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The Blueprint talks with

Limor Fried

Founder at Adafruit

Adafruit is an online educational platform for learning electronics and making well-designed products. The New York based company was started in 2005 by Limor Fried while she was attending MIT. Adafruit aims to make the world a better place through engineering, learning and sharing. We sat down with Limor to discuss manufacturing in New York, her inspiration for starting Adafruit and the open hardware movement.

Tell us a bit about Adafruit.

Adafruit was founded in 2005 by me while I was at MIT. I published plans on how to make an open-source MP3 player and other electronic projects on my MIT page and how to build it. It became so popular I started making kits and selling them. I added a Paypal button and that’s how Adafruit got started.

My goal was to create the best place online for learning electronics and making the best designed products for makers of all ages and skill levels. Adafruit has grown to over 75 employees in the heart of NYC with a 25,000+ square foot factory. Adafruit has expanded offerings to include tools, equipment and electronics that that I personally select, test and approve before going in to the Adafruit store. In 2014, Adafruit was ranked #11 in the top 20 USA manufacturing companies and #1 in New York City by Inc. 5000.

Adafruit’s role in the hardware ecosystem is multifaceted. Some makers know us for our tutorials, open-source designs and learning resources. This includes learn.adafruit.com, videos and our weekly live shows. We’re one of the first places many people get started on their journey of learning electronics.

The other way a lot of people and companies know us is our products that are used for just about everything now. From large companies doing prototypes to companies looking to use our products in their own products.

Both groups use our products as building blocks to do more and get further with what they want to do. Having all the documentation and support is what helps them the most. We like to say we’re a tutorial company with a gift shop.

What’s your personal background?

I grew up in the hacker scene in Boston, with lots of open-source, sharing and exploring of technology. I’ve always been installing Linux on something and hacking electronics. One of my goals with Adafruit was to share the information and things learned or others have learned so more people can build upon that knowledge. After years of development, the Adafruit Learning System is what I always wanted, with over 586 tutorials and counting.

Another reason Adafruit came about was because I wanted to create one place online that had every possible electronic supply and item someone needs to make cool projects. I spent so much time always trying to find the part or components I needed I figured it I should just make a great online store. We’re currently up to over 2,000 products and in the last 90 days we released 180 new products.

What is the mission of Adafruit?

Helping make the world a better place through engineering, learning and sharing.

How did you finance Adafruit in the early days?

Adafruit has never taken a loan or taken venture capital, I’ve always bootstrapped it myself. When I started, I used some of my tuition money to buy parts and then it was a race to make my money back before it was due!

Why did you choose to manufacture in Manhattan?

You don’t choose Manhattan, it chooses you! I moved to NYC from Boston to do an art fellowship at EYEBEAM. I was living in a warehouse with 8 other people and as my fellowship ended I really thought NYC had potential for an electronics company. The access to talented people, the fast metabolism and design inspiration are incredible. For the first few years I ran Adafruit out of my apartment and now we’re in a building originally made for giant printer presses and manufacturing—I couldn’t imagine a better place to make things.

What hardware products or projects are you building right now?

We just launched our latest kid’s show video Circuit Playground “F is for Frequency.” I hang out with ADABOT and a talking oscilloscope to teach young folks about what frequency is. For hardware, on my desk I’m currently working on: open source cell phone, cosplay technology and Bluetooth low energy.

What are some of the trends you are seeing right now that will have an effect on early stage hardware?

I’m starting to see more people outside the usual hardware and engineering circles explore electronics. We’ll see lots of cosplay and costuming + electronics inspire some interesting ideas in wearables and 3D printing. Fashion + electronics, and wearables in general, is becoming more accessible to more people, so we’ll see a menagerie of ideas, some won’t work out—but some will.

“Intense growth is panic. In every way it feels like panic—this is normal and temporary.”

Why is it important to you to build a company that’s fueling the open source hardware movement?

