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
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.
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.