This fall, open hardware and electronics leader SparkFun Electronics released a slew of new products and services. Founded in 2003, SparkFun continues to innovate and make it easier for engineers around the world to do their job. We connected with CEO Glenn Samala to discuss what these new offerings are all about and where SparkFun is going next. We discuss Artemis, RaspberryPi, MicroMod, À La Carte (ALC), and more.
SparkFun Electronics is a long-time leader in the Open Source Hardware community. Your engineers have dozens of certified Open Source Hardware products, including a number of boards for your new Artemis platform. Can you tell us more about Artemis? What does it mean when you say it is “mass market ready,” and why does that matter? How is this different from conventional development boards?
The Artemis product line was born out of an initial collaboration with the TensorFlow team at Google and Ambiq when we developed the SparkFun Edge for the TensorFlow Dev Summit back in March 2019. The SparkFun Edge helped the audience realize the possibility of machine learning on a microcontroller device – run locally without the need for the cloud; powered by a coin cell battery; the embodiment of Pete’s Warden’s TinyML. It was an amazing feat and a great moment for SparkFun when they showcased the live voice recognition demo on stage.
We knew we had something special, and that low-power machine learning on the edge was something people wanted to experiment and tinker with. We also knew that, as our community got better with this technology, there would be endless uses for this. So, the question we posed is, “How do we accelerate prototype to production for something that has seemingly endless use cases?”
When we discussed this as a team, Nathan and the engineers just ran with it. When we say “mass market ready,” it means we’ve removed many of the obstacles you might come across if you want a final product for the market:
- Don’t worry about FCC/IC/CE certification – we’ve done that for you
- A module approach makes it easier to incorporate it into your final design
- The module is completely open source, with tips on designing with the SparkFun Artemis module and an integration guide
- Tape and reel ready
- A variety of Artemis dev boards for your initial prototype phase
- A software-focused Artemis Dev Kit
Another recent hardware announcement is that SparkFun is now officially a Raspberry Pi reseller. You already carry around 150 RPi products and you outline the benefits of this new SparkFun Raspberry Pi partnership on the blog. Taking a step back, what role do third-party hardware brands like RPi play for SparkFun—versus the in-house platforms you have built like Artemis and MicroMod?
Here’s the easy answer: By building ecosystems around cutting-edge and/or heavily adopted technologies like Raspberry Pi, we believe we are making it easier for more people to build creative things with the technology, which is the main reason SparkFun is in business. Third-party hardware brands like Raspberry Pi also help give us reach in an audience that may not necessarily know about SparkFun.
We have a strong following, and we have millions of people that visit our website every year, but it’s a big world out there and third-party brands help us reach new audiences.
The trick is finding the right third-party brand that helps create a new form of value through a meaningful collaboration and partnership. Done right, this new value benefits both parties; complementing both of their core offerings.
In the case of Raspberry Pi, the open collaboration between our teams as a result of a more formal partnership has been pretty exciting. Prior to being an Approved Reseller, we were able to wrap our ecosystem of Qwiic sensors around Raspberry Pi. Now with a formal partnership, we’re excited to collaborate and complement both of our growth strategies in a more impactful way.
SparkFun is known for its hardware, but you recently made an announcement about SparkFun services that got a lot of attention. A more recent post on your blog suggests that your electronics services are off to a good start. Do you see this as a departure from SparkFun’s historical identity as a business? Or is this a new extension of what you were already doing?
Great question. I don’t see this as a departure from SparkFun’s historical identity as a business. In fact, many of the services we outlined are things we have been doing for some time in an ad hoc way. Now we are just at a point where we need to be more purposeful in our approach.
From an internal perspective we know how to bring a product idea to market – we’ve been doing it for 17+ years. From ideation, prototype, supply chain, DFM, logistics, to digital content and commerce – we’ve got this. This product path is second nature to us, but we know the path can be difficult and take up valuable time and resources that can otherwise be better spent.
The value of time and resources is what we’re really trying to protect. Whether that’s through our SparkFun Service offerings to help bring a product idea to the physical world; or with ALC, Qwiic, or MicroMod for rapid prototyping, we’re pretty committed to saving the people we work with time and resources.
In years past, our digital content (tutorials, hookup guides, videos, etc.) saved customers time by demystifying this wonderful world of electronics. All the things we are doing now with Services, tools like ALC, and new products like MicroMod is just a continuation of us trying to make electronics easier for everyone.
Can you publicly share any examples of services projects SparkFun has done that are particularly interesting? Or that might inspire others to reach out and connect with your team?
There are so many great things happening, especially in terms of custom development and logistics, but it’s a bit too soon to share. What I can say is that many of our customers are excited and being very creative with how certain services can complement each other. We’re learning a lot about the needs of our customers in teasing out so many of these opportunities, and we’ll continue to enhance and refine our offerings.
Strategically, what does your new value-added services initiative say about where SparkFun is going in the future? What does this look like for the business in a few years?
Our many initiatives, like value-added services, shows our commitment in helping others grow in this electronics market – specifically in this niche space of high-tech tinkering and rapid prototyping. When our community and business partners grow, the market continues to grow, and we continue to be part of that ride.
Beyond profit, what really excites us about many of these initiatives is being able to support these great ideas we see in the wild and contributing to their success. If we have some small part in removing the barriers for the next big thing, I know that’s something we would be very proud of.
In terms of what this looks like for the business in a few years – I wish I could predict the future. But what I hope to see are that these initiatives drive growth for our community and partners.
This wouldn’t be a proper conversation about SparkFun without talking about your community. You recently ran a SparkFun customer survey. Participants were entered for a chance to win $1,000 in SparkFun store credit, which could get the lucky winner 40,000 resistors from your store! Or perhaps other more practical things. What are you hoping to learn through this survey?
Ultimately, feedback from our community drives many of the things we do as a company, across every department. Beyond the survey, we talk to customers every day and conduct internal and external interviews, and we have developed a strong feedback loop so we can respond in the best way. Of course, being SparkFun, we also like to delight and surprise our community – so balancing our response to community needs with coming out with something completely new and different… That is key.
More specific to the survey – this is our third customer survey. Over time, we have asked many of the same questions and added a few here and there. We are really trying to see trends and evolutions in the community we serve so we can co-evolve and provide the best products, support and experience.
Our customer base is a great mix of old and new. Some folks have been with us for 15+ years, and some just discovered us in the past year. What is always interesting is how some of our long-term customers’ needs have changed. For new customers, I’m always interested in hearing about how they found us and what need we were able to fill.
Lastly, many engineers aspire to partner with SparkFun. Do you have any advice for someone out there who is making a product and hoping to see it available on SparkFun.com one day?
Follow your instincts. Scratch that itch. Don’t fall into the social trap of reading comments (good or bad) if you put yourself out there. Iterate, iterate, iterate – and document the heck out of everything you do. Content is key.
We don’t view partners as transactional, we believe in relationships – so be prepared for lots of questions and conversations with not only the Engineering team, but with Marketing, Product Services and Ops.
We have an army of geeks at SparkFun, but we can’t be the expert of all the new and shiny emerging tech that’s out there. Bring something weird, shiny and new, and we’ll kick it around with you!
Learn more about SparkFun Electronics by visiting their website: https://sparkfun.com/