Communities that Create

Nathan Seidle tells the story of SparkFun, how we got started and why we do what we do.

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Chris DiBona, the Open Source champion at Google, was gracious enough to invite me to speak at Google HQ in Palo Alto. I gave a small presentation at Google to about 40 hackers, software people, hardware people, and general folk. It went pretty well and Google was nice enough to post the video on their YouTube channel.

You can see the video here. I apologize, it's pretty long - 48 minutes! Unfortunately Google didn't do such a good of including the slides in the video (c'mon Google!), so you can download the presentation in PDF form here, and then below I'll insert the slide images and the transcription of the presentation so you can follow along.

Who should read or watch this presentation? Anyone who may want to know the history and some of the stories that go along with SparkFun. It's a fun story and I love to tell it.

The summary for the win:

"Don't be afraid of trying something new. That's why I started SparkFun Electronics. Whenever I was trying something new – I was working on that microcontroller project – that's when my programmer sparked and died. But you see that's when I was having the most fun! It's when you're right out there on the edge, when you have fun and create the most."

I just got done with 2 days of Maker Faire. I think there were like 60-70,000 people there. It was a ton of fun. We ran a bunch of people through our booth teaching them how to solder. And so, we're just going to talk about where SparkFun came from and some of the stuff we do there.

I attended the University of Colorado and graduated in 2004, so I haven't been out of college that long. I did not take this class in college! In business, I actually don't know what I'm doing. I got an electrical Engineering degree so, most of what we do is engineering, but there's a lot of business that goes on in the background.

That's me with the red hair about the third from the left on the rowing team shortly after Halloween a couple years ago. Why that's important is because I was working in the dorms. I was working at the Olympics. I was on the club rowing team. And when I graduated college I realized that all I had to do was work. That's fabulous, I can do that!

I'm 28 years old. I come from Oklahoma, which is a state there in the middle somewhere. And no other family experience in business. This is sort of the first hack at it.

In the beginning of 2003, whenever I first started the company – we were in bedrooms and basements for the first three years. This is actually a picture of my bedroom with about five days worth of orders on it. So, you can see it was really quite small to begin with. We've grown quite large.

But you've got to realize that, in the beginning, when we were doing business – I say “we” a lot, right? That's the proverbial “we”. Because we didn't want people knowing – would you feel comfortable purchasing stuff from somebody's bedroom that looked like that? Not really, right? We've made ourselves look bigger that we really were. Whenever we answered the phone, we said, "Oh, I'm really sorry. I'll talk to shipping for you. I'll make sure that that never happens again.”  While I sit down on my bed and cut open the box and fix whatever order I had just messed up.

We weren't really sure how many orders we were going to get. And I was pretty surprised to see that the first order came through in seven hours. I had spent a month or two putting the website together and getting inventory up and taking pictures. And when the first order came through, I went, “Oh, I guess I need a box.” [laughter] Starting a business you don't really think about all the aspects including order fulfillment. And, as an engineer, I kind of had to fumble through that.

When I started the business, I assumed I would be selling to my friends at CU. I would be selling to folks in Colorado. And when the third order came through from France, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the size of our market. It was pretty fabulous. And, on top of that, how do you ship to France? I had no idea. Every day is a new day in business. And you know when the order comes through from France, you go, “Okay, well. I guess I'll figure out how to ship this to France.”

So the hundred percent Paypal, for three months - that was important, because in 2002-2003, it was difficult to accept credit cards. Now, it's pretty common place and pretty easy to set up, but back then, you had to do something called a “merchant account.” And a merchant account is this application. You answer a bunch of very hard questions, weird questions. You give them about $110 for an application fee. I filled all this out, and a couple of days later, I get a FedEx envelope, and inside the envelope is a disposable camera with 5 pictures on it. From the shipping label I realize, that it came from the merchant service people. So, I call them up, and I say, “Hey, I just gave you a hundred bucks and wanted a merchant account and you guys sent me this disposable camera. That's not really what I was looking for, what's going on?” And they said, “Oh, no problem, we sometimes have a problem with fraud. And so we need for you to take a picture of your inventory, take a picture of your shipping department, and the outside of your facility.” [laughter] Right? I say, “Well ma'am, that's fine, but that's the inside of my bedroom, the inside of my bedroom, and the outside of my bedroom.” And she said, “Oh, that's fine.” Really?! Okay. So I took these pictures and FedEx'd it back to them, and they approved me! [laughter] So I don't know how bad it has to be not to get approved, but at least in 2002, that was enough.

Manufacturing – in the beginning, I had absolutely no money for capital. Normally you do electronics manufacturing with very large machines and millions of dollars for the capital. We didn't have that. And we couldn't borrow and we couldn't raise it. Necessity is the mother of all need, right? Or, whatever it is. We figured out how to do manufacturing with a $40 hot plate. We had to create ways of building electronics, because we had no other way of doing it. So lots of tutorials on-line about doing that. We kind of share everything that we do – very transparent about it.

In three years – the first three years of business we did 10,000 orders. That's important because we're currently doing 10,000 orders a month. So, in seven years, we've grown to that magnitude where things have gotten pretty crazy.

