Build - Don't Buy

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Lots of pixels have been spilled recently on whether you should build your own stuff, or buy stuff and then configure it. Wardley Mapping (which I still don't understand) seems to say that you should buy commodity items and only build where you can add unique value. And I think I agree with that. For work though, not for personal stuff.

There are two reasons why you should build your own stuff. These aren't good reasons, and they're full of exceptions, but I think it's a useful template.

  1. To own
  2. To learn


I'm going to discuss this through the medium of art. I have a complicated relationship with art. I understand why an original painting is valuable. I don't understand why a limited edition print costs so much. You're reliant on the good-will of the artist not to print off millions of extra copies once they have your cash.

Similarly, I don't understand why people collect things. There is no skill in collection - you simply have to have lots of money. OK, you might be able to find a rare phonograph by hunting through charity shops. But it's more likely you can just turn to eBay and buy a complete set of whatever it is you want. Collecting is hollow.

I have some prints of artwork up in our house. They may reflect my personal taste - but they're just demonstrations that I was able to part with money.

I've built some artwork of my own - and it gives me so much more joy to know it is something created by me. It may not be as aesthetically good as commercial art. But it is more meaningful.

Something you build belongs to you. Every imperfection is yours.

If you've read "Harry Potter and The Consciousness of Class Struggle", you'll know that the Goblins and Wizards have a conflict around ownership. As Dr Beatrice Groves puts it:

The sword of Gryffindor was made by goblins and – they believe – belongs to them too. The goblin value system holds a genuine challenge to the wizarding perspective, starting with what the sword should be called. Should a possession be named after the person who paid for it or the person who made it? Are you more connected to an object you make or one you buy?
The Sword Until Recently Known as Gryffindor’s

The Goblins, like me, believe that it is impossible to transfer ownership of an idea. When you build or make something yourself, it is for your purposes. It does what you want (to within your level of skill) and is forever yours.

That might seem emotional, but if you want to control something and make it perform to your exacting standards, then you have to build it yourself.


Buying a Van Gogh doesn't make you a better painter. You could buy the National Gallery, and it wouldn't improve your abilities. Even if you spent all day staring at the paintings through a magnifying glass, you'd learn less than an hour spent with a paintbrush.

I spent a semester at university learning about IP addresses and networking - but it wasn't until I was let loose with a dozen Ethernet cables, assorted switches, and a DHCP server that I really began to get it.

Of course, you can go too far. As the meme goes:

I thought that using loops was cheating, so I programmed my own using samples. I then thought that using samples was cheating, so I recorded real drums. I then thought that programming them was cheating, so I learned to play the drums for real. I then thought that using purchased drums was cheating, so I learned to make my own. I then thought that using pre-made skins was cheating, so I killed a goat and skinned it. I then thought that was cheating too, so I grew my own goat from a baby goat. I also think that this is cheating, but I’m not sure where to go from here. I haven’t made any music lately, what with the goat farming and all.
"Loop Etiquitte" by MagpieIndustries

Or, as Carl Sagan said "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

You have to build in order to understand. What you build will not be perfect - but it is our imperfections which make us beautiful.

That Said

There's no shame in buying something. Not everyone has the time, energy, skill, or money to build something themselves. Buying off-the-shelf is essential if you need reliability, consistency, and liability.

But nothing is as fun as getting your hands dirty.

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8 thoughts on “Build - Don't Buy”

  1. I wonder about the business practice of ‘buying commodities’ and only focusing where you can add value, especially given the context of all the changes facing us in the years to come. We often don’t give commodities (fossil fuels, mobile phones, plastics, etc) a second thought, yet these commodities often have very real, and unseen costs to society.

    Where does our responsibility as both corporations and individuals employed by those corporations begin?

  2. "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe" - Carl Sagan

    New one for me. Love it and great blog post.

    As open-source advocates, can we not agree it's both? Build on the shoulders of giants?

  3. Alex B says:

    Reason #3: the money that could be used to buy something off-the-shelf is in a different pile not to be used for buying things, but e.g. paying salaries.

    It’s a rubbish reason, but it’s a reason, and enabled me to exercise reason #2 on someone else’s dime.

  4. Mark Chapman says:

    Saying collecting is hollow is pretty provocative thing to say!

    It involves knowledge of the market itself and what’s out there. Take programme collecting, it’s very rare complete collections come up and you have to know what you’re looking for and also research if older items have not been known about.

  5. I often hear people say "I can't be bothered, I will just pay someone to do it." But there is a huge amount to learn by actually doing new things, going off on tangents, reading up/watching YouTube videos, and perhaps solving the problem.

  6. I didn't buy or build the blog you just wrote. Where does that fit?

    Yes I build lots. From glass objects to cakes. But often I buy as time is the factor there. For glass I built the tools, the glory hole, the kiln... because at the time they were stupid money. Today you pay 25%

  7. My least favourite of all: buying and not owning, which is what happens when you buy software where the supplier retains the entire IP, which includes good dose of 'not learning' either.


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