Why Free Innovators Pioneer
To understand the pioneering role of free innovators, recall from chapter 1 that producers generally expect to spread their design costs over many purchasers. However, to justify that expectation, producers need to be confident that many customers will in fact be interested in the product they plan to develop. They also need to be confident that they can somehow establish the monopoly rights needed to serve the market at a profitable price. In contrast, information about these things is irrelevant to individual free innovators. They care only about their own needs and their own self-rewards—matters that they understand firsthand.
Reliable information on the likely extent of demand generally does not exist at the beginnings of new applications and new markets where users are trying to do novel things—like experimenting with the first skateboards or with the first heart-lung machines. At that stage, markets are small and customers' needs are not clear. As a result, the information that a producer needs to determine whether acting on an innovation opportunity will be profitable is not available until well after the information that an individual innovator needs to determine the personal viability of that opportunity is available. This difference allows us to reason that free innovators will generally begin to innovate in new applications and new markets before producers do so (Baldwin, Hienerth, and von Hippel 2006).
Historical studies do support a pattern of free innovator pioneering. Many describe a sequence of events in which free innovator hobbyists enter new applications and markets ahead of producers in fields ranging from the development of the first aircraft (Meyer 2012), to the first personal computers (Levy 2010), and to the first personal 3D printers (de Bruijn 2010). Thus, Meyer documented that pioneering developers of the airplane were self-rewarding experimenters who freely shared their findings—free innovators—rather than early producers. "Early aeronautical experimenters were unusual, self-selected by their distinctive interest in the project of flight and their belief that they could contribute to it. They had an interest in the end goal. This helps explain why they would share their findings and innovations in clubs and journals and networks" (Meyer 2012, 7).
Pioneering by free innovators is also very visible in two quantitative studies that have explored the sources of innovation in new fields over time. I will briefly review the findings of those studies next.