Bootstrapped, Profitable, and Proud: SparkFun


SparkFun certainly comes from humble roots - namely our CEO Nate Seidle's grungy college apartment (I'm taking some creative liberties here - I have no idea if it was actually "grungy" or not, but if it was anything like my college apartment, it certainly was!). Anyways, things have certainly changed a lot in the last 8-ish years.


Add about 10 or so people to this and you have where SparkFun currently stands.

SparkFun has grown from a college student's solution for hard to find parts to an "electronics enabler" employing over 100 people in departments like engineering, production, shipping, customer service, tech support, marketing communications, inventory, and HR. It has been a really wild ride and the changes SparkFun has gone through have been nothing short of amazing.


Our fearless leader, Nathan Seidle.

If you are interested in SparkFun's roots and how, exactly, we got where we are, here's a nice interview with SparkFun Founder and CEO Nate Seidle from the 37Signals blog. In the article, Nate talks about his initial business "strategy," where we find SparkFun now, and where he sees us going in the future. He also offers some advice for those trying to start their own business and addresses some of the difficulties and challenges one will face.

If you want to learn a bit about our history, give the article a read. You can also leave some feedback in the comments on the article (or here, for that matter) and we will try to answer them as best we can. Cheers!


Comments 41 comments

  • Nate, If you ever find yourself with a little spare time (:-) maybe you could think about starting a SparkFun electronics hobbyist magazine. I’d subscribe.
    My current favorites are Elektor and Circuit Cellar but they have their peculiarities… Elektor definitely has a European parts bias, and Circuit Cellar can swing from interesting to not, depending on the theme of the month. Servo is a good one too if you’re interested in robo-gladiators.
    There seems to be room for a high end electronics hobby magazine for people who are tired of one transistor siren circuits… Maybe one that has some coding, sensors, microprocessors, displays, and other advanced projects.
    Leverage the brand!

    • Make is just kick ass. I dont know why you wouldn’t list that one. Not all of it is Electronics tho..

    • Another one you might want to check out is Nuts & Volts.
      http://www.nutsvolts.com/
      I think that if SparkFun had a mag, this would be it.
      edit: In fact, they blogged about your AVC

    • @BT: If you haven’t already, have a look at www.circuitcellar.com

    • Publishing a magazine in addition to running SparkFun would be tough, but a column and/or regular project articles in Make magazine might be feasible. A lot of projects in Make are based on SparkFun products anyway.
      After a couple of years the columns/articles could be collected into a book, eventually becoming a series of books.

  • One day, I shall be in this picture. Once I finish this whole college dealio…

    • And I after you. That assumes that sparkfun is still the way it is today in 8 years…

        1. Thats for everyone on my robotics team :D
        • I wish my robotics team stopped playing minecraft long enough to care, or even learn what sparkfun was.

          • I wish my robotics team knew anything that doesn’t involve first robotics! Once I saw the Arduino, I was hooked. Now I despise vex and first competitions (but I despised first even before that).

            • Well… I mean my robotics class. My robotics team is Snobbotics and only one other person is in there who probably hates first more than I do!

    • Sit in your garage for four years making stuff and invite some friends over just so you don’t go crazy and you’ll probably be a better maker. You could do your own production runs with all the money that most people spend on college and build up your own product line which would give you a pretty sweet resume. It is crazy the amount of debt people rack up to get a degree just to end up jobless.

      • +1
        I would be very curious to see the numbers on how many employees have degrees vs those that do not. I am not currently going to school, however I have a passion for this stuff and sites like sparkfun make the information available. A classroom can show you the door, but if you do not have the passion or ambition to walk through it, what is the point? I would love to work for these guys and get the impression that they would put a pretty high value on passion for the field and knowledge. Then again I work in web hosting which is a field that has no real college courses devoted to it and as a result we have to rely on passionate smart driven people as opposed to a degree.

        • You may even want to add “relevant” degrees into your study – we have quite a few degree-holding SparkFunners as well as a few SparkFunners holding multiple degrees, but not all of us are using them in the traditional sense. This supports your idea about the passion! :)

          • You all have said very true things, but my parents have set me on a course for a degree. I have a friend(softmore)[yea you will_300!] who will be doing something like what ScubaSonar said

    • +1

  • The world lacks more ‘SparkFun’ style companies …
    Not only in our field…

  • Nate needs to write a book, or find someone to write a book about his life.
    Also, what’s the story behind the SparkFun red?

    • I just assumed the red was a pop culture reference to the “Red Shirt Guy” on Star Trek. The unknown guy that comes out of nowhere and is the only one wearing a red shirt… He’s always the first to take a slug in every episode.
      I can just imagine Nate saying “I don’t know what I’m doing! Why am I here? Why am I wearing a red shirt?”

      • My favorite comment from the crowd at the first Maker Faire where we all wore our SparkFun shirts:
        “I would be VERY worried about taking this many redshirts on an away mission!”

      • Look closely at the girl in the front row. Although it’s not super evident, she appreciates Star Trek Red Shirt Guy…

        • You mean the super hot one with the blue shirt over the red shirt? That one? The one with a name suspiciously similar to your posting name?

    • SparkFun got a redesign back in the summer of ‘08. Back then MarComm was two people and IT was two people. Or maybe three apiece. It’s hard to remember.
      At any rate we can thank AnnDrea, our director of MarComm, for coming up with the new design that was centered around SparkFun red. The new look was contentious at first (just read some of the comments on that old news post) but in time the few naysayers stopped saying nay just as the vocal contingent of proponents gradually halted the compliments.
      Of course, by now if you’re a developer in IT you have the hex value #F03528 burned into your brain.