And here we are – 87 employees. We ship to 107 countries and counting, and we did 10 million in revenue in 2009, so I'd never dreamed it would get this big. I thought we were going to plateau at five employees and a million a year. And then, here we are at 10 million, and there's no end in sight. We are in a very, very happy time right now in the expansion of electronics and building stuff?

How far do people remember back in electronics? When I was an engineering student back in 2002-2003, this is sort of what the websites looked like. If you're an engineering student and you need parts – if it was surface mount, it was incredibly hard to access because you had to learn how to solder that stuff and the breakout boards weren't really available and the technology was really hard to access.

Of course, Radio Shack. I mean, they're awesome. They've been extremely successful, but now, they just kind of sell cell phone chargers, right? [laughter] And so, to get access to those electronics, it isn't just around the corner anymore. We now have to go to these big, thick, printed catalogs. And what they did with those catalogs in roughly 2000 is, they chopped them up, and they put them on-line. And this is what you get.

I don't know what a Quad 2-input NAND gate is – that first line right there – and it's 40 cents, but where's the picture? Where's the data sheet? Where's how I hook that up? Give me an example of how I would use this part. This isn't rocket science, right? But this is in 2002. They had really poor websites.

So in 2002 I thought I could do better. I knew that if I was having these problems, other folks were too.

In 2002, I was programming PIC micro-controllers. I had a Warp-13a programmer. I set it down on some bits of wire. That programmer cost me $200! When I set it down on those bits of wire, there was a spark, and some smoke came up, and I fried my $200 programmer in a couple of seconds.

I was a poor student. I didn't have the money to buy the first programmer, and here I am burning it up. So the only way I could afford another one was finding the cheapest thing I could online.

I started looking around and this company called Olimex kept popping up. And I don't know about you, but that's still how their website looks today and that doesn't really instill shopper experience to me. They don't have on-line checkout. To this day, the way that you buy – they're really good programmers, and they're very inexpensive, but you have to send them an e-mail say, “Hey, I'd like to buy this.” And they e-mail you back with the form, and they say, “Oh, no problem. It's 35 bucks plus $7 for shipping. Please fill out this form with your credit card information and fax it back to Bulgaria.” [laughter] I don't really know how to fax to Bulgaria, and I'm not really cool with that. So let's try to do something better.

And so, that's where I saw the void. I said, “Maybe I can do better.”  So I started importing these parts from Bulgaria back in 2003 just as a distributorship. Just saying, “Hey, this is really cool stuff, but I bet I can make it a little bit easier for folks to buy.” And here we are.

This isn't rocket science, right? Make it easy for folks to spend their money. It's Add to Your Cart buttons, take credit card, make it easy to checkout. Here's a picture of it. But back in 2002-2003, it was groundbreaking to have a close-up picture of electronics. I thought it was simple, but for a lot of folks, it was completely wild. What you see in the picture has taken seven years to get here and lot of IT and a lot of marketing and layout and all that fun stuff, but yep, now we have a website that sells stuff. Cool.

Most folks – if you know about Maker Faire, if you know about SparkFun, you know what these electronics are. You know about hardware. But I just want to give you a quick breakdown.

That black chip – top, left picture is a microcontroller. What is it? It 's a $2 computer that can run at 20 million things a second. Okay, cool. So I program it in whatever language I can find - Basic, C, etc - I've even seen some stuff in Java. It's pretty powerful stuff, right? You load your code on to that and every time I turn it on, it does one really simple thing.

The picture directly below it on the left is a motion sensor. I'm looking around the room. You guys don't have any motion sensors. Most security systems have the little thing in the corner of the room so that when you walk around, it detects that motion. And so, it can tell presence in the room.

The picture on top and to the right is a Servo. What can I do with a Servo? Well, you control the Servo. It's an output. So, with the microcontroller checking to see if somebody is in the room or there's some sort of movement, we can then control the motor to do something. It's 15, 20 bucks worth of parts.

The best application I've seen of these three things connected together: the Servo was connected to the power button on a blender. Why would I need to connect a motion sensor to a microcontroller to a blender? Because of the website [laughter] This gentleman had a problem with his cat jumping onto the counter. [laughter] And the way that you take care of that – you scare the cat off the counter. And it doesn't hurt the cat. The cat learns over time to keep off the counter. [laughter] But it was a problem that he had, and solved, with very inexpensive electronics. Will it ever be a consumer product? Probably not. [laughter] But did he take care of the problem? Absolutely. So, it's not the technology, it's how you apply it creatively.

Next in the pictures, over to the right, the thing that says XBee is a Wireless Module. Very simple to pass information back and forth wirelessly.

Directly below that is the Arduino board. I'm sure most of you have heard of the Arduino. It's a rather inexpensive development platform – has a microcontroller on board. It's all open source. Uses a form of C and processing and some other open source languages. Very low barrier to get started. So, the Arduino board is slowly but surely taking over the world. I heard they've shipped over 150,000 units. That's a lot of Arduino boards. Lots of instructors, lots of artists using it. Really interesting board.

