Jonathan Danforth, Maker Faire

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Alarm ensued earlier this year when the man who brought the hugely popular Maker Faire movement to North Carolina announced plans to step down as local director. 

But alarm quickly turned to action when an email chain of more than 130 local innovators and educators brainstormed and rallied to find a successor and ensure a future for the event that drew 6,000 attendees to the NC State Fairgrounds last year. Todd Lewis, known locally for directing the annual All Things Open Conference, has agreed to step in to lead the event. And he's in negotiations now with Maker Media, founder of the global event series, to get approval to host it this year. 

Much is happening behind the scenes, Lewis told me this week over email, and he's not ready to make any official announcements.

Maker Faire has become a big deal in this region. Of the hundreds of events that happen here each year, it's the only one about innovation of all kinds and open to people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Over the five year history of Maker Faire: NC, tens of thousands of people have attended, and thousands have exhibited projects that range from textiles to gadgets to science fair creations to works of art.

One man has been critical to making the event happen each year—Jonathan Danforth. He's a senior programmer at Durham's Kontek Systems by day, and by night, a photography and woodworking hobbyist. He also helps to produce the Triangle's Click! Photography Festival. 

But Danforth's big passion for the last five years has been Maker Faire. In the Q&A below, he shares with ExitEvent how he became inspired to start the local event, its exponential growth over time, and insights he collected about the region as he watched people become and embrace makers.

Jon Danforth 3D Printed at Maker Faire
Maker Faire: NC Founder Jonathan Danforth might be stepping away from leadership of the annual event, but he's forever immortalized in this 3D-printed model. Credit:

Why did you start Maker Faire in NC? Had you attended one before? If so, where, and what was it like? 

I was an early member and part-time instructor at the ill-fated TechShop in the Triangle back in 2009. Another part time instructor asked “Why don’t we have a Maker Faire?” It seemed like a perfectly valid question. I registered the domain within 45 minutes of her posing the question, working on the philosophy that forgiveness would be easier to receive than permission. I had never attended a Maker Faire because at the time the events were limited to San Mateo, CA and Austin, TX. I was an avid reader of Make magazine and drooled over the photos of those first events. 

Why is it important for a community to have an event like this? 

A community needs inspiration and entertainment, of course. The talents and projects showcased at Maker Faire North Carolina were often practiced quietly in garages—the only outlet for validation came from online forums and user groups. We were encouraging the creativity to come out of the garage so that it could be shared with the local community and inspire the next generation. I also believe that there is a resistance to the overtly commercial nature of craft shows, art shows, and the like. 

Talk about the growth rate each year and explain how/why it grew? How much work did it require on your end?  

My go-to word for describing our growth is “bonkers.” The first year we did so much wrong—the event was on a Sunday. It was held in a poorly air conditioned abandoned shopping center. Our advertising budget was approximately $200. I could go on… but nevertheless we had 2,000 people come through the door to see 50 Makers in 40 booths and eight musicians. We welcomed around 6,000 visitors in 2014 to see 558 individual Makers in 92 booths. 
My hunch regarding growth is that there was a hunger in 2010 for our kind of festival. We fed that hunger and created a feedback loop: visitors in one year became exhibitors in subsequent years. We saw it all the time. 
As our event grew we also had to grow our support and planning efforts proportionally. Our core team of volunteers was just four in 2010 with a short-term volunteer army of 40. In 2014, those numbers were 11 and 83 respectively! Only another event planner will truly know how much work went into production, but suffice it to say that our core team found themselves working at least 10 hours a week to prepare year-round, ramping up to 20-30 hours per week in the weeks leading up to the event. That’s an unsustainable demand for a group of friends with day jobs! 

Why are you backing away from the event this year?  

There are really two motivations behind my decision to back away from Maker Faire:NC. First, I concluded that I would not be able to produce a 2015 event if growth continued its trend. We saw 33% growth from 2013 to 2014. That’s mind-boggling. I felt that while I might be able to pull it off, I worried that the quality would suffer because I would not be able to allocate a proportional amount of my time to production. 
Second, I enjoyed almost everything about planning the Faire, but it came at a cost. My own hobbies and passions had to be curtailed in the best cases and outright abandoned in the worst. Even the producer still wants to Make stuff! 

Have you since attended other Maker Faires? How does our version compare?

The hallmark of a good Maker Faire or Mini Maker Faire is that it has a unique flavor. I'm confident in ascribing a gritty industrial theme to Detroit's Maker Faire while ascribing a more visual and installation arts aesthetic to New York. Even though the large Faires have themes, it's impossible to downplay the variety of projects—every interest is represented! Mini Maker Faires are very much a product of their local community, however, and thus have more regional projects. 

Textiles played heavily at Maker Faire NC, for instance, due to the influence of the textile history of the area. I always tried to produce Maker Faire NC with a tad of both: regional passion and international interest. I wanted our Faire to be about our local community first but I also recognized that thousands of people were clamoring for a taste of the exotic projects and concepts they had only previously read about.

Based on the types of projects and inventors who came to Maker Faire, what has it revealed to you about the Triangle area and its people? 

It’s a little embarrassing to admit but prior to producing this event I had never realized just how large and diverse the Triangle area is. Every year, even as we saw huge increases in our attendance, I heard from people that they had never heard of us! Beyond that perhaps sub-stellar revelation, I have marveled at the creativity and ingenuity of this region. I started this event with a “hurumph” attitude that the best, most creative stuff can’t ALL be located in the San Francisco Bay Area—surely there’s groovy stuff in NC. Well, we sure found it! 

What are you most proud of related to the NC Maker Faire?  

Every Maker upon completing a project has this certain moment. I don’t know what to call it, exactly, but it’s the moment of sheer satisfaction borne of a philosophy somewhere between the outright autotelic and Bauhaus. You lower your head and neck into your shoulders, raise your eyebrows, and grin at what you created while you poke it with a screw driver, knitting needle, or soldering iron. You know that this thing you made is each of the following: wildly clever, completely useless, beautiful and important. I have that feeling every time I think about what we created. 

What would you still like the event to accomplish even if you’re no longer a part of it? 

Our team had so many ideas that we were never able to implement. The “Next Year” list is really long! Philosophically, I want the event to continue to be accessible to all people, to be an inspiration to the next generation of Makers, and to support the community that has grown up around it. 

How do you feel about the person chosen to lead it and the people who rallied to make sure there was a successor? 

I wrote down a list of ideal qualifications on a yellow legal pad two years ago—things like “should ideally work for a non-profit”, “should know how to solder”, “should know the difference between knitting and crochet”. The person that stepped up to apply to Maker Media, the organization that licenses what has become the Mini Maker Faire program, met almost all of those criteria. The application is pending approval by Maker Media, so it would be inappropriate to name him at this time (He has since been named publicly, and responded to our email request) but I feel that he has the faculties and the infrastructure to do things for Maker Faire:NC that our team was never able to do for lack of time. I feel very optimistic. 

Any other thoughts about passing the buck?  

I’m going to request that we use the term “passing the torch” instead! Passing the buck seems so defeatist. :-) I am thrilled that the event is in capable hands and I can’t wait to buy a ticket, bring my family, and participate for a change! I might even take back up one of my dusty hobbies and come as a Maker!