  • Just Awesome and admirable!

  • My congratulations and best wishes to everyone at SparkFun Electronics.
    You’ve all built a great company, and I expect you’ll continue to do a great job going forward.
    Gratz again, and thanks!

  • A great story from a great man, and a great company. I’m proud to be a customer. Your EAGLE tutorials got me started with EAGLE, your AVR tutorials got me started with raw AVR, and your bite-sized (or is it byte-sized) tutorials are still great short reference links.
    One more thing: I’m not sure if this is intentional, but when you linked that group image, it linked to your amazon S3 account, http://sfecdn.s3.amazonaws.com, which seems somewhat open in that I could access any number of the files listed on that link. Looked like a lot of education worksheets and datasheets, nothing damaging, but still might be something to check to make sure there isn’t a larger issue there.
    Thanks again for all of the company’s hard work, keep it up!

  • I don’t see many post-50s types in this photo. That’s interesting. So is the proportion of beards (on the guys, I mean :)!
    On Roger’s posting about the dearth of DIY stores : in Australia there are 2 national DIYers aimed at electronics enthusiasts, Jaycar and Altronics. But they’re aimed at very low-level stuff - components, solder, heatshrink, some ICs - or the very high-level stuff - car audio, USB hubs, gimmicks, shock machines, inverters, pro audio - with nothing in between.
    Dick Smith has degraded into something very similar to Tandy (what we used to cal Radio Shack) - big stores selling phones and XBox games and DVDs, with a tiny corner of the building where you can buy a packet of resistors or a cheap, nasty Chinese electronic micrometer for $4.99.
    The ONLY place to go is overseas, and the ONLY place overseas where we could easily shop (i.e. without bank routing paperwork and telegraphic transfers, like Mouser or Digikey used to be) was Sparkfun.
    Well done to everyone involved, and thanks for giving us Aussies a place to get creative with!

    • @PCPete: I agree about the Aussie suppliers generally, but have found www.dontronics-shop.com to be good for some things.
      But I love Sparkfun too!!

  • Before Sparkfun, the electronics hobby scene was dead. Radio Shack became a shell of itself, only selling cell phones. It was looking grim. Nate has made electronics more fun and accessible than ever before. Thank you!

    • I have to agree with Roger here. There are, and have been, resources similar to SparkFun in the past. What really sets them apart is the community created here, something crucial to anything “open source”. Many companies sell similar products, but very few offer a platform for members to communicate with each other, to share knowledge and experience.
      That is why SparkFun will prevail!
      BTW: Is it just me, or did they put nearly all of the girls in the front of the pic?

      • It’s just that you can’t SEE the girls in the back, because we’re shorter than most of the guys :)

        • Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to see an influx of women in this field. I can easily count over 10 ladies in the front row or two and maybe 8 in the rest of the picture. Could be the guys are trying to hide in the back. :) Or being chivalrous about the champagne.

      • Hard to believe, I know, but it truly happened randomly. Perhaps it was a rush to sip the celebratory champagne. :)

    • I disagree with this. There have been dozens of DIY magazines that I have subscribed to for the last 2 decades. There have been others before this (“Polyphony” comes to mind, now “Electronic Musician”).
      Also, there have been dozens of kit manufacturers and small parts suppliers. Everyone uses Radioshack at some point as a last resort!
      Its funny how RadioShack has a campaign now, trying to reclaim its DIY roots!
      Anyway, what makes Sparkfun different from all those others, is the level of sophistication in designs, and tutorials. This is thanks in part to low-cost flash microcontrollers, and other parts, and high-speed high-bandwidth internet. There has always been a spirit of sharing, with smart people doing smart things (Paia comes to mind. RIP John Simonton)!
      Oh yeah, and the blog! The BLOG!!
      No company’s website, that I know of, has a blog as its homepage! This is the SOLE reason I keep coming back to Sparkfun - to be part of THAT! (is that why I’m writing a freakin long entry?)

      • Well, I have to agree with dattaway2. I live overseas (Spain!) and finding hobby electronics supplies is hard for me. Common components are easy to find, but that’s it.
        AVR microcontrollers are literally unknown around here. I asked at several electronic stores and nobody ever heard about them, let alone have any stock. They tried to find, but had a hard time doing so, and only found suppliers with a minimum 1000 order per article. I found a distributor in Spain (and some more in Europe), but they’re just SparkFun’s distributors, are very short in component variety and stock, the shipping costs weren’t that cheap and the components were a bit overpriced. And I would’ve had to buy from lots of different stores to get all I needed, so no benefit there!
        The only microcontrollers I can find around are PICs, but they’re very expensive compared to SparkFun’s prices, programmers are very expensive too and not too many different models (no USB PIC for you!!) General ICs and other common components are much cheaper here, tho.
        SparkFun made my life a lot easier. Although shipping costs are expensive for me, it pays. Lots of different (and fun) articles, great prices, great customer support and a VERY nice community built around the website.
        Oh, and I appreciate the honest business too. Component descriptions are so honest, I’ve read reviews like “this article is very bad quality” or “this is a mess to drive, nobody ever got it working”. I guess it’s better to keep a customer happy than getting crappy stock out of your warehouse (specially with hackers amongst these customers hunting for cheap crap to turn into gold.) Good choice IMHO.
        No wonder why they’re callesd SparkFUN!

  • This was an inspiring article! I want so bad to design some electronics and breakouts which would be useful to others.


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