SparkFun Culture


We're a champion of our own culture. It's a huge part of who we are, and although it's changed over the years, we're very protective of what we've got going on at SparkFun day to day. Whether it's a new tattoo, puppy, project, or job opening, there's a constant state of flux. The only way to protect the culture is to try to define it, and it's a rascally one.


This was the company's holiday gift to me - not your typical present to the CEO!

Two years ago I sent out an email inviting folks who wanted to talk about our culture to a meeting in the classroom (the main meeting room at SparkFun). I didn't expect so many people to come! From that meeting came some amazing insights. I just stood at the white board and scribbled while people talked. I thought I knew what made SparkFun SparkFun but I was blown away by how much I had to learn.

I did not realize how much passion people have about being open, trusting, etc! It's obvious in retrospect, but it was great for me to hear what makes this company particular. This allows me and everyone else to kind of know how to react to situations and make decisions.

We recently had another meeting to see what had changed. The following is our latest attempt at defining what's most important to us:

  1. Transparent / allowed to fail : Let's be open and honest with ourselves and others. If we screw up, admit it openly, fix it, and move on. Let's protect open communication between everyone.
  2. Least conventional as possible : We realize that business convention has its place. Let's separate business necessity (like paying taxes) from business tradition (like slacks) as much as possible.
  3. Risk Neutral : We will consider, question and not be daunted by the rules around us. Be safe, but be unruly whenever possible.
  4. Scrappy : We want to be known for something greater than our office furniture. Let’s create our own way of doing things. Do we really need more stuff? If we really need it, let’s get it, but let’s try to get it second hand. If something needs fixing, ask for help and roll up your sleeves.
  5. Appreciation of individuality : This is not the place for close-minded individuals. If you work hard next to me, I'll respect your fascination with kitchen utensils.
  6. Trust on an individual level : Show up, get the work done, and respect the toes and tattoos of others. We trust you to think through the decisions about your dog, your work schedule, and your dress. We trust you to be honest with your neighbor if they affect your work environment.
  7. Ideas are created equal : Doesn't matter who had them. Anyone can do something cool and get recognized for it.
  8. Opinionated : If we ever lose the ability to express our individual opinions, we are truly lost. Be cool and think through a problem. Everyone has an equal right to voice their opinion and listen to other opinions.

http://sfecdn.s3.amazonaws.com/newsimages/SparkFunCultureMtg-June2011-M.jpg

Here's what the board looked like after the 2nd meeting. You can get a sense of how bad my handwriting is and some of the other ideas and bits of our world that needed attention. It's not pretty, but it is who we are.

It's these ideas that clarify what our priorities should be. Dogs, skateboards, loud music, chaos - all in a day's work. Most companies shy away from risk. It's amazing what you can actually have at a company if you make it a priority.  We had someone fall off a skateboard at work and break their leg. Do we then get rid of skateboards? No. It's important enough to figure out how to keep them here. After a mass of emails, paperwork and phone calls, we figured out how to re-write our worker's compensation insurance policy to allow for skateboards. We still have them.

We've managed to scale above the 100 employee mark - I'm excited to see where we head next. What do you think we're doing right and what might we be watching out for?


Comments 57 comments

  • I think SparkFun as a company is on a par with Google - if not higher. They are always open, helpful, and their attitude to their work and customers is unique. And, they are probably the only company that tell you when they have printed the label for your order :-)

  • And this is only one of the reasons I want to work for SparkFun! I’d do it for free if I didn’t have bills to pay.

  • You definitely have always had a solid and unique method of running a company. As long as you stay private, I think this wills continue working in your favor. Oh, and I would suggest a bigger whiteboard for next year? And let someone hack a digital whiteboard for you, too.

  • Sparkfun, please get the Teensy! and Teensy++

  • But we want more video antics with the Evil Robert (Dastardly Dan moustache?) and poor Dave from IT!

  • In last years, my experience with SF ppl, has been always sweet and dynamic by phone (even with my bad english) or mail, fast and fair solutions to several situations.
    I think good companies should learn from SF. This way I know SF will not only grow, it probably will be a reference to world class companies. Also they are constantly updating products, correcting mistakes (honesty!), adding new cool and interesting products. SF is a kind of addiction to me. I would buy almost everything, like a child in a toy shop. In fact that is why I’ve been a loyal customer here.

  • looking through these comments, I see people’s loyalty being proven. Nate you got a good thing going here, keep it up! I love u Guy’s (& Girls) and may the force be with you.
    P.S. Keep it private, don’t become the major corporation with cubicles:P Ban the Cubicle!!

