Talking Big Changes At SparkFun With Nathan Seidle

SparkFun, you know them, you love them. They list themselves as “an online retail store” but I remember them for well-designed breakout boards, free-day, videos about building electronics, and the Autonomous Vehicle Competition. This week SparkFun turned my head for a different reason with the announcement that [Nathan Siedle], founder and CEO will be stepping down. He’s not leaving, but returning to the Engineering department while someone else takes the reigns. I spoke with him yesterday about what this means for him, the company, and what SparkFun has planned for the future.

Stepping Down Without Saying Goodbye

[Nate] founded Sparkfun in 2003 while still working on his Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Colorado Boulder. He cites wanting to return to his engineering roots as the reason for his title shift, which won’t happen for at least 9 or 10 months. It’s the concept of leaving the CEO position without leaving the company that raises many questions in my mind.

As founder, [Nate] is the Chairman of the Board and will retain the power to hire and fire the CEO. As he put it, that’s quite common with a lot of companies. But I believe that it’s rare for the Chairman to be coming into the office everyday in a different role. The power dynamic between him and his yet-to-be-found replacement isn’t the only sticky wicket here. SparkFun already has a Director of Engineering, [Pete Dokter], who you may know from his According to Pete series. [Nate] prepared the staff far ahead of the public announcement and that included discussion and planning with [Pete] on how the two will work together with the engineering team. Obviously the ideas is to grow the company and that will mean more and more engineering work to be done.

The new CEO will be guide and defender of the company culture. SparkFun isn’t looking for “Nate part two” and whomever is installed at the helm will have the freedom to make changes for the better. If that person can navigate the aforementioned issues, I think actually having [Nate] around for advice from time-to-time will help ensure the creative values and spirit of the company doesn’t wash away.

There it is, a sweet job for the taking. Anyone interested in forming up an application?

CM and EDA

MaKey MaKey

While I had him on a video call I thought I’d see what else is going on with the company. Specifically I’ve been wondering about Contract Manufacturing with SparkFun. There are a few notable pieces of hardware that come to mind in which SparkFun is acting as a CM: the Makey Makey and the Microview. But you should also know that they developed and produce several types of Arduino boards including the Pro, Pro Mini, Fio, and Lilypad which are produced in 1000+ quantities. That’s nothing to sneeze at, so what’s the deal with CM at SparkFun?

Turns out there is a guide for that. The gist is that SparkFun wants to sell your stuff and will act as a distributor, or as the manufacturer and point sales channel. The latter is how the Makey Makey works. The company both manufactures and sells the device which turns anything into a computer keyboard, paying a royalty to the creators [Jay Silver] and [Eric Rosenbaum]. [Nate] admits they haven’t focused on CM very much in the past but are now working to add more capability.

2-years of commits to SparkFun's Eagle libraries
2-years of commits to SparkFun’s Eagle libraries

On the development side of things SparkFun is quite well-known for their Eagle libraries which are both extensive and well-maintained. I was wondering if this gets harder as time goes on, but maintaining and growing it is just part of the work flow. What it does do is lock the company into using CadSoft Eagle for their Electronic Design Automation software. But it’s not inconceivable that this could change.

The company actually started using Protel (which later became Altium Designer) until the license fees became prohibitively expensive for the number of seats they needed. This prompted the switch to Eagle which had the benefits of a lower license fee, and the availability of a zero-cost (but size restrained) version available to SparkFun’s customers.

Ironically, Altium has been heavily courting SparkFun to start working with their new EDA offering called CircuitMaker. This new business model for Altium offers free use as long as designs are stored online and published publicly. Saving all your designs privately can be done if you pay for a subscription.

SparkFun plans to give CircuitMaker a try, and will also do so with KiCAD  (the Free and Open Source EDA suite) in a few upcoming projects. The thing we couldn’t agree more with [Nate] about is the need for a rock-solid conversion tool that can translate parts libraries between the three softwares.

31 thoughts on “Talking Big Changes At SparkFun With Nathan Seidle

  1. Anyone smart, clear-sighted, and humble enough to hire his boss is to be applauded. A corner office may be way cool and make your mother proud of you, but if it ain’t your sweet spot, don’t go there.

    1. It is certainly admirable but not very uncommon. Especially as Sparkfun probably see themselves to be almost completely out of the startup phase now and are looking to build better business practices you need a different type of management. Entrepreneurs don’t always make the best CEOs as they often have a very different perspective on how to run a company. This becomes more difficult as a company gets larger and the management requirements change.

      Instead it makes sense for him to move back into an engineering role, especially considering that is his other skills base. It keeps him involved in the daily development of the company using his best skills but with a probably more experience set of management skills at the helm.

  2. This sponsored posting was brought to you by… Sparkfun.

    Dear fellow hackers: With your participation you are empowering a platform that is commercial in nature. Haven’t you learned that this is always a bad thing?

