Hackster Heroes: Nathan Seidle

Nathan Seidle is the founder and CEO of SparkFun Electronics in Boulder, Colorado.

Hackster Staff
8 years agoInternet of Things

Nathan Seidle is the founder and CEO of SparkFun Electronics in Boulder, Colorado.

Nathan launched SparkFun in 2003 while still an electrical engineering undergrad to fulfill his vision of a company that had clear product photos with multiple views, linked to the datasheet, and had tutorials on every product they sold. More than 10 years later, SparkFun has grown to over 150 employees and is one of the leaders of burgeoning open source movement.

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Nathan to hear his thoughts on the Internet of Things, hardware, Maker culture, and much, much more…

Tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up in Oklahoma and went to college for electrical engineering. The fun stuff in college wasn’t the classes, it was all the side experiences: learning how to use a mill, sitting bow seat for the CU club team, dropping out and working at Rice-Eccels stadium for the 2002 winter Olympics, learning to work on motorcycles. All the while I enjoyed making things with my hands and each event along the way led me closer to starting SparkFun (I originally started a rowing electronics company, and to get the prototyping tools I needed I started SparkFun.)

How many people work at SparkFun? How do you recruit such awesome people? What makes them (and you) stay?

We have roughly 135 people at SparkFun, with something like eight open positions any given week. We’ve asked our folks about what drew them to SparkFun and they report that once you get the basics out of the way (pay, benefits, dress code) it’s really just about creating a place where the problems are clearly defined and everyone is on the same page. A well defined and well protected culture seems to really attract people. Having a state where you can hike four fourteeners in a day is also a great way to convince them to move!

Percentage of products made in the U.S.?

We’ve got about 2,400 products on our website. Nearly 700 of them are designed by our engineers, open source, and made right here in Boulder—but what does ‘Country of origin’ really mean? For example, there are wafers that are fabbed in Boston, diced in Germany, tested in Mexico, DIP packaged in Taiwan and distributed from the UK. There is no one place things are made. We’re proud to build over 100,000 SparkFun products a month right here in Boulder, but it’s clear we’re a very small part in a global market (I did a post about Made in Earth).

How have things changed for you and SparkFun since the Maker Movement has taken off?

When we started in 2003 there were almost no images of electronic components or dev boards online. The big distribution companies had fresh new websites that looked like they had cut apart their 1,000 page catalog on a bandsaw, scanned in the pages and called themselves ‘online!’ Thanks to the Internet, the geeks started to share experiences on forums and websites like SparkFun; it was lovely to realize I wasn’t completely weird. When Arduino started picking up steam in 2005 and Make: Magazine stuck a flag in the movement in 2006, we were right in the thick of it. I’m thrilled to have pushed the community to be as inclusive, wide, and weird as it has become.

Your thoughts on the current state of the OSHW movement? The economics of it? (In other words, how can companies/Makers make money?)

The OSHW movement is exploding in places like Intel, Redhat, and Autodesk, and that’s just to name the ones I talked to last week! Tons of large companies are taking note of how many small companies are springing up and giving larger entities a run for their money. And I do mean a literal run. The principles of open source hardware strip down the way a business is run down to its core. Imagine a company where they don’t worry about patents, patent trolls, or cease and desist and all you have to do is innovate, market the idea, build it, then ship it. In return you get dollars. Do I have to worry about things like making more money than I’m spending, and making sure the customer is taken care of? Yes, but that’s healthy and proper and a heck of a lot faster than participating in an imaginary monopoly. .

IoT according to Nate?

I have the standard grumpiness that IoT was once called M2M and it’s all a bit of smoke and mirrors. But the happy side of me is excited. Let me paint the IoT+OSHW future for you: my wife and I bought a Clyde desk lamp recently. A beautiful, well built lamp. But as you press the power button the lamp turns on, then it dims, then it changes color, then it turns off. I really just wanted it to turn on/off. This lamp has its own repo (never thought I would say that about a desk lamp!) so I pulled down the Arduino sketch and within 30 minutes I had the lamp programmed to have the behavior and functionality that I needed. The future of commercial products is more bespoke and less mass production.

How is Clyde IoT? It’s not on Wi-Fi and I don’t want it to be but its essence is online. The schematic, the code, and how people are modding it are all connected online.

If you could give the Internet of Things a new name, what would it be and why?

Hah! I know better than to try to out-market the great marketing engines of the world. The fact that the word ‘things’ made it in there shows just how broad and troublesome a name for this—well, thing—can be.

What do you think is next for the Internet of Things? The cloud?

Chris Watterston’s harsh but fair sticker is becoming more and more important. While I’m super happy that my parents now use the term ‘cloud computing’ in passing conversation, I’ve been shocked by the number of college students that believe the cloud is a public entity who “is probably a non-profit”. We need to be really sure we educate the general user about who owns their data and how it will be sold. I’ve been working with various branches of the government to get a nutritional label of sorts for IoT security on consumer devices. We need to be sure we keep Internet connectivity and the cloud as boundless, neutral, and un-obfuscated as possible.

