Nathan Seidle: open source, open mind, open for business
Suzanne Deffree - May 23, 2012
As an undergraduate electrical-engineering student in 2003, Nathan Seidle founded SparkFun Inc, an online retail store that describes itself as selling “the bits and pieces to make electronics projects possible.” Since then, the company has expanded to more than 450 original products, which its growing and varied customer base of EEs, hobbyists, artists, students, do-it-yourselfers, and others is snatching up by the shopping cartful. Seidle recently spoke to EDN about SparkFun’s approach to open-source hardware; the “maker” movement, and ways to spread engineering education, including the company’s new learn.sparkfun.com site. Excerpts of that conversation follow.
Q: What’s your definition of a “maker”?
A: It’s the whole do-it-yourself movement-the person who ceases to talk about something and the person who actually does something [or] anyone actually using their hands again. To me, whenever I go to MakerFaire, the folks that have no real formal training and let their creativity run are the people doing some of the most interesting things.
Q: Are we seeing a resurgence of the maker movement?
A: Yes. Someone brought up the other day that SparkFun was like Heathkit. I like that analogy, but it kind of worried me because I don’t want to fall into the same pitfalls that Heathkit had. With the resurgence of manufactured electronics, there was no need for Heathkit anymore. So we make very sure at SparkFun, as it pertains to the maker movement, that we separate ourselves from the trend. We try to be the tool maker for all the makers out there. Let us provide you with the picks and the shovels so you can go build your great art piece or your master plan.
Q: How does open source fit into all of this?
A: SparkFun ended up playing in the open-source-hardware world in a roundabout [way]. We were sharing our schematics, data sheets, and how we did stuff from the beginning because we figured it would enable our customers to be more successful at their projects. Over time, we realized that, if we shared even more files-for instance, the PCB-layout files or the firmware or whatever with a given product-customers could take our products and sort of mash them up and come up with their own product or project. That [feature] enables all of our customers to be more successful. It can also be a bad thing because our competitors can see our firmware, and they can duplicate our PCBs. But they could do that anyway. We think it’s important to use open-source hardware because it enables all of our customers rather than temporarily slowing down a few of our competitors.
Q: How does open-source hardware fit into the company’s overall business strategy?
A: It’s something that I believe is an alternative to intellectual property. At the same time, SparkFun uses it as an interesting business lever or push. By open-sourcing our products, we are enabling our competition to copy us. Right now, we come out with a product, and, within 12 to 14 weeks, our competition has copied it. That [fact] means that we have 12 to 14 weeks to come up with the next revision or the next innovation or the next whatever it is to stay ahead of the competition. We use open source as a business motivator, as a driver. We use it to keep sharp.
Patents at SparkFun would be detrimental. Patents are great, but if we were to use patents, I feel that we would sit on our laurels for too long and be passed by. It would be the kiss of death. Open-sourcing forces us to always be creative and to always be searching out that new thing because someone is right there behind you pushing you.
Q: You started SparkFun in 2003 while obtaining your degree in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado. Why become an entrepreneur instead of getting an engineering job after graduation?
A: It was easier than the motorcycle-mechanic job I had at the time, and I enjoyed it more. The creative freedom you get in working for yourself almost cannot be matched in the professional world. I say “almost” because there are plenty of positions where folks get to flex their muscles and do some fun stuff, but I found that, working at SparkFun, we came up with all of these harebrained ideas, and were able to turn them into products.
Q: Less than 10 years after launching SparkFun from your bedroom, the company now has more than 130 employees, a 50,000-sq-foot facility, and more than 450 original products. What’s next?
A: We are either a big fish in a small pond or a tiny fish in a gigantic pond. Compared with the Digi-Keys of the world, we are a speck. Compared with Make magazine or Adafruit, we’re good competitors, all of similar size. The next big thing for SparkFun? I would love to show folks that they may enjoy electronics without knowing it’s electronics. We have been pretty successful in lowering the barrier to entry to tinkering, hobby-electronics making. We have made it easier for folks to play with stuff. I had to wait until my sophomore or junior year of college to ever play with a microcontroller. What would happen if we allowed ninth and 10th graders to play with microcontrollers? I don’t believe they need to have BJT [bipolar-junction-transistor] theory to play with microcontrollers. If you can get ninth and 10th graders playing with microcontrollers, how much more successful are they going to be in whatever pursuit they have later in their academic career? My big goal is to sort of push down a couple of years in the educational realm and try to get more folks excited about learning again, whether that is EE, computer science, or art. I think we can change all of these fields.
Q: You sound like a fan of the STEAM [science/technology/engineering/art/math] movement, adding art to STEM [science/technology/engineering/math] encouragement to spur innovation and creativity.
A: And what comes after STEAM? There’s always a new acronym out there. I am a fan. Unfortunately, I haven’t been in 10th grade for a while, so I don’t know what effect it is having. But we work closely with educators and policymakers to see how we can change the field. Good things are happening. I’m eager to make them happen faster.
Q: You started the company in your early 20s. Has your age ever been an obstacle in building a business and a career?
A: It was originally. In talking to business peers, they couldn’t really relate. They thought I was just some young Internet guy, and they couldn’t really grasp that I would have similar business problems to what I was having. It took a few years, but I now have a fantastic support group of chief executives and businessmen who know our business. I’ve been very fortunate in finding support in the business world.
On the flip side, when I was applying for a mortgage for my condo, they asked if I had ever been married. I said “no,” and they said, “according to this [contract] it looks like you were married.” I was so young, I couldn’t get credit [in the early days of SparkFun]. The bank said I needed a co-signer. So my mom co-signed on the loan. It was paid off, and I’ve since gotten credit on my own, but you know how that financial data sticks around. When they see a female with the same last name, they assume I must have been married at some point.
Are there challenges at a young age? Definitely. At the same time I tell a lot of folks who are thinking about starting a business, if you wait until you have a family, a mortgage, and a paycheck, that’s a whole lot of responsibility and a lot of risk to go off and start your own business. I was very fortunate starting it when I did because I had no responsibilities. I had plenty of student debt, but I didn’t have a house and a family so I could go off and do this harebrained adventure.
Q: Any advice for young engineers just starting out?
A: At SparkFun, we look at your [degree], but, more importantly, we look at what you’ve done. What have you built? Show us the project that caused the fire alarm to go off. That’s what we want to hear about. If you are 18 and you are wondering how to get taken seriously, show them the projects. I don’t care who you are; I care what you’ve done.
We are in an interesting time. If you think back to the 1990s and how a young person would go from zero to 60, from pretty much obscurity to the front page of something, really the only route was to be a professional athlete or a musician making it overnight. In the past couple of years, we have seen so many companies and so many young people break huge because they had the right friends, the right support network, and the right idea.
With technology as it is, you no longer need to wait until you are 40 or 50 to gain traction; you can do it at any age. It blows me away. As soon as you launch a Web site-whether you like it or even think about it-you are a global company. Anyone in the world can find your company, can buy your technology, and can review it. It’s a pretty amazing time. If you have the right friends, the right support network, and the right idea, technology will take you pretty far.
—Interview conducted and edited by Suzanne Deffree