Just to the left of that, it says BMP085 breakout. It's a barometric pressure sensor so sensitive that it can detect the difference between 30 centimeters of air. So if I hold it here, I get a reading. If I hold it here, I get a different reading. It's that sensitive!

This is the secret sauce to SparkFun. That sensor was developed by Bosch. They probably spent 5 to 10 million dollars developing it, tuning it, producing it, figuring out how to manufacture it, making it reliable, and what does SparkFun do? We come along, buy a few hundred of that sensor, and we soldered it to a board. Look at how much bigger it is! It's about ten times the size of the original sensor. That sensor is really cool, but you can't use it. It's surface mount. It's difficult to use. So, what SparkFun does – the secret sauce – is, we break it out. We solder it to a board. We make it a little bigger. And we test it to make sure that it works. And we provide you with example code.

What is it? It's a shortcut! We sell shortcuts. Yeah, you could lay out your own board. You could solder it yourself. We show you how to do all that. But, really, if your project is to get into some barometric pressure reading project, let us sell you the breakout that works and you get on to your project. SparkFun makes technology more accessible.

A lot of people ask and are surprised by where SparkFun gets its stuff. We do a lot of manufacturing in-house. We're based out of Boulder, Colorado. We have about 1600 SKUs at this time. 1600 different things that you can buy on the website – 300 of those are designed and built in-house. On the left, we've got what's called a Pick and Place Robot. Those things cost us about $50,000. It sounds like a lot. They're actually quite cheap in comparison to real manufacturing lines.

You don't need a pick and place machine to build electronics! We show you on our website how you can build surface mount electronics – you can build them by hand. You can build electronics with a $40 hot plate. At SparkFun, we did that for years! You don't get a pick and place to build electronics, you get a pick and place when you need to build 500 of something. I myself can build 20 or 30 of an item, but when we need 50, when we need a hundred, when we need 500 - that's when we finally get to the scale where these machines are necessary.

We partner with unique innovators worldwide. We collaborate with a lot of different folks. I don't have a lot of passion for – I don't know – bicycle electronics, okay? But there's some folks out there that live and breathe and die by bicycle electronics. And so, they are the best at creating this bicycle lamp. I may not be, but they are. And so, we team up with them and help them build the widget that they need built. We team up with folks that are truly innovative in their field. We thing we are the best at building and laying out PCB's. So we kind of share the innovation.

And finally, we have relationships with global manufacturers. If we're not best at creating USB cables, let's find the person that is and buy USB cables from them. Let's find the person that's best at creating the little bits and pieces that everybody's going to need – wall adaptors and all these different things. And we import them.

I was in Shen Zhen February of last year. There was just mind boggling amounts of electronics. It's like a kid in a candy store. It's so much fun, the crazy stuff over there! But this is a brand that I thought was really interesting. I don't know if you can read. It's a green laser projector. It comes from the "Newish" brand. It's the brand written on there. Doesn't that really make you want to buy it? "It's not new! It's newish!" Yeah. I thought that was entertaining.

Time for the elevator speech for SparkFun. This is the best analogy that I've heard, it comes from a friend of mine who works at a company called Acroname.

We were talking over lunch one day, and he says “You know what? SparkFun is like Home Depot.” You go to Home Depot, and you walk down the store and there's wood and there's screws and there's plaster there. But you don't expect to see a bathroom on the shelf that you can just pick up and put in your cart, right? They may have demos. They may have different things showing you how you could redo your bathroom, but they don't sell you the bathroom. That's how it works at SparkFun. We don't sell you a cell phone. We don't sell you a laser pointer. We show you the bits and pieces that you could string together to build something interesting, and we educate you how to do it. And we encourage people to do it themselves.

Down below on the right was my Heartbeat Straight Jacket Halloween costume. I wanted to show folks how to use electroluminescent wire – EL wire. It's kind of bendable plastic that has phosphorescent built inside. So when you expose it to high voltage, it lights up these brilliant colors. It's also called “cold neon” because it's like neon light, but it's flexible.

I wanted something different to put the EL wire on so I went on-line and found a site called Monkey Dungeon and bought a straightjacket. A real canvas, restricting straightjacket. And on the front of it, I put a blue heart in EL wire. And I put in another one and another one and and another one. They were individually controlled by a microcontroller – an Arduino – a high voltage source and a lithium polymer battery, so you can walk around in a straightjacket and have a beating heart. People thought this was a deep piece of art. They were like, “Oh, my God. It's like love ties you up!” And I just bought a straightjacket and put some electronics in it, [laughter] but they thought it had really deep meaning. Again, is this project ever going to be a consumer product? I hope not. But it should show you what you could do as your own EL wire project.

We never expected the number of communities to come out of this. We knew that there was going to be hobbyists. We knew that there was going to be engineers working on stuff in their garage and all these different things.

Over time, we keep getting these e-mails from people doing like bird migration. You know, RFID in nests, and trying to figure out how much they weigh when birds come and go.

Car modification.

