iTech Post Interview with Nate


Recently, SparkFun CEO/Founder/Fearless Leader Nate Seidle spoke with iTech Post about SparkFun’s roots, its philosophy, and the tech world in general. Check out an excerpt of their conversation (you can click through at the bottom for the full article).

iTech Post: Can you tell us how you came upon the idea of creating SparkFun?

Nathan Seidle: I was teaching myself electronics in 2002 when I burned up my programmer. Searching the internet for a cheap replacement showed me just how bad the state of ecommerce was for embedded electronics. You often had to call or fax your order in, there were very few pictures of these complex devices being sold, and there was almost no support to actually use the electronic bits.

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iTech Post: How did that lead you to SparkFun?

NS: I thought I could create a site that had clear photos of the front and back of a device (unprecedented!) and maybe I’d offer the cable or power supply that made the thing work. Luckily there were plenty of other folks having similar frustrations. We had our first order seven hours after we turned on SparkFun.com. We’ve been trying to catch up for over 10 years.

iTech Post: From where did you pull the name of your company?

NS: SparkFun has two meanings. The first meaning is to spark fun within someone. We live to show folks that they can solder a kit together and have fun doing it. The second meaning has to do with pushing your own limits. When you’re going down the path of learning something new, whether it’s painting or coffee bean roasting or growing strawberries, you often mess up.

In electronics, sparks are usually seen as a bad thing. But when I’m so far out in front of the limits of what I know and something sparks, that’s when I’m having the most fun. There’s no faster way to learn than from your mistakes.


Thank iTech for talking with us! You can check out the full article here.


Comments 13 comments

  • A lot also has to do with the culture Nate inspired. I remember getting a personal response to an issue I had with an LCD screen I ordered back when the order numbers had just cracked into 4 digits. They helped get my item working and me on my way to being a long time customer. Nate even helped my son solder a simon kit at one of the only Austin Maker Fairs. That is an energetic, hands-on guy. SF is a great company.

  • One of the most influential lines to me in that interview was the one regarding company patents. I knew you guys at SF were advocates of open-source, but being relatively new to this community, I had no idea you “referred negatively… to company patents” as the article said. I personally believe patents dampen ingenuity, and that single line made me respect you guys that much more.

    The rest of the interview was pretty awesome, too. I only hope I can be like Mr. Nate when I pursue my own entrepreneurial endeavors!!

    • Interesting catch on the patents comment. Patents have their place and are needed to promote invention and protect IP, but patents certainly have been abused recently and there is a need for patent reform, especially in the area of software patents. That being said, I am a huge fan and loyal customer because of how free and open you are!

    • I only hope I can be like Mr. Nate when I pursue my own entrepreneurial endeavors!!

      Observational Note: Cultivate a superhuman level of energy. I often joke that I’m glad Nate started the company so I didn’t have to. I moved out here from Virginia two years ago to work here and haven’t looked back. He’s done a better job than I might have if I had tried to get this thing off the ground and while it certainly seems to be due, in part, to a natural knack for business and an understanding of the field, I think his biggest asset is his energy. We do our best to keep up: but if we can’t he’ll push, drag, strap-a-rocket-to a project to get it out the door.

      • Energy is an understatement for entrepreneurs. I used to intern at start-up companies, and talking with the owners was always the same thing. Work nearly 80+ hours a week, get paid little, but love every minute of it. I bet if anyone actually sat down with Nate and asked him, when he was starting Sparkfun if he thought it was a pain or not, and I bet you he would say, “Loved every minute of it.” (Or something similar).

        It would make sense, because I would work about 50 hours at those start-ups because the work was there, why not get it done when you can instead of waiting? Granted most of the work was contract and we were about 8 months ahead of deadlines, but it didn’t mean we could push it off for 8 months.

        So, to everyone. If you want to start your own company, invest in your energy. (For me this is own stock in coffee companies).

  • I can completely understand the problems that surround patents but I would say that SparkFun doesn’t have a commercial product that people use. All their products are designed with the intention of building one widget. Not for mass produced products. That’s where patents are extremely important. For example Microsoft get’s licensing fee’s from every android phone made. I can’t imagine what it would look like if Windows wasn’t patented. Or if World of Warcraft wasn’t patented.

    I agree that having a patent when the cost of getting that patent would cost more than the revenue the product generates and is worth. But when the revenue and the product is worth way more than the cost of getting a patent then you definitely need one.

    I agree that 30 million is a large number, but when you talk to Apple, Google, Microsoft and a bunch of other publicly traded companies. Thirty million is a drop in the bucket. They make that in hours.

    I liked the iPhone clone that you had Nate in your talk, but I can assure you that that phone would never show up on a major phone network store. If it did apple would raise hell because they have patents protecting it.

    Good talk though Nate. Grats.

    • Late comment here – “Windows” is not patented. Nor is World of Warcraft. Nor is the iPhone. Each of these makes use of technologies that the appropriate companies have under patent, but none of them is patented of themselves. What they are mostly protected by is copyright. And copyright is absolutely integral to Open Source, both software and hardware – it’s what gives open licences their protection.

      (A copyright applies to a work, a patent applies to an invention. In either case, it’s a government-granted monopoly for a (theoretically) limited time, and the intent in either case is to enrich the public good.)

      (As for what Microsoft has patents for that it’s getting money from Android phone manufacturers, see http://androidcommunity.com/barnes-noble-reveals-microsofts-android-patents-in-detail-20111114/ ; at a glance, it’s a lot of old patents that should mostly be invalidated by prior art. The real force here comes when a company with deep pockets decides to lean on you and say, effectively, “That’s a much better product than we could ever make! So give us millions of dollars. Oh, and if you don’t want to be blackmailed like this, we can go to the courts, where you’ll need to spend millions of dollars defending yourselves, and then give us millions of dollars because we have more lawyers than the population of Wyoming.”)

  • “Positive disruptive force” reminds me Shigeru Miyamoto’s “upending the tea table”. Although Nate would be “upending the workbench”. I like that Sparkfun fosters and values this behavior. Between Nate “throwing workbenches” and the continually evolving open source world, Sparkfun must be a challenging place to work. By challenging, I mean fun.

    Keep doing what your doing and I’ll keep throwing money at you.

  • This seems like a fine area to thank you for all your hard work, making these things all available to us, and educating us on what to do with them. I am hoping to get some open source designs on ebay this summer with what I’ve learned from you.

  • In my opinion one of the single coolest aspects of SparkFun is how Nate offers free classes and access to technology/tools for anyone who works for us. It’s not just an option. It’s highly encouraged. Combine that with the type of environment that allows for Sparks and you’ll understand why SparkFun is SparkFun. Sometimes you gotta break a couple eggs to… er… level up? Honestly, we’re more interested in people leveling up than making sure we corner the market in a proprietary manner. Like I posted to my personal Facebook account recently- “Let someone else define OpenSource Education. We’re too busy doing it.” Ditto for expanding current business models by thinking further, faster or just around the corner a little while still managing to be aware that we don’t know everything.

  • Ditto! 20 years ago, I had learned to hate a certain catalog order company for no current pricing, had to call a salesman and never had it in stock. Digikey made things a little better and started displaying actual pictures next to each part number. Sparkfun is definately my favorite elecronics site now!

  • I would agree greatly to the 2 meanings of sparkfun. However I wish my projects would just spark! That points to some problem that will probably be obvious.

    Instead when my projects are having problems they generally… do nothing. While cheaper to solve than sparking, more frustrating ;).

    I love that aha moment I get when I get something working!

  • Altruist and honest !! This world needs more people like you !!!


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