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'Patents Make Companies Unfit': Nathan Seidle Of SparkFun (Video)

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First Posted: Apr 20, 2013 03:42 AM EDT
The SparkFun Electronics team.

The SparkFun Electronics team. Credit:SparkFun / iTech Post

He's the CEO/Founder of SparkFun, a manufacturing company that produces more than 80,000 devices a month. He's the leader of nearly 150 employees in a firm that has been around for a decade and last year alone brought in almost $30 million in revenue.

He's Nathan Seidle, and he's also a huge proponent of open source hardware who told us that SparkFun has no patents because "I believe patents make companies unfit."

As a board member for OSHWA (Open Source Hardware Association), Seidle has spoken in front of Fortune 500 companies and the National Science Foundation alike to promote the further need for open source hardware and platforms.

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"They think I'm slightly odd," Seidle jokes, "but we're working."

Seidle also says he "builds a lot of stuff," including a "Speed Bag counter for our local boxing gym." Even Seidle's fiancée is in on the act, "building LEDs into our wedding cake," he says.

We spoke with Seidle about all things open source, why sparks can be a good thing and why it's still possible to have fun at work. We also dug in about why in the heck a device manufacturer, engineer and passionate techie would want to run a company that eschews patents.

iTech Post: Can you tell us how you came upon the idea of creating SparkFun?

Nathan Seidle: I was teaching myself electronics in 2002 when I burned up my programmer. Searching the internet for a cheap replacement showed me just how bad the state of ecommerce was for embedded electronics. You often had to call or fax your order in, there were very few pictures of these complex devices being sold, and there was almost no support to actually use the electronic bits.

iTech Post: How did that lead you to SparkFun?

NS: I thought I could create a site that had clear photos of the front and back of a device ([which was] unprecedented!) and maybe I'd offer the cable or power supply that made the thing work. Luckily there were plenty of other folks having similar frustrations. We had our first order seven hours after we turned on SparkFun.com. We've been trying to catch up for over 10 years.

iTech Post: From where did you pull the name of your company?

NS: SparkFun has two meanings. The first meaning is to spark fun within someone. We live to show folks that they can solder a kit together and have fun doing it. The second meaning has to do with pushing your own limits. When you're going down the path of learning something new, whether it's painting or coffee bean roasting or growing strawberries, you often mess up.

In electronics, sparks are usually seen as a bad thing. But when I'm so far out in front of the limits of what I know and something sparks, that's when I'm having the most fun. There's no faster way to learn than from your mistakes.

iTech Post: Yours seems like a rather unique attitude as CEO/Founder of SparkFun. Can you give us a sense of your general day-to-day routine?

NS: Oh boy. I am CEO/founder with 135 people who are actually running the company. One of the greatest compliments I've ever received was from one of my co-workers who called me a positive disruptive force. I think I'm doing a good job not getting in people's way, but I do stir the pot every chance I get. Day to day there is no routine. Many meetings, many emails, many engagements and events promoting SparkFun and trying to discover new ways to work with exciting new technologies and groups of people.

iTech Post: Considering the difficult state of the economy today, what are your feelings about the start-up atmosphere overall? Did this opinion have any affect over your creation of SparkFun?

NS: Over the past 10 years, regardless of the economy, my view of business has never changed: think of a thing, make it, mark it up, sell it. When you start manipulating this formula, you start to get into some very shaky ground. I love being in the physical (inventory) world. At SparkFun we have a simple sales proposition - "I have this thing for $20, would you like one?" I tend to be very skeptical of business models that value the sheer number of users over number of paying customers.

iTech Post: You are a huge proponent of open platforms and have referred negatively in the past to company "patents." Are you concerned, though about how this may affect the finances of freelancers? It's great to all work together, but at some point I as a developer need credit for my resume, need individual financing to pay my bills, and so on. Can you talk about this fascinating dichotomy and how you see it changing over the years?

NS: I believe one of the best ways for a freelance inventor/designer/engineer to pay their bills is to publish as much as they can about their work. Will this put their work at risk of being stolen? There is a small but positive chance. However with much greater probability, that freelancer will grow their reputation, resume, and be able to leverage their social currency. The internet doesn't care what piece of paper you have (or do not have) framed above your desk; the internet cares what you've done.

Be the first to come up with a good idea, tell the world about it, and you'll be the go-to person for that specialty. (If you know anyone like this, please let us know - we'll hire them!)

iTech Post: Would you say you guys aspire to any of the larger manufacturing companies out there or are you totally original in your development? Is such a thing even possible anymore?

NS: Before SparkFun, the push was to make things smaller, faster, cheaper. We're kind of the first company to take really small technologies -- small ICs, sensors, and wireless modules -- and make them bigger by soldering them to a printed circuit board. In other words, we make technology usable to the average person. It's a very simple idea but every other company thought we were crazy. We've since gained a lot of attention and have a healthy field of competition.

iTech Post: What would you say your main goal is over at SparkFun?

NS: We work hard to make SparkFun into the place for creative people who enjoy the crazy cutting edge where e-textiles, education reform and "massive blinky" collide. I cherish every time I hear, "Wanna see something neat?" Life's too short to work at a place that doesn't make you go 'that's weird' once in a while.

iTech Post: That makes things in the tech world sound rather playful and fun, which clearly it can be at times, especially for people with your kind of passion and savvy. But, do you feel at all we're approaching a time in which those who are not tech-savvy may be left behind, in some regards?

NS: Quite the contrary. With the amazing efforts of the Arduino [open source electronics platform] community and our continual push into education, we have seen a huge explosion of non-tech people being brought back into the fold.

iTech Post: How do you mean?

NS: Five years ago it was the nerds driving the bus. Today I see more exciting technological projects coming out of design schools and physical computing classes. I talked to an amazing person who identified themselves as a flame artist but knew more about the RS485 bus protocol than most of the engineers I know.

iTech Post: You seem to bring a lot of humor and vibrancy to the tech promos and press (even the name of) as regards your company. Can you talk about why you feel this is important? Do you see this as a trend in other nascent tech companies today?

NS: From the onset I tried to separate business necessity from business orthodoxy. Do we need to pay taxes? Yep. Do we have to get the orders correctly picked and out on time? Yep. Do we need a dress code that involves slacks? Mmmm, no. The business world is discovering that work, while a necessity, is not the point of life. If I have a choice, I'm going to choose to work in the place that is a bit easier to fit into. It's amazing how much happier people are when they're trusted.

iTech Post: As a device manufacturer and engineer yourself, have you been influenced at all by sci-fi/speculative fiction literature television/films in any specific products you have developed? Or do you ever look back at old sci fi books/TV/media and say, "Hey, we're already doing that now!"?

NS: I love science fiction. I read a lot and have a strict regimen of mixing sci-fi with business books (remember, I'm an EE masquerading as someone who knows what the hell they're doing in business). I know what's possible today and like to muse what could be built tomorrow. It's pretty mind blowing if you take current technology and mix in community.

Do you know someone in the tech community who would want to speak with us about his or her feelings about, well, the tech community? Feel free to connect with us, or email m.klickstein [@] itechpost.com.

Like what you're reading? Follow @profklickberg.

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