Atmospheric research. This is one that I'm currently really into. I'm hoping to launch my high altitude balloon in a couple of weeks: It's a helium balloon that is seven feet in diameter. You let them go, and they pop at 110,000 feet, okay? You've got about four pounds that you can lift to 110,000 feet. So what do you do? You take pictures. That's an amateur Canon camera at 110,000 taking a picture of the curvature of the earth. That's amazing! We couldn't do that 10 years ago. It took military budget. It took a government grant to pull off some of this stuff. And now, we can launch it in our own backyard.

Kinesiology – measuring how the body responds to things. We have a guy who's using our accelerometers to measure base jumping. He jumps off of things, and he was wondering why his neck hurt so bad. [laughter] So you look at the accelerations. When his parachute pops, they pack this thing so tight that it actually – it's the equivalent of a mild rear-end collision! There's a lot of deceleration and forces acting on the human body and our sensors help detect that.


And of course, Burning Man. We all need blinky stuff for Burning Man. So I like to think that there's some of our stuff out there on the Playa.

Wearable electronics. The picture on the left has what's called the “LilyPad.” Some really interesting embedded electronics developed by Dr. Leah Buechley. She's in the media lab now. You sew with conductive thread, right? And you can put this into your clothing. And you can connect different parts of your clothing and have them talk to each other using conductive thread. Then, there's the musical group OK Go doing a lot with music and lighting and some really interesting YouTube videos.

And, of course, everything needs to Twitter. Everything. So, top right corner is Botanicalls. It measures soil water content and then is twitters you whenever it gets thirsty. Except it puts some snark to it. So it sends you some really mad and evil Twitters whenever you don't water your plant. [laughter]

And then, I don't know if you can tell, but in the bottom left, there's a methane sensor in his chair, right? [laughter] So it Twitters every time someone's – yeah.

And then, up in the top left – you put a band across a pregnant woman and it Twitters every time it feels baby movement. Kind of interesting.

And then, there in the middle, of course, we have the SparkFun tweeting kegerator. So every time you take a beer, it tells us what the weight contents of the keg is so that we try to never run out.

This was a post from Halloween 2009. A gentleman ran a pumpkin patch and he allowed us to use his pumpkin trebuchet. We decided to team up with him, and we stuck a bunch of electronics inside of a pumpkin and throw it down the pumpkin field. It was amazing!

Checkout the graphs. That where it hit the ground, right? We hit nearly 30 g's as that pumpkin destroyed the surface of the earth! We even broke an axis on one of our accelerometers! It threw this pumpkin 300 yards down the corn field. This thing was amazing and scary to stand next to. Why do this? Just because it's fun. Just because you get to throw electronics down a corn field.

The data analysis, if you zoom in on some of the acceleration data. You see the little blips along the curves. What are those? What is that little thing? It's the rotation of the pumpkin! We figured out the pumpkin was spinning at about 7 Hertz. You might be able to design a better trebuchet using this information. I don't know, but it's fun to look at the data and figure out how things affect the world with electronics.

I don't know if you guys saw this home page post a few months back. Electronics: Everything we build can be used for good and for bad. And so, a couple of months ago – we generally post good stuff on our home page. “Hey, check it out – pumpkin throwing, model rocketry, kid's soldering.” All sorts of things like that.

We got an e-mail from a customer who said, “I don't want to make it public. I just wanted you guys to know in a private e-mail that on the front cover of the Waterloo News in Canada was this article.” It's a gentleman holding up electronics and everything is kind of fuzzy and the only thing that you can see in focus is [laughter] written across this chunk of electronics.”

In Canada, you go to grocery store, you buy all your stuff, at checkout, they hand you this little piece of electronics, you swipe your credit card, type in your pin number, and hand it back to the person checking you out. Well, this had been going on for awhile and something had broken, so that hand-held device went in for repair. And when they opened it up, there was a bunch of extra electronics that shouldn't have been there, right? And it said, “SparkFun” - uh, oh. [laughter] Someone had been modifying these to log the credit card numbers. And then, they would walk into the grocery store with their cell phone and, over bluetooth, download all the credit card numbers, right? This is a very bad application of electronics. This is using electronics for bad. But it is going to happen? Yes. Should we stop selling that bluetooth module because of it? I don't think so.

We sell thousands and thousands of those bluetooth modules. I saw one being used earlier today to control robots over cell phone and do all sorts of cool stuff with electronics. So bad things happen. we need to be aware of that and try as a community to direct away from that and do good things with electronics.

And then, on Adultswim, the LED Mooninite. It was a marketing stunt for Comedy Central. A PR firm put together some LED signs, and that is a character from that series. And they put theses signs up around Boston. Well, Boston PD didn't think too highly of this and described them as “bombs.” They thought that they were they were terrorist activity. And the PR firm and everybody got in a lot of trouble. It's an LED, right? How can we educate the community to know the difference between safe electronics and unsafe electronics? This is just a sign. So I thought that that was kind of interesting.

What's that other photo? The Ugly. That's just TJ in receiving, and he's very ugly obviously. We do all of our internal product photos of all of our products and we give them a little freedom and creativity and they get kind of wild. Those are our new lab coats. So the good, the bad, the ugly, right?

