To say the American automotive industry was in a precarious place in the late 2000s would be an understatement. In the fall of 2008, Ford Motor Company’s stock plummeted to $1.25 a share, and in the summer of 2009, GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. But for Local Motors founder Jay Rogers, it couldn’t have been a more exciting time to start a business.
Founded in 2007 in Phoenix, Ariz., Local Motors is a different kind of automotive company. Harnessing the power of the maker movement, open-source design, and most recently, additive manufacturing—their Strati EV is the world’s first 3D-printed car and the winner of the 2014 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award—the company has brought numerous projects to fruition. Foregoing traditional production plants for “microfactories,” the company’s goal is to enable its global community of designers, engineers, fabricators, and enthusiasts to centralize at the local level and create transportation innovations that mirror their surroundings. (The company’s flagship Rally Fighter is a Baja racer with Southwest DNA.)
Currently, there are two microfactories (Phoenix and Las Vegas) and a “mobifactory” (mobile factory on the move). But Local Motors plans to open 100 microfactories around the world within the next 10 years.
Here, Local Motors’ Head of Research and Development Alex Fiechter reveals some valuable insight with four crowdsourcing tips on how to achieve success when the crowd is in the driver’s seat.
1. Incentivize Your Community. And not just with money. In fact, using monetary gain as your primary motivator could lessen the level of commitment from your maker community. “People get network contacts, they get their name out there, and they have the opportunity to get live critiques from people who come from the industry they’re aspiring to get into,” says Fiechter of Local Motors’ collaboration platform. “They come away with an impressive portfolio that they can continue to build on and maybe make something off of in the future. We try and unlock all of that value, rather than just keeping it on a level where all you’re essentially talking about is contract design work.”
Early on, Local Motors started providing their members with virtual badges to signify certain levels of achievement within the community. Acquiring virtual credentials is a tactic that has been successfully adopted by other crowdsourcing products, such as local search and discovery service mobile app Foursquare or traffic app Waze. More than just biographical profile information, one’s badges represent a participant’s willingness to contribute to the community, and can be a real-time measurement of competencies like commitment and motivation. (Local Motors temporarily shelved the badge program, but there are plans to bring it back.)
2. Pay Attention to Your UI. From your color palette to the algorithms that help dictate the way results are displayed, it’s crucial that the interface used to browse projects is more than just a simple repository for hundreds of disparate-looking thumbnails. When you’re dealing with heavy volume, design and functionality can make or break the way people engage with their information.
“It’s a very hard thing to put together,” Fiechter confesses. “On one hand you’re looking to create something that allows results to bubble up naturally, yet there are so many different ways—by changing the interface or the sorting—you can totally dictate the kind of feedback you’re going to get.”
There are more than 40,000 active users on LocalMotors.com. At any given time, there are usually one to three Challenges open and hundreds of Projects that can be collaborated on. With a neutral-colored background, an easy-to-read font, and lots of uncluttered white space, the “Explore” area of Local Motors’ site—where collaborations and ideas are located—is extremely easy to navigate and digest. And how much time does the company devote to their UI? “A significant portion of time,” Fiechter says with a laugh. “Arguably not enough.”
3. Concentrate on Short-Term Thinking. Most Fortune 500 companies focus on long-term planning because the pace of growth and development is dictated from within. That tactic is often moot when the crowd is leading the way, and as Fiechter points out, once your community develops the world’s first 3D-printed electric car, you’re no longer in a situation where you’re “scraping for opportunity.” Chasing down every “once-in-a-lifetime prospect” that comes your way can create fatigue, so it’s extra important to scale down goals, especially when you’re in a startup phase. Think months ahead, not years ahead.
“If you had asked two years ago what our plan was, it would not necessarily resemble where we are right now,” Fiechter says. “When you’re taking opportunities from the crowd, you need to make sure you’re deliberate in the short term.”
4. Welcome All Levels of Maker. Unlike businesses that assess talent based on traditional criteria, Local Motors finds diversity (and hidden value) in attracting makers of all skill levels, from your casual hobbyist to the MIT grad who’s building the next Death Star in his garage. Their mixed bag of vehicles—including the Rally Fighter and the Verrado Electric Drift Trike—is testament to that variety. And sometimes it isn’t the smartest guy in the room who has the missing piece.
“One of the benefits of the crowd is that you get the right person with the right piece of knowledge—regardless of where they came from—who self-identifies with your project,” Fiechter says. “If we were just doing a subjective evaluation of people in the same fashion that every other business does, there would be no margin for an edge.”
When the playing field is level and the community feels properly incentivized, people are more willing to buy in for the long haul. For Fiechter, continuous engagement by these “micro-partners” is key. Take their recent crowdsourced sports car, the SF-01 Street Fighter. More than 200 submissions were received for the project back in July. The challenge: Design and develop a street-legal, high-performance sports car that could be brought to market within two years and built for around $30,000 or less. The vehicle is now in the R&D phase.
This, in a nutshell, is what has made Local Motors the most intriguing and promising American automotive development since Tesla. The pursuit of real.
“We may pick some crazy things, but at the end of the day, we’re still planning on doing things tangibly,” Fiechter says. “You look at our facilities, and our capabilities are increasing all the time. I think that’s one of our biggest objectives; not just reveling in online creativity, but getting our hands dirty with it.”