Adafruit is just one of many companies out there celebrating open-source. It’s possible to be a good business and a good cause. If we can all show that it’s good business to be open, we’ll see more companies and people willing to share their designs, code and see more collaboration. In the end, that’s the goal: distributing more learning to everyone in some way. Hardware and software change so quickly and it’s important to keep moving forward and innovating. Plus, I get to play with all the newest technologies and share them with our community, then see the great businesses they start.

What’s your vision for Adafruit in the next 5 years?

Five years ago it was mostly me in an apartment running Adafruit and now we’re 75+ people in a factory in NYC! Five years from now, we’re still growing pretty fast, we’ve triple and doubled over the last few years.

Right now we’re expanding our factory and it will be over twice the size it is by the end of the year. This will allow us to continue to expand our offerings—we’ve been able to do bigger runs and finer pitch components, for example. Recently we launched more wearables in our FLORA line up and we just release our FONA (Internet of Things) cell/data platform—so the next five years is building upon these big categories. The last five years was about getting Adafruit to a place where we could manufacture and meet demand. The next five years is about expanding what we do. That’s just the hardware side of things. We have our kid’s show—Circuit Playground—which teaches all about electronics, A to Z. It takes 1-2 months per episode, so we’ll be done in a couple years. The latest one is “F is for Frequency” featuring a talking oscilloscope!

After this series is done, we have a new one being developed “R is for Robot.” Other big efforts that will be zooming along in the next five years is our adafruit.io service we’re working on: a maker-friendly way to get Internet of Things up and running. And there are some business goals we’re working on, like same-day delivery in New York City and subscriptions for people who want to get every new product from Adafruit.

Where do you think hardware is going to be in the next 3-5 years?

It’s never been easier or better to get hardware started up. Tindie, OSHpark and crowdfunding sites make it possible to get something, at least in the prototype phase, out very quickly. We’ll see more hardware and ideas coming from unexpected places. Biohacking, medical and lots of wearables for sure. Apple (and others) are spending billions convincing everyone they need apps on their bodies at all times, so the wrist real estate market just became a lot more valuable.

“It’s possible to be a good business and a good cause.”

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are experiencing intense company growth?

Intense growth is panic. In every way it feels like panic—this is normal and temporary.

What is your vision for this hardware industry in the next five years? What big changes do you think will happen?

I think we’ll see embedded Linux continue to be where dev platforms move towards—Raspberry Pi & BeagleBone are good examples of that. There will be high-end, high performance, with slightly higher cost and there will be very low-cost, low-power devices for everything else.

It’s nearly your 10 year anniversary of Adafruit. If you could go back to the early days and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself?

It’s been a journey for sure—intense hard work. I would tell myself there was, and is, a huge opportunity to help people learn and although there are many challenges and frustrations, it’s worth it and we can enrich people’s lives with the work we do and the things we share.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Publish. Every single day. Write a blog post, make a short video, tweet, take a photo of what you’re working on or making—share your insights and tell your story every day.

What’s your current state of mind?

Compiling (a kernel).

When and where were you happiest?

Sending board files for prototyping.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

A parent emailed me and said his daughter asked, "Do boys do engineering too?" - after seeing my show ASK AN ENGINEER on Youtube.

What is your greatest fear?

Making even more mistakes and needing to resend board files again for prototyping.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I would like to learn how to skateboard.

What is your idea of misery?

Making a mistake and needing to resend board files for prototyping.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

"So…”

What is your greatest extravagance?

I just bought a board loader to feed boards faster into our 2 Samsung Pick and Place machines. It wasn't really needed, but it's really nice.

If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be?

Ladyada Lovelace of course!

What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?

Waking up early.

Next Questions

Liz Salcedo, Co-Founder of Everpurse asks, “What was a time that almost made you give up and how did you get through it?”

At some point it's all the little day-to-day things running a company that drives you crazy. I hit a wall and instead of continuing to do everything myself I started to hire people who could maximize Adafruit’s potential.

A question I would ask to another founder or influencer:

What group or community would you like to see getting involved with hardware that currently isn't? And how could you accomplish this and what do you need?

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