    • Cubicles aren’t a bad thing, they are just more ergonomically efficient compared to offices. In all reality, people tend to work better in cubicles because they tend to feel more like a group than individuals. So people will come to people’s cubicles and show them something cool.
      It’s not about the cubicles, it’s about how you work in the environment.

      • Look at what the channel 4 architecture program has to say about cubicles!

        • Doesn’t apply. It’s all about the culture the company has. With my company, the culture is so similar to SFE’s that the cubicles are just a means of more efficiency.
          If the environment is in a way that causes cubicles to be prisons, why stay in that environment?

  • I have to disagree with sultanblender. DON’T go public. If you do, you’ll be at the mercy of the shareholders instead of being able to blaze your own trail. Keep up the great work. I’m a huge fan.

    • Unfortunate, but true :\ IPOs mean alot more cooks in the kitchen.
      But, it opens the door to so much possibility to do grand things!
      I like to think of it as owning a car vs. walking. Sure, you have to stay on the road and obey more laws than usual, but you gain the ability to go to all these new places! And SparkFun, Oh, the places you’ll go!

  • first one: Admit that you fail making Si4735 shield without proper voltage leveling on GPO1 pin!

  • Sparkfun,
    You have the community’s respect, and frankly - are rock stars. Don’t go public, don’t sell out, and don’t screw it up. We’ve got a good thing going here …

  • As a SparkFun customer, I primarily care about your product selection, your excellent website, and your great customer service. You have what I need to get done what I need to get done, you ship what I need, when I need it, and the orders are always right. When I call, there’s someone to answer the phone. I care that you stock the right stuff at a fair price.
    SparkFun keeps on getting my business because they meet my needs and provide a good shopping experience, in other words, what is being done, works. If that takes skateboards, dogs, beer, and a great company culture… awesome. Keep on doing what it takes. Congrats on figuring out what your corporate identity is, both towards your customers, and for your people. You need the two to work hand in hand to have a successful company, and it looks to me like you’ve hit on a formula that works.
    Growing a company from an idea to 100+ people, and making it profitable, is a hard thing to do. Over the last 2 decades I’ve done it twice, once as a founder, and once as a very early employee. People, in both cases, are the key asset that made it work. As SparkFun is doing, you do what it takes to keep them happy, because happy people are loyal people. That goes for the staff that works there, the companies they do business with, and the people that buy from them.
    So congrats on the success, keep doing what you’re doing, and I hope you manage to maintain your corporate culture and remain successful.

  • Tony Hsieh (Zappos.com) wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness” that spends a tremendous amount of time discussing culture. Their approach is not entirely different from yours. It would probably be fun to compare notes.
    Thanks for being a champion of good culture and thanks for being an awesome company!

  • I especially like scrappy; I think more companies AND people should think like this.
    About risk: I work for a large corporation that has risk taking as one of its 6 core values. It’s likely one of the reasons we are the leading microprocessor company in the world.

  • Hmmm, in ANY business, only two things really matter:
    1. You have a product that people want and will buy
    2. You can produce and sell this product at a profit
    At the end of the day, do you guys really think your customers care if you’ve got dogs in the office, and drink beer on Friday afternoons? That’s all really just a side show! Sure, it’s neat, but take away #1 or #2, and you’d be toast. Probably the worst thing you can do is think that basic business fundamentals don’t apply to you because you’re “different”….. And to the guy that said SparkFun is “on par” with Google, yeah right, only a mere couple billion separates the two ;-)!

    • Customers do care about those kinds of things, just like they care about “green” practices, your politics, the color shape and sizes of the boxes, marketing materials, image, the charities you do or don’t donate to, etc. etc.
      They are part of the product. The mousetrap is only the practical part; lots of other, less tangible things are purchased along with the hardware.
      Employees care about those things and help you “Produce and sell this product at a profit”. Better workplaces attract better employees (at least that’s part of the idea), who work harder, smarter and build more innovative stuff.

  • Nate: If I could contribute something my former boss used to say: “You are worth more to me if you take a chance and have to ask for forgiveness than if you just ask for permission."
    Craig
    p.s. Don’t go public.

  • by Nate | June 19, 2008
    “It is also my intention to get book-hardened EE’s students to put down the calculator and to plug in an LED. Remember, if it smokes, at least you learned what not to do next time!"
    I was a 4th year EE, but did not know what a sensor really is,
    it all changed after I discovered SparkFun, Education Fun.

    • That’s the sad state of electronics education right now. In every class I attended, I was one of just a small handful of people who knew how to operate a soldering iron. This lack of hands-on experience in higher education is painfully obvious in the equipment I have to maintain every day.
      I have said for a long time that one mandatory condition for any engineering degree should be a year in the field fixing other engineers' screw-ups.

