Bits & Atoms by the Numbers – An Index of 26 “Customization” Companies

by Joseph Flaherty on December 18, 2010

I was in the hospital for a few days and while hooked up to machines that provided all sorts of vital signs, I got inspired. This collection of charts provides the vital signs for the emerging “Bits & Atoms” economy where digital services and physical goods are fused in commerce. The world of “Bits & Atoms” or “Web Meets World” is still developing, but a couple trends are popping up.

Faces & Knowledge Bases

The biggest trends I’ve noticed are that outsize rewards are going to companies that provide faces (images of kids on coffee mugs) or knowledge bases (dozens of Arduino tutorials). Recognizable images of friends and family or actionable learning tools seem to grow audiences better than cool tech or novel offerings.

3D Printing and “Products and Services” are other areas where interesting stuff is happening. The following charts should help provide some insights on what is happening in this new world.

Update: All the data is from and it has been brought to my attention that their method of sampling sites hurts some of the less mainstream companies. As an example of inaccurate the numbers can be AdaFruit has shared their analytics. While Compete data shows hundreds of thousands of unique visitors AdaFruit has actually had millions. These charts provide good trend info and order of magnitude, but should be viewed cautiously.



Zazzle is the Walmart of customization allowing you to customize more product SKU’s than any other company. Keds sneakers, iPhone cases, and 3 ring binders are examples of the kind of product you can have produced. They combine good merchandising sense, impressive front end technology, and fulfillment to let customers print on almost anything they can imagine. Though they came to market later, Q410 marked the time they surpassed Cafepress in monthly unique visitors.


Cafepress is one of the original companies to pioneer “Print On Demand (POD)” technology as a consumer service. Starting with simple products like cards, calendars, and coffee mugs, Cafepress has grown a large audience and revenues and shows no signs of letting up.


VistaPrint has lost a decent chunk of traffic this year, but they are still, by far, the largest mass customization company in the market. Primarily focused on business cards and other B2B offerings they have branched out into B2C with holiday cards and wedding invites.


Moo is like VistaPrint for the “creative economy”. It provides the same print on demand offerings, but with substantially higher quality (and cost). Considering how massive VistaPrint is, it is a little surprising to see such flat growth from a company that really gets high quality execution.

Knowledge Bases


O’Reilly Media shows itself as a great prognosticator, again. Their flagship DIY blog has doubled in size this year. Along with a strong move into ecommerce there is big opportunity to be seen in 2011.


Ravelry is a social network and knowledge base for knitting and fabric arts enthusiasts. Their traffic is flat, but impressive considering the company costs of 3-4 people. It is an amazing thing to think that 4 people can generate 10-20% of the traffic that Martha Stewart’s $250MM empire does with hundreds of people.

Martha Stewart’s empire has fared better stock wise, but it is interesting to see how seasonality impacts web visits. Visits spike by nearly 1MM users during the holiday season.


Instructables is the biggest of the credible DIY sites (as opposed to SEO content farms like eHow) and has grown steadily. It is an impressive company and one that seems to have a lot of growth potential as pure media businesses move into ecommerce.

Fine Woodworking

Fine Woodworking is part of the Taunton Press, a niche publisher which has 4 magazines that generate more than $20MM a year in revenue. Their traffic numbers won’t impress fans of high volume websites, but they clearly know how to monetize their base.


iFixit is creating the Wikipedia of instruction/repair manuals. Their growth has been organic and impressive considering most of it comes from word of mouth or from their brilliant “tear downs” of the hot new consumer electronics gadgets. They generate revenue by selling repair kits and components and currently have ~30 people on staff.


Sparkfun is generating $10MM+ (and likely much more) in revenue by selling electronics components to hobbyists and prosumers. Their growth has come largely from teaching customers how to use their products via web tutorials. Knowledge base companies + ecommerce offerings seem to be a smart way to grow businesses without a lot of capital required.


AdaFruit is similar to Sparkfun though it has a more pronounced philosophical position on open source. Adafruit is also wildly impressive in that it is largely driven by founder Limor Fried. Adafruit is also notable in that it consistently uses web video to interact with its audience on the weekly show “Ask an Engineer“.


The Replica Prop Forum isn’t usually discussed as a “Bits & Atoms” company, but they have built up a very impressive audience of enthusiasts who like to make replicas of movie props. Currently, they generate revenue with ads, but it is very easy to imagine them starting to sell components ala Sparkfun or AdaFruit.


Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson finds time between putting out an industry leading magazine and books to curate a community of DIY aircraft enthusiasts called DIY Drones. The community is a little “nichey”, but its membership is big enough and importantly willing to open their wallets to buy components from the site to build their DIY drones.

3D Printing

3D Printers

The top 3 3D printing companies don’t generate a lot of web traffic because they are largely B2B sites for expensive capital equipment. ZCorp, which is probably 3rd place by revenue has a clear lead in web traffic due to the unique nature of their technology and its fun, arty applications. Stratasys (NASDAQ: SYSS) and 3D Systems (NASDAQ:TDSC) are both big companies, but drive little traffic to their sites.


MakerBot demonstrates the power of PR and community by having 2X the traffic of ZCorp and 4X the traffic of publicly traded Statasys. To put this in perspective, Stratasys has commanding market share and $100MM+ in annual revenue. MakerBot’s revenues are likely in the mid-high single digit millions putting them in an impressive place relative to other 3D printing companies.


FigurePrints is a service that 3D prints World of Warcraft characters for a fee. Their traffic seems to have taken a bit of a hit in recent months, but with a new WoW expansion pack that sold 3.3 million copies on its first day, brighter days might be ahead. Additionally, it probably makes sense to expand into some adjacent markets soon in case the WoW market is saturated.



Kickstarter is a site where creative people with ideas can turn to the crowd to fund their vision. Kickstarter burst onto the scene during Facebook’s privacy controversy by helping four young hackers raise $200K to create an open source alternative and closed the year by raising close to $1MM to help make iPod based watches a reality. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another 3X+ growth in 2011. Kickstarter is a truly disruptive company.


Shapeways is a 3D Printing service that allows customers to develop a 3D model and have it printed with a number of high end rapid prototyping machines. Shapeways has raised venture capital from consumer web kingmaker Union Square Ventures. It is too early to tell if they are too early or just right re: market timing, but they are executing very well.


Ponoko is similar to Shapeways, but offers more manufacturing options for makers. They started out offering laser cutting services, but have expanded to offer electronics components and 3D printing services creating a “Personal Factory” for DIY enthusiasts.

Products & Services


Threadless, the Tshirt crowd sourcing experts have had a great year, doubling traffic to comfortably clear the 1MM visitor a month hurdle. They reportedly had $30MM in sales last year, so it seems like 2010 was very good to the Chicago based etailer.

Build-a-Bear Workshop

Build-A-Bear Workshop has done a nice job building up a web property to compliment their retail customization offerings. Considering how crowded the kids gaming industry is and the fact that they are a retail organization at their bones a 1MM customer user base is pretty solid.


Quirky designs and launches an new physical product every week. If there is enough excitement about the product it will be manufactured and sold to customers via retail and ecommerce. It is an interesting business and has roughly doubled its traffic in a year. Not bad considering their sales aren’t directly tied to the web. With a breakout product or two they could become a brand to be reckoned with.


Craft retailer Michael’s has a surprising amount of web traffic considering their main shoppers aren’t tech enthusiasts. I’m not sure how much ecommerce they do, but I’m sure a big part of their traffic is generated by coupons for their retail stores.

Blank Label

Blank Label is one of the best companies arbitraging low cost tailoring in Asia to serve the custom shirt needs of young western business men. They haven’t seen “Hockey Stick” growth yet, but the median age of the team is 20 so they have some time to figure it out. I’m not sure if a “custom dress shirt” start up will ever be a big success, but I’d bet if it does it is at Fan Bi and his teams hands.


Gemvara allows customers to tweak high end jewelry via a web interface and have their designs produced on demand. The Gemvarians are approaching a big market, have a good technical solution for customization, and are being rewarded with impressive growth.

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  • Chris

    Excellent analysis! Many thanks for doing this. I’ve tweeted it:!/chr1sa/status/16182029494263808

  • Joseph Flaherty


  • Joseph Flaherty

    Thanks Chris! I think the numbers for some of the less mainstream sites are probably a little low due to Compete’s ranking algorithm, but it is helpful to see what the successful trends are and the order of magnitude they reach.

  • Federico

    Great list. It needs some spellchecking, but the idea is great.

  • Joseph Flaherty

    Thanks Federico, I’m going to go back through and correct my poor grammar! BTW, what do you do with the ACM?

  • Life of F Bi

    JF this is a beastly post. Thanks for including us – we’re just getting started đŸ˜‰

  • Joseph Flaherty

    You are quite welcome, keep up the great work!

  • sivam krish

    Great, informative post.nnSivam

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