We sort of described what the new rules of electronics are. And this goes back to when I was an electrical engineering student. I was made afraid of hooking stuff up. “Are you absolutely sure that it's correct? Have you got it hooked up backwards? Have you got the right voltage?” All these things. And I never really got to tinker much. I was always going through the steps and doing these different things.

What I learned is that you really just have to plug it in, right? And if something goes wrong, unplug it. It's not the end of the world. It's actually kind of hard to destroy an ATmega328. It's kind of hard to destroy an Arduino. There's thousands of them out there, and those things are rock solid. The worst thing that you do is reverse power on something. You go, “Ooh. Oh, shoot! I hooked it up wrong.” You un plug it, and then plug it in the right way – it'll probably still work! Electronics are being built more and more robust every day.

Don't worry about it. If it sparks, unplug, right? That was kind of fun actually, right? I've learned the most whenever stuff sparks! You learn a lot from your failures. If it smokes, “Man, that was fun.” Turn it off. If it heats up, check it and plug it back in, right? Some things need to heat up.

Yes sir! >>Male audience member: You had the blender example at the beginning and said you sell stuff that integrate electronics with high power equipment like 120 volts.

Nathan Seidle: good question. So how do you interface to like main power – 120 volt/220 volt – stuff like that? As an embedded engineer that does most of his stuff with batteries, 120 volts scares me – 110 volts, stuff like that. We do have some high power relays. We do have some tutorials. The reflow toaster controller is one where we try to turn on and off a toaster oven to help with reflow. We also have the PowerSwitch Tail that allow you from a 5-volt pin to turn on and off a very good extension cord effectively. So, that is a big problem to turn on and off blenders, but there's lots of ways to hack it. Be safe. If you're messing with 120, be very safe. But if you're messing with batteries, especially alkalines, they'll internally limit themselves and shut themselves down.

Don't be afraid of trying something new. That's why I started SparkFun Electronics. Whenever I was trying something new – I was working on that microcontroller project – that's when my programmer sparked and died. But you see that's when I was having the most fun! It's when you're right out there on the edge, when you have fun and create the most.

The picture in the background is the GPS wall clock. At SparkFun, we were selling GPS modules. And I wanted to show people that GPS gives you longitude and latitude. But a lot of folks didn't realize that it's very accurate time. So I went to Home Depot, and bought a bunch of materials. And, you know, you could build a clock, right? With little 7-segment displays. Or you could build a 24 inch per segment 12 foot long GPS clock, right? It lights up the office green!

And the best part was when we had just put this up. I don't know if you can tell, but there's an LCD monitor sitting right underneath it. That was Eric's desk back in the day. He was one of the employees at SparkFun. So he's working there on the computer. And Pete, one of the jokers in the office would walk by and say, “Hey, Eric!” And Eric would turn around, “Yeah, Pete.” Pete would go, “Hey, Eric – do you have the time?” Eric would go [looking down]. “Yeah Pete it's 3:15.” “Oh, thanks.” Pete would walk back by. “Hey, Eric. Do you know what time it is?” “Dude, it's like 3:45, why do you keep asking me?” And the joke is that there's a giant clock directly behind him. And Pete just kept pulling Eric's leg – he had no idea.

The GPS wall clock is a tutorial now. And Google – we love Google and Google loves us, right? We like to be seen as a resource. We like to be seen as a place that you can go to get information. Because of that, we were ranked very well. So when you Google “GPS clock,” we show up second or third behind Wikipedia, behind better resource sites. But this tutorial pops up very high which educates people and then drives traffic to our website. So that's a lot of how we get our traffic and new customers.

That's effectively it. Trevor, could you give me a buzz? This was the Port-O-Rotary project that we did back in 2005. This was one of our first tutorials. In 2005 the Motorolla Razr had just come out and the Motorolla Razr was the smallest, the lightest, the weirdest phone out there. [phone rings] So my friends and I had a bar bet about who could build the biggest, noisiest, heaviest phone? [phone rings] And so, we all joked about it. Who could build – and I was like, “Ah, that'd be really funny if it was this giant noisy thing.” But in the back of my mind, I went home thinking, “maybe I could pull this off.”

Where do you find the biggest, heaviest rotary phones? Of course on Ebay. I don't have one sitting around. And it took a couple of weeks to come in but when it arrived I tore our all the insides. Put in a cell phone module. And now, we have a rotary cellular phone, okay? [laughter] I get really funny looks from bouncers taking this out to bars. [laughter] Right? They say, “What are you doing with that?” “It's my cell phone.” “No, it's not. What are you doing with that?” they're afraid I'm going to hit somebody with it, right?

So we wrote a tutorial about the project. We said, “Hey, this is what we did.” You can actually dial out on it. So there's a microcontroller inside that looks at the switches. There's a technical write up about how you decode the rotary. Oh, it's got a touch interface by the way, right? Sorry, bad joke. [laughter] It works pretty well. We wrote the tutorial and over the next couple of days our site went down! There was so much traffic from all these different sources, and we got written up in the New York Times, right? That's the article.