  • I just want electronics that work.

  • I think SFE’s philosophy is great! I love the blog (obviously!). I love the tutorials. But, for my needs, its too expensive still. Not RS expensive (1000% mark ups!), but the $2 handling fee is like a punch in the gut. I do not see other small suppliers doing this.

    • I think it’s great that they are up front with the handling fee instead of hiding it in the shipping charges like a lot of other small suppliers do.
      Even with the handling fee, their rates are in line with most other places I ordered from. (As a quick test, I checked the cost to buy one IC from several places. SFE was $4.24 + $2 handling, Pololu was $4.95, Jameco was $7 + $5 handling, $7.00 from All Electronics, $5.40 from Adafruit, Electronic Goldmine was $5.20, but the minimum order is $10. Digikey was $2.56.) Considering the extras you get from SFE (blog, competitions, tutorials, awesome customer service, etc, etc, etc.) I don’t think they are too far out of line.

  • That’s a fantastic company ethos - much like my own!
    I’ve had to draw a line under skateboards for me at least - I always seem to land painfully in the prickly bushes!
    You’ve forgotten the two most important things for being happy at work:
    Air Conditioning and a Diet Coke Vending Machine!
    Fantastic products from a fantastic company.
    Si

  • While we’re looking at what makes SparkFun SparkFun, let us not leave out the web site. For most of us customers, the web site is the face of the company, and you guys do a GREAT job keeping it fresh, useful, and personal. From Nate’s travelogs to Robert’s new product posts (I’m expecting to see Robert hawking blinky things on QVC any day now), the web site helps us feel a little more connected to you guys in Colorado.

  • I still think Sparkfun need to have a department that goes to all the MAKE Fares, with all the tools, vending machines and mobile equipment that educate what SparkFun is all about.

    I think that maybe SparkFun should see if they could get into some of the school fares too around the country too.

    I have had a number of teachers ask me over the years if I could put a chaser board/kit together- you know 555 timer with a counter and something along the lines of a 74hc154 and some LEDs so they could introduce into their Junior High or High School class electronics. At the time I thought it was a great IDEA but I didnít have all the resources to do it, and the teachers that I knew didnít know how to draft (and eagle was not around at that time- just ORCAD and a few big $$,$$$ guys in the Schematic drafting, and the PCB layout tools.) I still see simple project as the way to get kids interested in electrons.

  • I’m brand spanking new to the wonderful world of electronics and I’ve got to say that everything from this site has been helpful, informative and most importantly fun. What you guys are doing and the way you are doing it is the way to go. Keep up the great work.

  • Reminds me of the early days of W. L. Gore & Associates. The (very) simplified version of their philosophy is “Make money, Have fun”. They were founded on the principals of openness and individual freedom and were able to keep the open culture even as the grew. I hope SparkFun can also.

  • ‘Us 1st’ is on the board. I like that. I think any company should have that mentality - because you can not benefit others at your expense, you have to love what you are doing, and it has to improve your lives.
    And while you have profit as 4th, really this is one of the highest profit companies I have seen - just the the monetary portion is not the utmost in importance. We make money to have fun, enjoy life, etc - I think a lot of the culture on the board achieves that directly - skipping the inefficiencies of the exchange medium. You get what you want out of the company, and you increase this new kind of direct profit for yourselves and others. It’s the new capitalism, and it kicks ass.

  • “Dogs/Beer”. Two things that go hand in hand.

  • I had the opportunity to visit Sparkfun a few weeks back. I brought a friend of mine who knew nothing about the company.
    He was more than confused when the first thing he was asked after we got in the door was “Are you ok with dogs?”

  • My favorite:
    Appreciation of individuality : This is not the place for close-minded individuals. If you work hard next to me, I’ll respect your fascination with kitchen utensils.
    Just about sums up sparkfun and why you’re sucessful. You’re not just another random company.
    That and beer is on the white board.

  • All of my contact with Sparkfun - sales, AVCs, Anitmov competition (which should be announced soon, yes?) - have been beyond amazingly positive. A great company filled with great people. If my engineering skills leaned towards electrical and not mechanical, I would probably be outside the building every day with a cardboard sign reading “Will work for Arduino Inventor’s Kit”!

    • Thanks for the compliments! As far as the Antimov goes, the plan right now is something a little bit different - the SparkFun Open House. We’re going to have food, bouncy castles and obstacle courses, tours, workshops, and a bunch of other fun stuff. It’s going to be awesome!