What would be your “great hardware project?” Something in-progress or only dreamed up… (and don’t say your company!)

Mentally controlled hand of fire. There’s probably already an instructable for it. [Editor’s note: Legit.]

Most interesting battle scar from a project?

If you ever owned a TI calculator, this is a fun story. In 7th grade (1993), I started running a BBS out of our one-phone-line house. This had obvious problems, but the upside is that all sorts of interesting files and material started accumulating between users. One such file was a ZIP that contained over a hundred TI-83 calculator programs. At the same time I had been learning Basic and written a Worm game on my calculator but I was limited to transferring really good games via the 2.5mm audio cable between classmates. Through coincidence and serendipity, another BBS user uploaded a file that was the ASCII art rendition of a schematic of a device to connect a TI calculator to a parallel port on a computer, thus I could transfer countless games and files to and from my calculator (I took notes on my calculator) — I just had to build it! The schematic was something like two resistors and a diode connected to various pins on the DB25. I bought the parts from RadioShack and used my dad’s wood-burning iron to solder the parts. Of course, I was doing this at home when my parents were on a date, so when I accidentally got a blob of solder shorting between two pins, I decided to cut the blob apart using a box knife while holding the DB25. Needless to say, I’ve got scar on my thumb.

The final chapter of that story is that the parallel port calculator connector worked so well I started building and selling them to my friends. SparkFun has its roots in an open source schematic and a poor life choice many years ago!

What other interests or skills inform your making — any weird creative collisions?

I’ve been really enjoying volunteering at the kids’ museum for the past few years. If you think you’ve built something cool, I recommend you work with a local museum to test it out. 1,000 pairs of young hands will humble you and teach you about user experience.

Where do you see SparkFun in 5 years? 10? What has changed the most over the last couple of years?

As long as technology gets smaller, SparkFun will be there to make it a bit larger with a breakout board and to show folks how to hook it up. What has changed in the last few years is the tremendous success we’ve had within formal education. I had to learn how to blink an LED as a senior in college, but now we are creating products and a curriculum that are being used by hundreds of school districts to teach 9th graders how to post UV readings to our data channel and lower the shades to decrease cooling bills. It’s awesome to see more students understanding how the underpinnings of their cellphones and other technology works.

You receive a letter from you-in-20-years. What advice do you get from Nathan Van Winkle?

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day fires. Enjoy the moment and the people around you.

What are some of your favorite things about the Maker economy/culture? Least favorite?

Just like “there’s an app for that,” my favorite thing is that there’s probably a webshop for that really eclectic widget to connect your hobbies (such as beehives and IoT). My least favorite part of the Maker culture is the push to be first. I often get dissuaded from working on a project because I want to add to the canon rather than replicate, but perhaps that’s my own holdup.

What advice would you give Makers looking to launch a startup? What about someone who has an idea for a hardware product, but isn’t sure which direction to take it?

Get the “Buy it Now!” button next to it. RIGHT NOW. Your product might not be done, but spoiler alert: it never will be. We often get sucked into the engineer’s curse, where “if you just give me two more weeks I can make it perfect!” And two weeks later, “if you just give me three more weeks, I can add the killer feature!” Don’t get stuck in the curse: stop and ship something. Customers hate it when you change their expectations. So as long as you are really clear what the end customer will get (this PCB has this green wire on it, and the time function doesn’t work, but it logs barometric pressure exactly 25 times a second) then post the thing! You will be amazed how quickly it will sell and how much feedback you’ll get that may point you in a direction you never expected.

Okay, time for the Hackster lightning round…

What is the Hex number for SparkFun red?


Longest day at work?

FreeDay, January 7th 2010

Your first board?

So many! Breakout for the CP2101.

Your go-to board?

SparkFun ESP8266 Thing Dev Board + Blynk = My hammer for almost all nails

Last crowdfunding campaign you backed?


Favorite city?

The reefs of Palau

What color would (or did) you dye your hair?

Bleach blond for Burning Man. I came back and a new employee asked if I needed help finding the restroom.

Who’d you rather go out drinking with: Massimo Banzi or Carl Bass?

I would drink Carl Bass under the table to steal his keys to Pier 9. Although whiskey and a 5-axis water jet DO NOT MIX, people.

Your role model?

I don’t have one. Maybe that explains my problem with sticking to one role.

If you had to eat one SparkFun product, which one would be the tastiest?

I… I don’t… What does electrolytic gel even taste like? Bleh.

Would you rather build a glove that can control any machine or a set of headphones that lets you understand animals?

Glove. The squirrels in my backyard would be pretty boring, but controlling a square mile of heavy machinery would be immensely fun.

Hackster Staff
Projects and articles from the Hackster Staff!
Latest articles
Sponsored articles
Related articles
Latest articles
Read more
Related articles