    1. This is ‘maker industry news’ – it isnt an endorsement of a sparkfun service or product.

      Do you have any experience at all in the electronics industry? In any industry?

      1. Dear fellow hackers: Don’t buy from someone b/c it might allow them to make money off the that things. No one should be allowed to make money!!! You should work hard to create awesome things, further the electronic community, gift the world with your talent but you must NEVER make money. How dare HAD post an article about the largest grass roots, open source loving, community driving, famous company in DIY electronics. Go back to your roots HAD. I want black and white picture in a cheesy pin up boarder. If the video has more than 10 views on YouTube don’t post it. Better yet if the content isn’t posted on someone’s home server it doesn’t belong her.

        1. The… purists on this site are so ridiculous.

          Sparkfun is a gem of a company, and its founders are awesome..

          What sort of deluded ‘maker’ insults a CEO who wants to instead pursue their engineering career?

          Its astounding, the lack of self reflection.

    2. You sound ridiculous, Sparkfun are a great company right up there with adafruit, arduino & raspberry pi. A lot of cash made by these types of companies are reinvested in R&D on new modules, open hardware & open souce. These companies have helped create the maker scene massive.

  3. I think Nathan will be able to let someone else take control without the petty differences alluded to in the article.

    I would imagine almost everyone who has met him feels this way.

    1. Indeed. I met him briefly during OHS in 2013, and he came across as a pretty cool guy. He’s also an Engineer, so it makes sense to pursue that activity and let someone more adept at running the business part handle the executive functions.

      1. He has earned the right to be as elitist as he wants – and responds by coming off as almost devoid of pretension.

        Building a company like Sparkfun is a incredible achievement. The people who would insult SparkFun must not know what sort of company it is.

        Maybe there is some deep dark sparkfun secrets I dont know about, but I have never even heard rumors of their workers or customers being unhappy.

        1. I don’t know I’ve heard rumors about bringing your dog into work with you, drinking cold beer from the break room, and being open to hearing ideas from anyone in the company regardless of how small their job is.

          They must be miserable every time they think about working there.

  4. Phew… for a minute there I thought you were about to drop something along the lines of “Stratasys buys Sparkfun so MakerBot can have a friend” on us!

    Kudos to Nathan for such a move. It will come with its own unique challenges, but I think it will end up being a very smart decision.

  5. I am familiar with this, I recently resigned my position as CTO of a company because I was being consumed with operational items and my heart was in the design and implementation. I was always a hands on CTO, and I would help the team build networks, etc…. In resigning, I ended up taking a small contract to help transition out. And during this time I starting up a company, and I have to decide really hard what my role is. There is a difference between ownership and having a position in the company. I own 100% of the company and have final say, but I choose to let CEO guide my company and I will be sticking to the engineering part.this is not uncommon, Bill Gates once stepped down to be something else, I forgot what. —just my 2 cents

    1. it is one of those things that rarely work very well, questions on who’s really the boss the boss or the bosses boss is not a good thing, and can you get proper CEO material to sign up for getting all the blame but having to work with one hand tied?

  6. I’ve been part of a few search/interview teams were I was either helping to hire my own next boss or the level above him. I highly recommend the process for several reasons, the most critical being the need for management to get “buy-in” from all levels for such decisions.

    I’m an “engineer for life” (over 3 decades so far), and have resisted all efforts to push me into management (to the detriment of my salary, but also to the enhancement of my happiness). Having good management above me, and working well with/for them, is a primary key to my own success.

  7. I envy Nate, I’ve not owned a company as he does rather I managed a large IT department. Every time I tried to role up my sleeves and get my hands dirty as it were I got politely told to go back to my executive office. Sparkfun’s engineering department is where the future of the company will be decided as it’s certainly not as a commodity-reseller of other engineering department’s products.

  8. Terrible interview! Please provide the full text. No details at all. Mike what is SparkFun’s revenue? Current and forecast please.

    What is the staff attrition?

    What CEO would take on a job with all the responsibility and none of the ownership???

    Who are they planning on selling the company to? What happened to Free Day?

  9. This may well be the wisest thing Nate has done since founding the company.
    Have some experience here.
    Started a small electronics/telecom company 33 years ago, mostly because I enjoyed designing electronics.
    As for so many it ended up with a suit and a tie, and 30 years of jobs like product management, sales and customer handling in larger telecom companies.
    Had to go into pension before I could get back to my roots doing part-time design /consulting (in the original small company).
    Been an engineer in my soul all the time though.
    Let’s wish him luck and let’s hope it turns out well.

  10. As long as he retains the right to fire the CEO. A lot of companies “lose their soul” in changes like this or get vacuumed up into companies that had no soul to begin with…

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