      • Dang! When are people going to take me seriously enough to give me funding on my Passenger Quadcopter idea??? I can’t go to all these great events without an awesome flying machine! ;_;
        starts theorizing about Elbonia Airlines-style slingshot pack that would land me, an adult Chaperone, and ~3 friends perfectly inside the bouncy castle

  • All that is great, but one thing is missing: commitment to quality. There’s nothing wrong with being scrappy or unconventional, or even with trying and failing. But that doesn’t mean the failures should make it into the market. IMHO, Sparkfun engineering is too sloppy. I’d like Sparkfun to be known as the place where Quality Is Job One, to borrow a phrase.

    • Quality is important of course, and there is no excuse for lack of quality (the right response is oops, lemme fix that for you).
      Having said that, SparkFun makes a lot of cool stuff very quickly and is mindful and reactive to community input. Because SparkFun develops “short-cuts” and not missile guidance systems, I find some wiggle room in quality of engineering acceptable (though I have not personally seen it) - as it appears to be coupled with the agile nature of their development.

  • Thanks for sharing this. I’m on the team getting a similarly spirited group of individuals off the ground in a contracting group.
    I love these ideas - I’m printing them and sharing them with my crew today!
    On a side note: Stay private.

  • It’s interesting to see what the Sparkfun culture is. I work about 10 miles up the road on Diag Hwy, and my work environment is very similar.
    To give a few examples:
    * “Colorado Casual” - No business attire unless you want to, or when it is deemed necessary (I had a meeting with a VP and I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans).
    ( Opinions are well heard up here. My opinion matters to my team, and teams I work with closely. As my manager puts it, “If you have a strong feeling about something, convince me of it and I’ll stand behind you."
    * Openness - Everyone seems to be quite open about their lives, which is crazy from my last company where everyone stayed closed unless there was a lot of commonality. Plus, everyone is willing to give a helping hand in and out of the office.
    It’s awesome to see the smaller companies, like Sparkfun, influence the bigger companies with similar culture.
    On another note, to all the hobbyists/college students who are striving to be an engineer. When it comes time to find a job, I will give a couple points of advice:
    * Look at the kind of work the company gives you. Is it interesting? Can you learn a lot from it? Will it help advance your career?
    * Is the environment you want to work in? Is everyone really friendly and able to take time out of their schedule to meet with you and get to know you?
    Remember to be enthusiastic at your job! Your work ethic and energy will fuel your co-workers and it’ll make working a lot more fun.
    Time for me to stop ranting…

  • That picture would have been cooler if he was fist bumping a sparkfun logo

  • Dang just when I think you guys can’t get any cooler. I hope to see a similar movie poster for the sequel “SparkFun 2: The Initial Public Offering”. I’d buy tickets to THAT.

    • An IPO would be the end of Sparkfun as we know it.
      A bit of history …
      100 years ago, all the rage was not about Arduinos and quadcopters, but about automobiles. Hundreds of people were hacking cars in their garage. Some, such as Henry Ford, were good at it, so his garage grew bigger. His goal was to make the best possible car AND have it priced low enough so that people building them could afford one.
      As his business grew, he had to get external investors. Among them were the Dodge brothers who could not care less about good cars or making them affordable. All they wanted was the highest return on their investment (to brew their own compagny), so they sued Ford and won. This important lawsuit established the principle that a corporation’s only duty is toward it’s shareholders.
      Not sure if shareholders such as Carl Icahn would like beer kegs, free day, open hardware, etc …

  • This all sounds great and congratulations on the 100 employee mark. I have to object that you used my likeness on the poster without my permission though. :)

    • I’ll let Nate fire back at that. But for now, my prediction:
      “Awesome abs, pecs and Trogdor-style beefy arms? Yeah. Rrriigghhtt. Although I will admit we did steal the Burninating Countryside idea from The Brothers Chaps…”

  • Interesting analysis,
    we do science in computational Biology and AI and I if I would be asked to summarize our lab philosophy I would say:
    -Try to make as many experiments as possible, because they are the things that tell you what works and what doesn't
    -If something fails, you learned something. Failing is okay, don’t be ashamed or frustrated or anything, keep up making experiments
    -If you screw up (in code, personally, in the lab, where ever) tell us! A bug removed is a good bug, nothing is worse then publishing mistakes, we are all humans and we expect you to screw up…
    -It is okay to be unconventional, after all we are in science and we are supposed to do new things, if you want to set yourself apart you can’t swim with everyone else
    -it is not about who is right but what is right, we share the fame equally within the team later, once we published the right results that WE found
    In summary this is very similar to what you do, nice to read that from someone else,
    cheers Arend


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