For those of you who are of the baby boomer generation, names like Airfix, Hornby, Scalextric, and Tamiya will likely bring back fond memories. Enamel fumes, ill fitting scale model kits, the waft of methylated spirits and many hours of fun pursuing hobbies that at the time, were largely aimed at educating children will be familiar to many of that generation.
Not your father's hobby
Fast forward 50 plus years and the scale model world is decidedly nerdy with kits costing anything from a few pounds/dollars/euros up to kits like the Bandai 1/72 scale Perfect Grade Millennium Falcon (check the build video) at close to £500. The military vehicle kit after market has extras like metal gun barrels and track links that together can cost twice the price of a decent 1/35 scale kit. And to give you an idea of interest, at the 2019 IPMS Scale Model World event held in Telford, customers from around the world were forking over oodles of cash for much sought after kits. One of the ATMs ran out of cash. The queues to get in for non-members snaked around the building on the opening day and the kit exchange did brisk business. Much sought after precision aircraft kits from the likes of New Zealand based Wingnut Wings and Japan's Zoukei Mura were, quite literally, flying off the stands. And good old Airfix? They had British military aircraft buffs salivating at the thought of this year's spanking new 1/72 scale Avro Vulcan B2 bomber kit release, showing a pre-release final stage tooled example.
How do I know all this? The last year I've gone back to discovering childhood pursuits and WWII military vehicles and aircraft have long held an interest so why not learn new skills while also discovering little known facts about a past which is only just a few years removed from my generation? Yes - there's a lot to learn. Yes - it's a hobby and yes - you can spend insane amounts of time and money. For some it might seem a pointless but nevertheless incredibly satisfying pursuit that allows us to develop many skills or simply refresh those that are long forgotten.
What has any of this got to do with enterprise software? Quite a lot and especially about lessons in design, customer service, distribution, and technology in general in a highly competitive industry. But in order to understand what this means it's important to understand something of the scale model landscape.
Private is the word
As I've gotten into this world, it's apparent that it is not just a craft with an artistic side but also a craft industry that reflects its educational/hobby roots. Tamiya for example started out as a maker of wooden educational toys. Humbol was part of the Humber Oil Co. Most of the well known providers such as those I've mentioned above and others like Ammo by MIG, Hasegawa, Dragon, Eduard and hundreds of others are in private hands. There are a very few exceptions, perhaps the best known of which is Hornby plc, publicly traded but largely owned by two PE firms. I'll come back to them in a second story.
More broadly, there are any number of YouTube channels dedicated to demonstrating tools and techniques that include scratch building, painting options, tools selection...the list goes on. Many of those channels are hosted by retailers who subtly use full build and unboxing videos to demonstrate their broad, detailed knowledge of the craft. Then there are the pro and semi-pro channels where modelers provide tutorials that demonstrate how their skills are applied to building realistic models and dioramas. Some of the shows are breathtaking. Then there are the forums - hundreds of them. For example, Scalemates provides one of the most comprehensive databases of products I've found to date. If it's not on Scalemates, it probably doesn't exist. Then there are commercial-ish forums like Flory Models run by Phil Flory who not only records a (near) daily video show but has hundreds of practical tutorials on just about every aspect of scale modeling you can imagine.
A good number of the forums are free to view but many of those using YouTube encourage visitors to subscribe and support their efforts through either direct subscription and/or Patreon. Some of the channels have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, Andy's Hobby Headquarters springs to mind. And while I have no clue about the number of people world-wide who are active in this world, I'd hazard it runs the low millions.
Common among these communities and channels, many of which are either one or two person bands, is that whenever they're talking about a particular product or products, the commercial relationship is disclosed front and center. Where there is no such relationship then again, the person is up front. Most I've seen are at pains to point out the extent to which they are unbiased in their reviews or comments. I leave others to judge the veracity of those statements, but remember this is a nerdy pursuit and it does no-one any good to talk up product that doesn't match eventual user expectations or, worse still, flatter a maker whose attention to detail comes into question by knowledgeable experts of history.
A global industry
This is a truly global industry with most manufacturers operating through networks of country specific distributors and retailers. Those networks don't prevent the modeler from buying wherever she finds the best deal (provided they're prepared to put up with customs and delivery hassles) but the scale is truly breathtaking. Amazon features in product searches but rarely as a prime provider except where parts are hard to come by. eBay also figures but again, and from what I've found to date, it is the retailer or online distributor that holds sway. Many of the best modelers are found in countries like Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary - countries that also produce innovative products, especially in photo etch. Some of the most creative advances in paint technology come from Spain. The Japanese have long led the world in high quality kits and tools with Tamiya being the best known example. Closer to my home, Airfix is still popular albeit it has challenges while Revell is well known globally albeit having bases in Germany and the US. China is coming along with Ryefield Model from Hong Kong widely considered as one of the best tank kit makers.
Whatever your view of the scale modeling world - and here I have barely scratched the surface - it is a world apart from that which I remember in my youth. It is way more professional with every taste from the novice to expert catered for in equal measure. It's an industry that is taking advantage of the global networks afforded by YouTube and the forum led world. But it has specific characteristics I will explore in the second part of this story that I believe hold important lessons for the enterprise. Hang on to your hats, it will be a fun ride.