What ThinkGeek *Should* Have Done (And Still Can!)

*update at bottom of the page*

So, just to start off, I like ThinkGeek — I really do. I’ve been a customer since 2003 and have literally spent thousands of dollars on their site (helped that my company used to give out prizes and I made sure to buy them at ThinkGeek. Also helped by the fact I’m a complete nerd.). I’ve bought stuff from them for my friends, my wife, and my kids. Hell, for me, they’re even based locally and I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow.

But with growth comes change — note I did not say ‘progress.’ As highlighted with the recent Jayne Hat issue, ThinkGeek has made a conscious decision to eschew crafter created pieces (which they used to carry a smattering of), and focus on mass-produced, licensed products. One can argue if it was an intended or unintended consequence, but part of the upshot of this is that FOX is now going after crafters of fan-created art on Etsy like a pack of hybrid lawyer-dementors. Reportedly this includes other Firefly-related items, but has mostly been focused on sellers of the aforementioned Jayne hats.

Sadly, the irony of mass producing a knit hat that in the show was handmade by Jayne’s mother is lost on ThinkGeek. Evidently also lost was what the impact of cease & desist orders would be on the crafters who had been selling these items for many years. (And let’s not forget the irony of FOX “protecting” the Firefly intellectual property when they’ve repeatedly done everything in their power to screw over the show itself.)

Now ThinkGeek could have done a number of things differently. They could have gone with an unlicensed hat and just called it something else — FOX doesn’t own the intellectual property of the style of hat (though I’d love to see them try and establish prior art for it!), just the association with Firefly and the character Jayne. Or they could have even said “Hey, we COULD mass produce this hat, but really part of the whole phenomenon of this is that they’re handmade, so maybe we just shouldn’t bother.” However, if they really felt there needed to be more Jayne hats in the world, as they told me in a tweet earlier today, why not think a little more boldly?

What I’m about to suggest is something I’ve tossed around as a business idea of my own for awhile and discussed with a number of friends — but let’s face it, I’m middle-aged, married, with kids and a mortgage — my days of startups are probably behind me. Instead, I’ll gift this idea to ThinkGeek in the hopes that they really do want to do the right thing (unless they want to hire me to help run it, in which case, let’s talk):

Imagine, if you will, the force for geeky goodness that ThinkGeek could be if they decided to create their own online storefront for geeky crafters? Instead of having to wade through billions of potential Regretsy items to find the real quality stuff, imagine going to thinkgeek.com and in addition to seeing Portal gun replicas and Annoy-a-trons, you could find handmade hats of an especially cunning design, handmade Chell costumes, and handmade hobbit pipes. That would be pretty fricking cool, wouldn’t?

Imagine the benefit to those geeky crafters, having their wares brought to the attention of folks already actively looking for geeky products? ThinkGeek wins, crafters win, and more importantly all the rest of us win. There is assistance and advice ThinkGeek is especially well suited to offer these small scale crafters, especially on shipping and possibly even on avoiding the traps of intellectual property infringement. Basically the only loser would be Etsy, and you know what? Screw Etsy.

For me, part of being a geek is tied into the maker culture — geeks tend to really like making things themselves or they have a lot of love and respect for those who can and do. If ThinkGeek followed my suggestion they could in essence offer the best of the entire geek world while remaining true to the spirit of what, at least to me, it means to be a geek.

Otherwise, they’ll continue to move to be a part of everything that runs counter to that spirit, and hurt crafters — the very ones who embrace that ethos with their time, energy, and hard work.

Finally, to be absolutely clear, FOX is the main bad guy here – but ThinkGeek can’t license from them without acknowledging that said license obligates FOX to pursue non-licensed sellers. That is part of the basis of a licensing agreement, part of which usually says something to the effect of “Hey, we’re going to pay you a bunch of money to be the official seller of this item representing intellectual property you own, and to protect that investment, you’re obligated to go after anyone else who tries.” That’s just what licensing is, so ThinkGeek’s fingerpointing at FOX and trying to act the innocent is disingenuous at best.

I wrote a post some years ago titled “Why I ❤ Crafters (and Other Artists) And You Should Too” in which I explained why I have so much respect and admiration for them. Towards the end of it, I wrote “…surround yourself with those who are creative and bring a little more beauty into existence, and you will find it easier to do the same.” I still very much believe that and it is advice I’d like to see ThinkGeek take to heart.

*Update April 9, 2013* So ThinkGeek has corrected themselves and now state that the manufacturer they worked with on the hats is actually the license holder. However, I still stand by what I said — the best that ThinkGeek can claim is that they decided to bring a mass-produced and inferior product to market that directly competes with what was offered by the geek crafting community. And they did so with a company that makes all of it’s money off of licenses, Ripple Junction — and I believe there is still information to be had about that company’s role in the cease and desist letters that went out. It’s extremely common for license holders to push to have C&Ds sent out to products they view as infringing on their license.

*Update April 10, 2013* See here



Do (and Be) What You Love

Do What You Love, Do Nothing Else
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So, this won’t be a grand pronouncement on my relationship with Twitter, the dangers of thinking you have all the answers, or the grandest evil of all – the color of pink. I’ll make a preliminary forecast of only a Class 1 Blowhard post. Instead, this is more in the nature of a look around and some things I’ve been realizing. *takes a look around*

Okay – so, I never really figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Obviously this isn’t a problem, as the chance of me growing up at this point is fairly remote. But while I went through those common childhood phases of wanting to be a fireman or an astronaut (or a baker!), none of them really survived into an adult passion for a vocation or career. From my first paid job at 13 years old – managing a political campaign’s contributor dBase III+ database on a TRS-80 — I’ve always just fell into one job after another. Stock boy/sales clerk for Egghead Software, government summer intern, network/system admin, journalist, author, web guy, communication manager, consultant to biodiesel company, consultant to political campaigns — it kind of bounces all over the place doesn’t? Not really a nice story arc or easy narrative to it.

