Finding Balance and the Road Ahead

CEO Glenn Samala takes us through his journey with SparkFun, how he found the perfect balance with founder Nate, and his amazement at what our customers are capable of creating, all while wishing SparkFun a happy 20th.

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It's hard to believe that SparkFun turned twenty this year. It’s even harder to believe that I’ve been part of this ride for six of those years.

If you have grown up with SparkFun you know our story. For those not familiar with it, SparkFun was started by a college student (Nathan Seidle) in his dorm room - completely bootstrapped - and it all started because he fried an electronic component and had a bit of a challenge getting a replacement. College courses are fine (text books, lectures, etc.), but Nate had this itch to get his hands dirty on the tech he was learning about in class. Here is a great read from Nate on how it all got started when we hit our 15-year anniversary.

SparkFun hired me when they were approaching their 14-year mark. Before joining, I was working for a large Fortune Company where I had spent most of my career. I am not an engineer – I have a business degree. I grew up in a so-called “corp” environment wearing a suit in the early years (remember those days?) – Nate is an entrepreneur in Boulder that likes finding unique T-shirts. I am an immigrant that was born in the Philippines and grew up in New York – Nate was born and raised in Oklahoma. I am a College Football fan (Go Tigers!) – Nate is confused why it’s called Football. And, while I generally dislike the social marketing of generational buckets, I am a so-called Gen-X'er and Nate is a Millennial.

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We couldn’t be more opposite if we tried. Was there a high level of anxiety and doubt (internally & externally) for SparkFun’s founder-to-CEO transition? You bet. And not just because Nate and I have opposing experiences and perspectives, but statistically speaking, most founder-to-CEO transitions fail - dramatically. Not to mention the changes that SparkFun was going through at the time I was hired.

These changes were not unique. Yes, there are always some interesting and idiosyncratic challenges with every organization going through change. But at the core was a startup company navigating the challenges of a maturing market and model. I joined at the end of 2016, and we were all thrown into the mix to figure out how to make this work.

And that was the obvious question on top of everyone’s mind when I started – how are we going to make it work?

I could write a few chapters in a book reflecting on all the things that we managed through (particularly that first year) that helped us find the balance between Founder and CEO, but I won’t. Mainly because I’m still on this ride, and it is a continuous balance. And partly because many of the things I would reflect on are personal and not mine alone to tell – the change management at the time was a heavy lift by many.

I will share, however, how finding this CEO/Founder balance started. It’s a long story, but the short version is after three months on the job, Nate was ready and willing to find another office in downtown Boulder. The feeling of uncertainty and anxiety in the organization was so high that the tension had become unhealthy. Nate’s recommendation was to remove himself, to disappear and make it clear he wasn’t going to stand in the way of change and progress, and that there was no turning back (think Viking Funeral, as he put it). Remember – Nate’s an Engineer- remove all variables.

I was not aligned with Nathan moving off-site. Remember – I’m not an Engineer. From the beginning, and even during my interview process, I made it clear that the CEO and Founder scenario would be a packaged deal. This was important to me from a strategic and cultural perspective long term, and we needed to figure it out.

This push and pull is a weekly occurrence with me and Nate but it’s not unique to the CEO and Founder – I expect it from everyone that works here. We listen, understand each other’s perspective, lean on each other’s expertise, and help move the organization forward by making decisions. Painfully obvious and straightforward, but it is always complicated by the human element – the failure rates tell the real story of how complicated this is. Making it work takes commitment and trust.

Lucky for me and Nathan, we were able to surround ourselves with the right people at the right time to help us along the way. Many of which are still with us to this day.

SparkFun isn’t the same company it was 5 years ago, and if we do it right, we'll continue to evolve and be a different company 5 years from now. At our core we are the same – we want tech accessible to the masses. But what really motivates us is seeing how SparkFun is helping to solve problems and make ideas happen. SparkFun “in the wild” internal email strings are common – here are a few over the years.

Medical Applications

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A group out of Florida uses our magnetic sensors to detect orientation in space of a laparoscopic device to teach medical procedures.

Young Minds Using Our Stuff

Exactly how this all started.

Tracking Sea Ice & Polar Bears

When Jean Rabault was looking for a cheaper and more compact way to collect data on sea ice for the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, he looked to the Artemis Global Tracker (AGT) as an alternative.

Countless prototype projects.

Weed Warden is for automating weed detection in agriculture, using our spectral triad sensor.

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Half of our business is now B2B, so I can’t share some of the other exciting things that our puzzle pieces are being used for. We were honored and excited when companies like NASA publicly mentioned purchasing from SparkFun a few years back when Ingenuity launched. We also appreciate it when larger companies showcase some of our Red in a YouTube video - like this behind the scenes look into Dyson’s Perception Lab (Look closely at 2:28).

The truth is, name any well-known tech company out there that actually does hardware prototyping, and our products are likely in there.

And yes, we’ve shown up on the big screen but usually doing nefarious things which we do not like. But we 'finally made it’ (apparently, according to the younger circle at office) when we showed up in a video game.

SparkFun Qwiic Button - Red LED

SparkFun Qwiic Button - Red LED

BOB-15932
$4.95
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A little over 6 years later I am still here, and Nathan is still in the building. I continue to be amazed at how our products are being used and where they end up in the wild – from deep in our oceans to 146 million miles away in space.

The impact is what motivates me. Not only externally in terms of how we are helping different markets innovate one project and one idea at a time but internally. Watching how the organization has changed and grown over the years has been one the most challenging and rewarding things I have done in my career. Sure – I’ve been through organizational and model changes before but this one was different. Not only did you have a model/market change going on (SparkFun helped start the Maker Movement, and that market was changing) but you also had a company that was extremely young and grew up at SparkFun. Remember – Nate started this company in his early twenties, so he hired who he knew. Young and extremely talented individuals.

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Navigating and finding this balance of an old world vs. new world was a bit challenging (not to mention the macro events of this Covid era). But for me, I knew the long-term success had to look a little bit like my Thanksgiving dinner at home. You take the best recipes from each culture to the table and make it your own and that is what we will continue to do.

I am beyond grateful for my Senior Leadership and the Collective Management team that has been with me through all these years. I'm truly humbled by the trust and support that Nathan has given me. And I am in awe of the commitment of so many of the employees at SparkFun.

Twenty is young – we’re just getting started. I’m looking forward to what is ahead. I know we all are.


Comments 4 comments

  • Member #134773 / about a year ago / 3

    Congratulations, Glenn, on surviving the transition and to both you and Nate, as well as all the folks at SparkFun, for making it work and continue to work!

    I am looking forward to seeing what you do in coming years, but I very strongly urge you to always remember (and consider the needs of) the folks who gave SparkFun their start. An excellent example of a time-tested "major player" that started out in the hobbyist market is Digi-Key: back in the early 1970s, getting ahold of datasheets (at least for hobbyists) was nearly impossible -- Digi-Key's catalog (long before the Internet) had critical data, such as physical dimensions for the various capacitors that they carried. Today, this info is easily obtained via the Internet, but today, although Digi-Key is one of the largest suppliers and is relied on by major manufacturers, often for millions of parts, they're still willing to sell a few parts to a hobbyist.

    BTW, I should also mention how much I appreciate your fantastic web site! It makes so many other companies' sites look like something that belongs in a septic tank...

    Again, congrats to one of my favorite companies!

    • Glenn S / about a year ago / 0

      Thank you for your support!

      Remember - Always. Tech in the hands of many vs. a few is something that will not change here.

  • Congratulations Kuya Glenn, you're incredible! Wishing you and the team continued success.

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