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Interview with Nathan Seidle, founder of Sparkfun
Nathan Seidle first started Sparkfun when he was still attending college, studying engineering, and was frustrated by how difficult it was to get his hands on the electronic he needed to create his projects.
He wanted a website where to find parts easily, along with the data sheets and documentation: as this kind of website didn’t exist, Nathan created Sparkfun with no venture capital backing this initiative. He bootstrapped the company from day one.
One of the keys of Nathan thinking and business is to leave all SparkFun’s products open for tinkerers and bet only on SparkFun’s capabilities to innovate in a super fastly changing environment as the DIY electronics one.
Ten years later, his goal to make electronics easily accessible to the average person really seems accomplished and SparkFun is inspiring companies and makers all over the world, including the Open Electronics team, and that’s why we decided to interview Nathan, to be an inspiration for you to follow. Here’s what he told us.
Here follows his interview.
[Open Electronics]: You have made frequent references to the open hardware market as a market that leaves no room for advantage positions: you often explained while creating open and accessible products designs you can count on a competitive advantage measured in weeks.
What is your way to beat the others in the market then? your ability to connect with the community?
[Nathan Seidle]: The same pressure of being copied is the same pressure that causes me to set up a better, more lean company. The people of SparkFun, from the engineers to the folks that ship our red boxes are encouraged to be creative and suggest new products or projects.
Community is very important. I believe a brand and the brand’s community are two things that are most difficult, but not impossible to copy.
Could we be better? Always – but because we chose ‘the red pill’ , we are at least running at the same pace as our competition.
[Open Electronics]: Does still already make sense to think of this market as made of competitors or rather we shall think more about co-opetition?
[Nathan Seidle]: Co-opetition is an interesting word. I love electronics. I can’t sleep sometimes working out a programming problem. But at the end of the day we work and toil against competitors in business. There’s too many taxes and regulations to think of it any other way :)
[Open Electronics]: Why did you choose to give to training and learning a so central role for SparkFun?
[Nathan Seidle]: Perhaps it’s genetic, but I love to share and teach. Sharing hobbies and passions are what make us human. I guess I surrounded myself with like minded people and what came from it was SparkFun with DNA from many folks who also love to share and teach.
[Open Electronics]: What level and in what way do you try to create the SparkFun that the members of your community expect? How is to create a company that is part (leader and follower) of a community?
[Nathan Seidle]: Wow. Good, hard question. We take to heart what our community thinks of us. It’s a challenge to listen to the community and try to evolve with it. We learned a long time ago that although we cannot make everyone happy, we should listen to as many people as possible. Our job is to pick the best path to support that community. I can give you many examples where our gut told us one thing and the community pulled us in another, better direction.
One of my fears is using the power for evil. We at SparkFun never want to appear as the gorilla that is stomping on the small guy. We were the small guy only a few years ago! We regularly ask ourselves what the community will think if we do ‘X’. This is tied closely to the open-source mentality where it’s important to give credit where credit is due. We try very hard to not step on anyones toes.
Nathan’s spectacular TEDxBoulder talk
[Open Electronics]: I just want to stress that you created this company from nothing, without any venture investment (the full story can be found in this nice interview).The idea that I really like, also in relation to the figure of entrepreneur, it’s that you have followed the concept of Work as an Enjoyment “. What was your experience?
[Nathan Seidle]: There is a time and a place for investment. Many companies need external capital to get their dream off the ground. When SparkFun started 10 years ago, we had the good fortune of being in the right time and right place. We had discovered a niche market where we could grow the business by being very thrifty and scrappy. DIY is of course part of our DNA and I’m happy to have limited money – I think it made for a stronger company.
[Open Electronics]: What real purpose are you serving today as an entrepreneur? Is it mainly profitability or are other drivers that inspiring you?
[Nathan Seidle]: Don’t forget I’m still SparkFun’s #1 most addicted customer. The folks here are always discovering new things to play with. I love getting the chance to make a new sensor talk over SPI or create a new project using the latest high-power LEDs.
Over the years I have also enjoyed learning how to run and shape a business. There’s always challenges but the people who work here make it enjoyable. I consider myself extremely lucky to have found a place where I enjoy the people, the work, and get enough time to give interviews to amazing reporters ;)
[Open Electronics]: Creating Culture: How much do you think is important for today’s businesses to create and sustain the development of some sort of long term “culture”, real innovation and passion? Will all this make a company more “resilient” and sustainable in the long time?
[Nathan Seidle]: Culture is hard. It’s not something that a business can install like a software package – it takes years. As SparkFun has grown to 130 people, my primary role is now ‘defender of the culture’. The people that work at a company are as important as the product they create. Growing up I never fit in! As SparkFun grew I like to think we’ve attracted good co-workers who are similar to us. Once we hire good, happy, unorthodox, odd people we ask if they have siblings, roommates or friends that may need a job. Humans tend to be tribal and if you and I work together more than likely I will enjoy working with people in that person’s social circles.
[Open Electronics]: What might be the value of an emergent hacker / maker culture? Will it help us to find solutions in other fields?
[Nathan Seidle]: I’m a bit skeptical when people talk of a movement or a revolution attributed to any one group. DIY and making things have been around for thousands of years. What we are seeing in the past few years is the emergence of tools that have been packaged in a way that appeals to a wider audience. I think Make Magazine has done a great job revitalizing the want to create with our hands. ‘Making’ is something every human can relate to and it’s great to get back to our roots. Arduino has given non-engineers access to the physical world. And SparkFun has shown everyone that electronics can be fun and approachable.
[Open Electronics]: Overall, where do you think we can get with this movement? What impact do you think this could have in the long term (for example on consumer habits or education or even the production itself)?
[Nathan Seidle]: While hundreds of different cell phone models may sound like a lot to choose from, there are billions of people purchasing them. This is not a lot of choice when you really think about it. Once you show the consumer that they can have it their way instead of only one way it really changes the way we look at problems. I’ve got a water alarm on my underwater camera. I didn’t like how the alarm sounded or the fact that it didn’t have an on/off switch so I built a new one in a few hours. Next step – build my own camera, but that’s a few years off. There will always be pre-packaged solutions: Sony and Canon will always be battling, Apple and Android will always be suing each other, but some day soon users will be able to have a lot more say and be a lot more choosy.
[Nathan Seidle]: The ramifications on production and the environment are huge! SparkFun has pioneered its own production techniques that allow for short run manufacturing. We have nearly 500 different products and we need to be able to produce 5 or 10 of an item if that’s all our customers need. All our manufacturing is done in Boulder, Colorado. Not because we’re opposed to manufacturing other places in the world, but because it really is cheaper, better, and faster to have production here. I believe other products and other companies will want to do the same once they truly listen to their customers. If we can produce more precisely what is wanted and needed we can reduce the amount of extraneous production and outright waste.
[Open Electronics]:What are the most interesting fields we will see an emergence of hacking mindset behind electronics? (eg: DIY BIO)
[Nathan Seidle]: Automation (ex: DIY Drones, SparkFun’s AVC) has had phenomenal growth and success over the past few years.
Artists and designers are now creating some of the best user experiences because they know how to prototype the hardware themselves.
Science is seeing a wave of young, enthusiastic participants because the tools are becoming so much cheaper.
Educators are seeing electronics not as a class but as a medium to teach all classes.
It’s a fabulous time to be alive!