Interview with Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit.com, DIY Electronics Company

Limor Fried, Cover of Jumpstart Oct/Nov 2015 Issue
Limor Fried, Cover of Jumpstart Oct/Nov 2015 Issue

Meet LIMOR FRIED, The leader of the open source hardware movement, Ladyada (as she’s known online), is changing the face of electrical engineering and hacking. She was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Entrepreneur magazine and runs a multimillion dollar business that sells build-your-own devices with open-source licenses to encourage creativity in technology. With a hacking device that can turn off all TVs, and a cat bowl that can email you when it’s out of water, she’s changing the world and inspiring a new generation of hakers and makers. Download the PDF of the interview.

Tell us about Adafruit

Adafruit was founded in 2005 by me. I am an MIT engineer. My goal was, and still is, 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 50 employees in the heart of NYC with a 15,000+ sq ft. factory. We have expanded offerings to include tools, equipment and electronics that I personally select, test and approve before going into 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 “fastest growing private companies.” Adafruit is a 100% woman-owned company, and we do not have any loans or venture funding.

What’s your background?

I grew up in the hacker / open source scene in Boston, messed with Linux on computers a lot, eventually went to MIT and decided that working for myself building and sharing electronics was my calling.

What’s your favorite project in Adafruit collection?

It’s hard to just pick one project, but if I must, I’d have to say TV-B-Gone. This is a project that is in collaboration with Mitch Altman, who is best known for helping to create hackerspaces around the world as well as a device, the TV-B-Gone. Mitch had created an assembled a stand-alone version that was sold in a variety stores. It basically turns off all TVs, cycling through the IR codes and sending the “off” signal. It’s a lot of fun and encourages some mischief, which makes it perfect for kids! Mitch and I teamed up and made an open-source version of his design. This means not only can any one make one, make it better and share the improvements, but we also sell a kit for people to solder and learn from. We’ve sold tens of thousands of these and people around the world are turning off TVs and thinking about what’s important for public spaces. Moreover, they’re also learning a little electronics along the way.

How are you able to release so many products in a short time? (180 products in 90 days, wow!)

We’re on a tear at the moment as they say, that’s for sure. Focus on what’s important, say no a lot, say yes to the things that matter, build and support a great team, be excellent to each other. We have a lot of choices on what products we can make and put in the store each day, and if you only work on the best ones it’s easier to avoid distractions.

What are you working on now?adafruit kits

We’re currently working on adafruit.io, which is our “internet of things” service for makers. Here at Adafruit, we sell all of these amazing components, but we couldn’t find a good way to interact with them over the Internet. There are certainly a lot of great services out there for datalogging, or communicating with your microcontroller over the web, but these services are either too complicated to get started, or they aren’t particularly fun to use. So, we decided to experiment with our own system, and that is how Adafruit IO got started.

The API is the core of the system, but with only an API, it’s not that fun to use. We’ve built a few basic client libraries to simplify working with the API. We also have a dashboard with a few widgets that allow easy 2-way interaction with your devices. We plan on adding many more features, such as mapping and location awareness for your devices, triggers based on custom parameters, email alerts and more. You’ll be able to have your cat’s bowl email you when it’s out of water, things like that.

We’re also working on the latest episode of “Circuit Playground.” It’s our kid’s show about electronics, based on the alphabet…A for Ampere, B for Battery… we’re doing each letter!

How do you decide what to work on next?

We’re inspired by a community of makers and the “Show & Tell” that we do each week where people around the world show and share their products with me. This lets the community to show me what people need and want. Often they’re working on something on weekends that will be mainstream 5 years now. These are the people that are creating the future and it’s my job to help.

Do you have people writing in requesting products?

We have makers, businesses, educators, just about everyone writing in requesting products – many of the ideas we’re working on, so it’s good validation and confirmation we’re on the right track and others are ones we just would not be able to do, and that’s fine too – it helps stay focused on what we can do. We’d much rather make the best products, than a bunch of non-starters and distractions. We like to ask, what is the problem someone is trying solve.

Why manufacture in Manhattan and not in Asia like most other companies?

Believe it or not, it’s better, cheaper and faster for me to sit 10 feet from the means of production (our machines) than to outsource and send out. We go for high mix, high speed, control, quality, access to talent. We’re lean, just-in-time manufacturing.

I’m able to design a product, make a prototype, test it and go to manufacturing in a matter of days, not weeks or months.

What are the hottest topics in hardware/open source right now?

IoT, BTLE, Wifi, cellular (Internet of Things, BlueTooth Low energy, Wi-Fi, cell/data).

What startups do you admire?

littleBits, othermill, goTenna, castVR – all led by women in tech too!

How do you stay up-to-date on startup/tech news?

RSS. Most sites, at least the ones that still care about data feeds, have an RSS feed and I gobble those up. Some sites don’t which is a drag; it’s really hard to keep track of some of the sites that do not have any easy way to view them in a reader.

Should all startups consider Open Source for their businesses?

Yes, they all use open source software in some way, so why wouldn’t they? They’re build on top of open source in some way, so join in and give back to create some value for more people to also build upon. One of the things companies spend millions on is build communities. They’ll get marketers, agencies and run campaigns, which sometimes works. However, open source comes with communities and a lot of motivated people that maximize what you’re trying to do. It’s not for everyone, but something to consider.

Are there any non-open-source things that should become open source from a startup/new opportunity perspective?

Elon Musk did something interesting recently, or at least talked about it, giving away their patents. He said that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Now, that’s something that makes sense to open source, getting as many out there as possible, letting everyone use them, and putting more electric cars on the road with more charging stations.

Is everything high-tech in your home?

I would say everything is “hacked” in a beneficial way. Here’s something I did last week: My toilet and sink were leaking and it was taking a while to get them fixed. I needed to leave each day and was worried it was going to flood, so I built an internet connected water leak detector that would email me if a leak started so I could run to my apartment and turn off the water or get the building to fix it soon.

When you’re not working, what are you doing?

I play Candy Crush, and I’m up to level 950 and haven’t paid for a level yet…so close to being done! I go for walks near the Hudson river to chill and get ideas. I go for bike rides and mess with my cat, Mosfet.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Invest in your team, be excellent to one another. It sounds simple, though it’s very hard to do each day in practice. But it’s worth it.

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