People went crazy over this retro effect thing. And we got hundreds of e-mails asking, “Oh, my god, where can I buy one?” And we said, “No, no, no. It's a tutorial. It's there to show you how to build it yourself.”  Of course this wasn't enough. We kept getting e-mails so we said “Okay, fine.” I had the parts to build two of these. One was built – worked kind of okay. And I had the parts to build another one. So I said, “Well, the parts cost me 150 bucks.” Maybe we could sell it for 200 bucks an make some profit. “No, no – let's make it 300. No! Let's make it $400 so that nobody buys one.” [Laughter] Well, we've been selling them ever since. [laughter] So, it was very cool. So now, when you Google “rotary phone,” I like to brag that we show up second behind Wikipedia, right? And that's exactly where we should be. We're not Wikipedia - they are the real resource. But there's this weird tutorial that everybody links to about this rotary phone hack. So that's where SparkFun lives.

I hope you learned something new about SparkFun! Thanks for reading!


Comments 57 comments

  • Philb / about 12 years ago / 3

    I'm guessing another prerequisite in forming a fantastic business is not requiring much sleep at all.
    Great work Nate, and please take care. Humans produce invisible smoke when there's too much 'current draw'.

    • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

      Invisible if you're lucky.

      • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

        But yeah, take it easy Nate, we'd hate to see you burst like a bad cap, lol

  • graynomad / about 12 years ago / 2

    Great talk and really interesting to hear about SF's beginnings.
    And speaking of jobs at Sparkfun (well someone did), I can't believe that EE job is still going, SF sounds like such a great place to work and the projects so interesting I'd almost do it for nothing.

    • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

      I know, I can't believe it either...
      Hey, maybe SF can capitalize on their geek-appeal and sucker a group of desperate EEs to split the salary, hahaha.
      ...(probably not a good idea on second thought, but a creative solution none-the-less, lol)

  • Qema / about 12 years ago / 2

    Hey Nate did you must have blocked out the old site search. Thats the day I remember the most in SF history.
    Great speech BTW. I graduated from EE 2 years before you and I still remember the days upon days upon days that it took to manually go though the Electrosonic catalog (which use to cost $100) and then find the datasheets in the library/contact the manufacturers.
    I hate to say it but Sparkfun and Google taught me more about electronics then 4 years of EE.

  • CrashOverride / about 12 years ago / 2

    I dont see how breaking equipment is "fun" only makes me feel like "what a waste of money"... but I guess you can afford to be wasteful. "First-Time Success" is my idea of fun.

    • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

      "Mess with the best... die like the rest?"
      Good handle.
      Oh, but dude, you're missin' the point. Check it out, when you release the "magical blue smoke" from a box (especially the expensive ones) you learn something! Learning and then applying what you learned is the fun part! Imagine you're just meeting someone for the first time at a Hackerspace or MakerFaire or what-have-you. If they tell you the story of the time they built this big complicated blinky and it worked the first time, you'd probably think he was a big jerk for bragging... BUT if he told you about the time his brand new Arduino Mega caught on fire and so he roasted marshmallows... probably a good guy.
      Anyway, Hack the planet, ZeroCool.

  • GHH / about 12 years ago / 2

    Pretty cool, congrats.
    Nate's becoming quite the guest lecturer isn't he?

    • Thanks! I'm actually packing my bag for a trip to West Point this morning. Why they want a fuzzy Boulder hippie to come speak to the cadets is beyond me, but I'm excited!

  • Member #221595 / about 12 years ago * / 1

    Edit, Please delete this comment

  • Member #221595 / about 12 years ago * / 1

    Edit, Please delete this comment

  • Member #221595 / about 12 years ago * / 1

    Edit, Please delete this comment

  • Member #221595 / about 12 years ago * / 1

    I looked at Monkey Dungeon and their straight jackets seemed a bit pricey. Anyone ever try this Straight Jacket

  • Ravenkallen / about 12 years ago / 1

    I love the chronicles of Sparkfun...It is a very inspiring story and it tells of a man who had ambition and did something with it...Nate went from making stuff in his bedroom, to becoming the CEO of a multimillion dollar company. Keep up the good work guys

  • Kevin Vermeer / about 12 years ago / 1

    That website from 2002 (like Olimex) still looks the same:
    They're still doing business, and they've still got good deals. Their customer service is old-fashioned, just like their website.

  • lukeiamyourfather / about 12 years ago / 1

    The presentation was a pleasure to read/watch. What you said about repeat customers peaking and then tapering off is true at least for me. Not that I don't like what is for sale, just now that I know more about what I'm looking for it isn't always here. Though my first Arduino and a bunch of other stuff has come from here!

  • Microzoul / about 12 years ago / 1

    Nathan is my hero

  • TimZaman / about 12 years ago / 1

    wow nathan really seems like a great guy

  • dmw / about 12 years ago / 1

    thanks for the awesome story of the background of Sparkfun! I only discovered the website last year when a prof of mine showed it to me (go Leah!) and I've been enjoying it ever since! Its a great resource for the hobbyist and tinkerer.

