Tinkerer's Secret

Forbes ASAP , June 02, 1996

Gail Borden was a surveyor, land agent, and newspaperman before he hit it big with condensed milk.Clarence Birdseye was a naturalist and author before he happened on quick-freezing food. King Gillette was a traveling salesman.

After World War II, however, the conventional wisdom held that such independent inventors were anachronisms. The era of the tinkerer -- the obsessed individual working perhaps for love, perhaps for dreams of riches, but outside the confines of the corporate lab -- had passed.

Technical development has long since become the preserve of the scientist and the engineer, wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in 1952. Most of the cheap and simple inventions have, to put it bluntly, been made.

Galbraith seems pretty silly today, and has for 20 years. The personal computer restored the myth of the garage-based tinkerer. But in the era of Microsoft, we're starting to hear those old arguments: Developing a successful product, it's said, requires big startup bucks, big distribution, big teams of experts.

That is, of course, true of some products. But the Net and the PC -- and an economy that rewards intangible products and playful entrepreneurs -- still make room for tinkerers.

Take Mark Pettus of Mighty Toad Software. Since 1994, he's created more than 700 icons for the Mac desktop and made more than $15,000 selling them through America Online. That may not sound like a lot of money, but Pettus is an 18-year-old whose business is very part-time.

He entices customers with free samples and low prices -- $15 for his entire oeuvre. Once a design is done, filling an order costs about a dollar, and very little time. Pettus, who lives on a farm in Franklin, Tennessee, says the Internet is a tinkerer's dream. It provides "an instant audience of millions," and knocks down barriers to commerce, allowing even "a lowly high school student" to meet big-time customers.

Low startup costs extend to more sophisticated businesses, too. When Ron Unz challenged California Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1994 Republican primary, the Los Angeles Times called him a "computer magnate." In fact, Unz's Palo Alto company, Wall Street Analytics Inc., has only a half-dozen employees and annual sales "in the seven figures," Unz says. It makes very high-end software used by investment banks to analyze complex financial instruments.

A classic tinkerer, Unz has no formal programming training. He was a physics graduate student at Stanford when a summer job on Wall Street exposed him to the esoteric mathematics of modern finance. He picked up C++, and soon he and a friend had launched a company from Unz's Queens apartment. Living on their savings, they raised $15,000 in startup capital by maxing out credit card advances. From that investment came software that has been used to design and issue about $80 billion in complex securities -- and enough personal wealth to finance a quixotic political campaign.

Most tinkerers work alone or with a partner, but the Net has created a new phenomenon: worldwide collaboration. The most striking example is Linux, the shareware version of Unix that turns a PC into a virtual workstation. "Every single Unix hacker on the planet has joined in -- thousands of programmers have contributed to this project," says technology-magazine publisher Carl Helmers, best known as the cofounder of BYTE.

That doesn't mean that no one is making money off Linux (as you'd think from reading about it in the left-wing press). Michael Johnson, editor of the 35,000-circulation Linux Journal, says he counts 18 companies "off the top of my head" that are selling the code on CD-ROMs.

Then there's Caldera Inc., a two-year-old Orem, Utah, company funded by Ray Noorda, the former chairman of Novell Inc. In February, Caldera began shipping its Caldera Network Desktop, a $99 Linux-based operating system that includes just about every Internet function under the sun. By giving companies a cheap, easy way to establish Web servers on existing machines, the Caldera product could sneak Linux into a corporate market that would otherwise resist it. And by using Linux as its base, Caldera has been able to drastically underprice such competitors as SunSoft Inc.'s Solaris ($1,995), The Santa Cruz Operations Inc.'s Open Server and UnixWare ($1,295), and Windows NT ($699). Early customers include Southwest Airlines and the University of North Texas.

Linux is a classic hacker phenomenon: a mixture of play and commerce, a public good with private spinoffs, an ever-evolving product "financed" by tinkerers having fun. Galbraith would never understand.