That is, until you realize that what it really amounts to is that I’m a professional geek and suddenly trumpets sound, angels sing, and my peripatetic wanderings suddenly seem to acquire a laser-like focus. Or at least they would if you knew I loved each of those jobs because they satisfied my inner-geek. I won’t delve into the whole definition of what a “geek” is (ground trampled and dead at this point), but what I mean by “professional geek” is somewhat more limited in scope.

Have you ever giggled with pure joy over something you’re doing while working? Have you ever been paid to do something that was so awesome, you worried about letting on that you’d do it for free or even pay your boss/customers to be able to do it? Do you take work home, not because you’re behind, but because you know you’ll just enjoy figuring something out in your downtime? Have you had an almost sexual satisfaction from doing what you do better than almost anyone else? Does the only way you imagine your job being any better involve the implementation of sci-fi technology or fantasy elements?

Guess what? You love what you do, and that’s what makes a professional geek. You can now join the ranks of pretty much everyone I’m friends with. On Twitter, that means people like @KyleeLane (soap maker and owner of the worlds coolest company van), @Geekleetist (BeardEwok herder, oh and geeky artist), and @RuthBeingRuth (larval librarian) and many, many more professional geeks and professional geeks-in-training.

In real life (Oh FSM, how I hate that phrase, but that’s for another day’s blog), it means people like my friend Julie, whom I’ve known for decades now (oh where has the time gone?!). What incredibly geeky thing does she do? Well, she’s a singer and an actress *screeeeeeeech* Wha?! How’s that geeky you ask? Because she loves what she does with a passion that puts the most dedicated professional renfest player or Mythbuster to shame (yes, those were the two most geeky professions I could think of right now ). When she’s not acting or singing, she’s thinking how to be a better actress and singer. When she’s not doing that, she’s working at whatever jobs she can, just so she can survive until the next acting/singing jobs comes along. She’s trained her whole life to do these things well, and she is so unbelievably talented — it gives me a big happy whenever I think of her performing (hint: HIRE HER!). And for those reasons and more, she is a professional geek.

For me, being a geek is about your passion for something overriding your common sense. A professional geek is the same, but gets paid for it and, in the words of Steve Jobs, the patron saint of professional geeks, makes something “Insanely Great!” Great-to-the-point-of-insanity — sounds silly, but that concept describes the professional geek perfectly in my opinion. “Good enough” is not an option – any mediocre schlub can do good enough, but it takes a professional geek to make something great, and technology is not required — just a will to go above and beyond what any “sane” person would do in the same situation.

Take a look at Kylee Lane (seriously, she’s worth taking a look at *grin* ) — she is a geek in the sense she loves Star Trek and Star Wars and has ray gun AND Boba Fett tattoos, but she’s a professional geek because she makes some of the best damn soap ever handcrafted, she loves doing it, and she goes to incredible lengths to make sure her soap is made with the best ingredients and an incredible amount of care and attention. She mixes her own scents and colors by hand because to do otherwise would result in soap that did not measure up to the ideal soap that exists in her head. If she wanted to, she could expand her business so that every boutique and major chain had a “Luxury Lane Soap” display, but to do that, she’d have to rely on automation and other people who wouldn’t care the way she cares – and to her, that’s not an option. It’s not that automation is bad, but in the case of the soap that Kylee makes, no machine in the world is capable of doing what she can. [Note: Though I’m sure there is some guy out there working on the KyleeBot 3000, which will be a terrible failure when it’s Awesome-momatic board goes on the fritz and the damn thing ends up eating its inventor . . . probably with a side of frosting.]

Professional geekdom even runs in my family. My grandfather was also a professional geek, though I suspect if he were still alive, he’d have difficulty understanding what the hell I was talking about. He worked for the railroad, Union Pacific to be exact, for most of his life. I never got to see him on the job, but the stories that have been shared with me make his geekiness very apparent – whenever there was a difficult problem with a station, a section of trackbed, or pretty much anything else – UP would call in my granddad. And he’d pick up the family and move to North Platte, Pocatello, or wherever and he’d go solve the problem. He wasn’t an easy man to work for – many complained he was a tough son-of-bitch who wasn’t ever satisfied and had impossible standards. But you know what? He was awesome at what he did, and he loved the railroad more than anything. He was there and was part of what made old style railroads a great and beautiful thing. That’s a professional geek.

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So why all this meandering around about professional geeks? Mainly it’s because I just wanted to share my epiphany that there was this meta cross-disciplinary category of us that I think share something very basic in common despite the different ways we may apply or express it. Whether it’s the mechanic who can fix anything or the writer that loves building fantastic edifices out of words, we professional geeks are united by loving what we do and being what we love.  So let’s not argue over geek/nerd/dork definitions. Let’s not fixate on whether girls can truly be geeks (because to think they can’t is just asinine) – instead find and do the thing you want to be professionally geeky about and don’t worry about the definitions or categories. There’s a whole world out there of folks making and doing great things because they simply love what they do – finding as many of those people as you can and sharing that with everyone is the best and truest way to celebrate your own geekiness.