  • ratatosk76 / about 12 years ago / 1

    Just wanted to say thanks for trying to educate people.
    I'm taking a microcontroller class at the moment and I put in a big order to Sparkfun at the beginning of the semester - 7 segment displays, the extra-fancy LCD screen, LEDs, etc.
    When the TAs come by to grade my lab projects, they always comment on how nice my hardware is. The big 7 segments really came in handy since I could plug them into my bread board vertically where the leads weren't shorted to each other. Everyone else had these little, hard to read 7 segs that you have to plug in horizontally and rotate the whole bread board to read them.
    Starting senior design next semester and I'll probably be putting in a few more large orders...

  • Stonewall / about 12 years ago / 1

    "In Canada, you go to grocery store..."
    So just wait, you don't have debt and credit card pin pads in the states? You likely could have helped catch the person by narrowing down who you sold that module too in that part of the country (with proper legal paperwork).
    Overall an interesting article to read since I myself have been in the electronics field for over 10 years.

    • NXTreme / about 12 years ago / 1

      Oops! Sorry, I'm wrong. The pin pad actually was stolen from the store, not removed for servicing like I thought. Seems like it'd be obvious...

    • NXTreme / about 12 years ago / 1

      They do have credit card pin pads in the States too but they're usually bolted to the counter quite well, unlike some stores in Canada where they're just attached with a little metal cable. It all depends on where in Canada/The States you are and which store your in. Although in this case it wouldn't have helped as the store had sent the pin pads to be replaced anyways. I suggest you read the comments on that post.

  • Awesomenesser / about 12 years ago / 1

    Seeing that you are a "sensor guy" have you seen anything recently about very cheap laser range finder or lidar. Right now these sensors cost a $1000 and up. It would be amazing for small robotics if we could get a less accurate version for less than $100. I have read articles about how has developed such a sensor for their electronic vacuum. I just wish I could buy just the sensor.

  • NXTreme / about 12 years ago / 1

    Quite a neat write-up! That is the most complete history of SparkFun I've seen. The one thing that I didn't see was a mention of Free Day. I think that FD is an important part of SF history, maybe that's just me :). I think you should add parts of this to the "About Us" page, or at least a link to this page.

    • All very good points. I somehow forgot to put FreeDay on the timeline. Definitely needs to go on there.

  • balboajeff / about 12 years ago / 1

    About 6 months ago some of the kids from my High school tech team saw you speak at Club Workshop.Ever since then they are on fire , I can trace at least 5 really cool projects they will be competing with this year to that day.Way to go, Thanks,

  • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

    I just found the time (at 5 in the morning) to watch the video: Just awesome, dude.
    And let me tell you, as someone who tackled the opposite problem that you did (I'm learning business in school and teaching myself engineering), don't go to school for business, haha, you seem to have it under control.

  • Calif / about 12 years ago / 1

    "really interesting"

  • Richard Hart / about 12 years ago / 1

    It's really great to stop and look back and see how far SparkFun has come in just a few short years.
    It's even more exciting to imagine where SparkFun will be going a few short years from now!
    One thing that's of utmost importance, Nate, as you grow your company: Don't forget your past, and don't forget that people, both employees and customers, ARE SparkFun. The cheapest way is not always the "best" way. American business failed to remember those simple phrases a few years ago, and America has yet to recover. America will recover, and it will be thanks to companies like SparkFun when it does.
    The best compliment I could pay SparkFun is to say this: If I had a son or daughter who was starting out in electrical engineering, warehousing, public relations, IT, or human relations, I'll tell them to move to Boulder and get a job working for SparkFun. There's a company that is going places!
    Can't wait for the next retrospective, Nate!
    Good luck!

  • lawrah / about 12 years ago / 1

    Loved hearing about the history behind Sparkfun, I find it inspiring that you've managed to build a company from the ground up and now process 10,000 orders a month. :)

  • tiagofumo / about 12 years ago / 1

    don't know if nathan is gonna see this...
    but, I was looking at the adafruit job section and sparkfun's job section and I would like to ask you "what you think about having a employee that is not with you in sparkfun?"...
    I mean, over this time with sparkfun and stuff, what you think about having a guy that is living in europe or asia and work for you by doing what you ask him to do and sending you back, all via e-mails and stuff and not being with you in boulder colorado? do you think it's kinda not productive or something? (this is not me asking for a job lol, but trying to figure out what the companies think about this kind of job)
    ps: bad english =S

    • ThiSel / about 12 years ago / 1

      I agree with tiago!
      If Sparkfun needed some outsourcing and I can provide what they need; that would be awesome news to me!

    • Hi! Good question - in general we don't allow for 'work from home' meaning all employees do work from the office in Boulder. I believe there is a lot of culture sharing and education that comes from working beside someone. Technology has not yet created a decent replacement for this.
      Will this change in the future? Perhaps, but for now it is fairly important to be with us here in Boulder.

