their products were indispensable components and relating amusing anecdotes about integration or comments from the public. I’ve shown up at company picnics, sent regular updates to mailing lists or forums that repost to internal mailing lists, and become friends with the engineers who created the technology that I use. In every case, the net gain back to the sponsor is clear: their employee population gets to see their products appreciated outside the normal markets, part of something exciting and fun. Team spirit is powerful stuff, and has soft-dollar barter value.
Another angle is to participate directly in product marketing, not by independently getting media coverage but by offering your image for use in advertising. Personally, I tend not to do this too much as I don’t want to become strongly associated with any single company, but those fears are probably unfounded—the few times I have done it worked out well.
One amusing variation on this that works particularly well with my fancy gadgetry is to appear as a guest in the sponsor’s booth at a trade show. I’ve done this a lot, and it’s good for all concerned: the company gets a kick-ass booth draw, the attendees get something way out of the ordinary with a bit of celebrity panache, and I get to hawk books and make contacts with other potential sponsors.
At a late-80s COMDEX in Las Vegas, I was exhibiting with Chips & Technologies. It was Day 4, and I was in serious burnout—the problem with these things is that person n arrives and asks a level-1 question, which you politely answer. Then person n+1 arrives a few minutes later and jumps into the conversation that’s just getting interesting... “Excuse me, what are you doing here? What is this thing?” After a few days of getting reset to zero every few minutes, you want to start punching people in the nose. I was in this approximate mood when a fellow arrived in the booth, looked at my bike, and exclaimed, “Wow, this is the coolest thing here!”
“Thanks,” I said, handing him a flyer and sizing him up for a book sale.
“Yeah, but not for the reasons you think.”
Oh crap. Another nutcase. I was steeling myself for the brain dump, religious testimony, or sales pitch when he bent down, dragged his finger along the frame, held it up to the light, wrinkled his nose, and said something that has stuck with me for decades:
“Look at this, it’s filthy! It’s the only thing at this show that I know is real.”
Since then, I’ve never underestimated the value of putting a bizarre contraption in a sponsor’s trade-show booth... it can mean a lot more than just another desperate theatrical attempt to get jaded attendees to stop and get their badges scanned for the mailing list. As long as the project genuinely uses the company’s products and is not just hired to be a gratuitous booth draw in the same class as bikinis and magicians, it can be hugely effective.
But hey, wait a minute. We’re geeks. What’s with all this marketing garf? Can’t we return value to sponsors by doing something that’s actually clever?
Well, I hope so. In the case of the Microship, we already have a whole infrastructure for data collection and the archiving of an arbitrary number of channels; this can be useful to some of the companies that have contributed products. Certainly it’s not much trouble to record temperature cycling, humidity, and other environmental conditions—even PSD plots of the worst-case shock and vibration events. The big boys already put their stuff through its paces by subjecting samples to such abuses under much more controlled conditions, of course, but I’ve seen a few product specs that were compiled optimistically from the published data sheets of their components. While wandering around outdoors for a few years hardly qualifies as a proper “accelerated life-test” program, it can certainly yield useful data... especially if the extremes happen to correlate with performance anomalies. We report failure modes, experience with adhesives or mounting problems, and anything else that may help forestall future problems.
Sharing the Hacks
There’s another way geeks can do something for sponsors without posting logo GIFs or grimacing into cameras (though I actually kind of enjoy that sort of thing, in moderation). Why not return all the hacks, interfaces, and driver code that you had to conjure in order to put a particular widget to use—in the process, rewarding your sponsor with a sort of off-site skunkworks that is unconstrained by internal politics?
Sometimes this is irrelevant, but there have been times in these projects when we’ve been able to give our sponsors significant intellectual property—and since I’m not trying to market this stuff myself, it’s not like there’s any harm in sharing the results. Quite a few of the devices integrated into the ships have been removed from original packaging, given more efficient power supplies, associated with software objects and display widgets, and hacked to add interface hooks or enrich external monitoring. All this is fed freely back to the manufacturers, along with related code. Doing this has the satisfying flavor of closing the loop, and significantly enhances a sense of cooperation with the company—the result can be a very effective partnership in which you not only get ongoing gadget upgrades, but the expertise to make them dance.
Obviously, it’s a bit tricky to generalize from computerized bicycles and micro-trimarans to all possible gonzo engineering projects, and some of this is irrelevant to, say, a software undertaking or epic data-collection exercise. But even tools built entirely of bits can be fair game for sponsor relationships, and hopefully we have shown how this can turn into a win-win. The only commentary I would add at this point is this: companies are made of humans, somebody there is going to remember that they made a donation, and employees want to look good to management. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping track of your supporting companies and contacts, making sure that you give them something, at least an occasional update, in return. It’s not only likely to help you further down the road when the original version gets superseded by a new model, but it will make things easier for the next person who approaches them for help. More than once, I have been told: “Sorry, we tried sponsoring a couple of projects a while back, but it never paid off. Our policy now is to just offer a discount.”
Next up: The Media Dance.
Steven Roberts was the original “technomad,” covering 17,000 miles around the US on a computerized recumbent bicycle from 1983-1991 while publishing tales via CompuServe and GEnie, then extending the same design objectives to water with an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran that consumed all available resources until 2002. As is typical of homebuilt boat projects, however, by the time it was finished he didn’t really want to do that anymore... so he has since made the transition to a full-time life aboard a 44-foot steel pilothouse sailboat, and is now based in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle.
The ship is extensively networked with embedded data collection and control systems, streaming telemetry, and a user-interface layer reminiscent of the Enterprise... with a wrap-around console that includes communications, R&D lab, audio production studio, and a piano. Roberts has published 6 books ranging from travel and adventure to microprocessor design, and prior to becoming a technomad spent a decade developing custom industrial control systems, early home computers, and other paleo-geekery. More on his technomadic projects can be found at microship.com (with the new boat at nomadness.com). He is publishing the ongoing technical narrative of the new project as a monthly PDF “Nomadness Report,” as well as a series of Boat Hacking design packages detailing the subsystems.