Adrienne St. Aubin is a policy analyst at Google.
A business born in a garage is one of the Internet economy's most cherished creation stories. But it turns out garages aren't just for low-rent software development. Some entrepreneurs use their garages to make things—physical things—and not just as a hobby, but to make a living.
Case in point: searching for a better-than-average clothes-drying rack—one that could reduce energy usage by holding an entire load of laundry and last for decades—led Greg and Julie Baka of Columbia, Missouri to design a more sustainable version themselves. Now anyone on a similar quest to reduce their laundry footprint can find Baka’s rack online at the aptly named bestdryingrack.com.
What Greg and Julie Baka are doing in their Columbia, Missouri garage is simultaneously old-fashioned and cutting-edge. They designed the rack after studying antique versions that had weathered generations, a sharp contrast to the flimsy models that dominate the current market. Using small-scale manufacturing, they sell all of their inventory, including a line of hand tools, directly to consumers online. The Bakas have created a successful business at a scale that is much smaller than most manufacturing, but big enough to make a difference in the world (and to make a living).
How does this work? Networks are important for entrepreneurs around the world (and for venture capitalists). Similarly, the Bakas understand that successful small-scale manufacturing involves working together in a big way. Large suppliers often aren't interested in working with smaller manufacturers, especially fledgling operations whose growth can be hard to predict, so it makes sense for small manufacturers to work with small suppliers who have greater flexibility. To avoid buying expensive machinery you share machinery whenever possible, and work with parts your suppliers can produce. For the Bakas, this means making their rack from American-made parts and thinking and using networks creatively to put the pieces together.
Because of economies of scale, it can be challenging and expensive to manufacture goods in the dozens or hundreds. However, the ability for producers and consumers of niche goods to find each other online makes it possible for smaller manufacturers to connect with customers who don't want mass-produced goods. As Greg Baka puts it, "Now that the Internet works as it does, it's really a whole new world for running a business."
Of course, American industry has experienced decades of painful change (manufacturing employment dropped 8 million workers in just 30 years) and pundits disagree about whether manufacturing revival is an achievable dream for America or just a Pollyanna fantasy that plays well on the campaign trail. Small-scale manufacturing doesn't promise to replace all the jobs that have been lost as so much large-scale manufacturing has migrated overseas. But it does show promise to help enrich communities, lower barriers to entry, and bring new products to market.
At $39.99 the Bakas' drying rack is more expensive than shoddy alternatives you'll find in a big-box store. It's built to last, and that means it costs more than what many of us are accustomed to paying for household goods—so many of which are designed for intentional obsolescence rather than durability. Although we're not all looking for the best—or even any—drying rack, there are enough of us to keep the Bakas' garage busy, producing an old-fashioned object in a thoroughly modern way.