  • AustinSpafford / about 12 years ago / 1

    Great presentation!
    Also, thank you for the writeup! (I was listening while scrolling down through the slides)

  • CoryW / about 12 years ago / 1

    Awesome presentation! I never thought about how daunting entering the world of electronics was, but now I've come to realize just how useful SparkFun is.
    Without the tutorials, product descriptions, and forums, I might not have ever purchased my first Arduino, then some more components, then $300 worth of more supplies!
    Thanks Nate, and thanks SparkFun staff!

  • tiagofumo / about 12 years ago / 1

    nate: "we will talk with shipping about that"
    nate: "yes?"

  • CrashOverride / about 12 years ago / 1

    Good designs do not fail from anything but solar flares, EMP, or manufacturing defects. If you do it right on paper the first time you never need to waste hardware. Anyone who claims to have learned something from magical blue smoke should have read the manual a bit better. Roasting marshmallows above burning epoxy-glass is not healthy either.

    • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

      ++good, man, Grady said it better than me.
      But yeah, you're right a good design should never fail, that's what "good" means,
      be easy, man, I'm not condoning setting piles of money on fire :) I just love stories where something goes wrong and people make the best of it (Okay roasting marshmallows=not that creative) But yeah, no one sets out to blow stuff up, but when you do it should be (just like you're sayin') not because you designed it poorly, but because by the nature of your work you're pushing the boundaries on what you know and what works.
      Also Hackers FTW, a young Jolie (yes, please)
      Also, given what I can collect of your attitude towards engineering (I'm always trying to get other people's viewpoints on "making") what did you think of the Antimov contest?

    • The idea of "breaking hardware being fun" is a bit misleading. The idea behind Nate's statement, I believe, is that you are having the most fun when you are pushing yourself to your limits. When you do this, yeah, you might break something. But frying hardware isn't the real fun part, and definitely not the goal. The idea is to be on the edge, learning and discovering new things you might not otherwise if you didn't push yourself. I think it goes without saying that it's never really a good thing to break your hardware - otherwise we'd all be holding sledge hammers instead of soldering irons.

  • TBaumg / about 12 years ago / 1

    Lol ? I bought an Olimex PIC programmer from you (off of eBay) back in 2003! I think your user name was Sparkfun, wasn't it? Not sure if you even had the website up yet.
    At that time, I figured you were working out of your basement or something (guess I was right :-). I?m glad you turned it into to what it is now!

    • Omg - yep. We (ok I) did that too. Back before we had any tutorials, one of the ways we got our name out was selling various bits (programmers and parts) on Ebay. I'm still 'sparkfun' on Ebay but we don't use Ebay anymore. What a blast from the past - thanks for the reminder! And thanks for sticking with us all these years.

  • N.Poole / about 12 years ago / 1

    New Rules of Electronics, FTW.
    Nathan, man... you are certainly a guy after my own heart. It's exciting to see the changes that are happening in the world of Engineering and Tinkering. People are starting to get that an engineering degree doesn't make you an engineer... We live in a physical world and everything we do is "applied physics," if you start paying close enough attention to it, it's too late, you're already an engineer. (sorry) lol.
    I look forward to watching the speech later (no time now) but really great stuff, this is exactly the kind of story I'd like to have in a few years.
    Good stuff.

  • BigPupChuck07 / about 12 years ago / 1

    Great Read!!!
    (Couldn't watch the video while sitting in my Data Structures class)
    Nate you are my hero!
    These Sparkfun post always give me the drive to continue thinking out of the box, and step away from the norm. It's awesome to read about how you got started.

  • SomeGuy123 / about 12 years ago * / 1

    I had no idea Sparkfun used to be that small.

  • khearn / about 12 years ago / 1

    Nate, I was there for your Google presentation, and really enjoyed it. Speaking as a former West Point Cadet, I'm sure you'll be well received there, too. Just remember, many of those clean-shaven cadets in your audience were long-haired high school kids just a couple of years ago. Inside the uniform, they're just intelligent people, like any other of your customers.

  • Nakor / about 12 years ago / 1

    Holy mega post batman. Awesome read.

    • Ya, sorry about that. I personally can't handle a 40minute video so I wanted to transcribe the bulk of the stories. And then you have a holy batman sized post.

  • tomas. / about 12 years ago / 1

    Nice presentation!
    The typesetting in those slides looks off, though.

  • JRMorrisJr / about 12 years ago / 1

    Nate, is the Sparkfun logo modeled after your hair? This could be a trivia question folks!

  • JimmySticks2001 / about 12 years ago / 1

    Awesome video. As a regular shopper here it was very interesting to learn the history of sparkfun.

  • Hey Nate, thanks for including the Mooninite! Not sure if you are aware or not, but that PR firm that did the marketing campaign for Cartoon Network is Interference Inc...the company I work at now, thanks to you and everyone else who encouraged and helped me learn more about electronics!

    • I think I knew your firm was of Mooninite fame - it's awesome to hear that you're doing more with what you learned. I have no doubt you will go far. Lemme know if you create the 'next' Mooninite :)

  • phalanx / about 12 years ago / 1

    So you're saying there is a chance that my original Olimex ICD1 spent some time on your bed? I should have it bronzed just in case!

    • Hi Bill! That was forever ago! I can pretty much guarantee your OCD1 programmer made it's way across my room :)

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