Indie hardware hacker and engineer Limor "Ladyada" Fried was named today as Entrepreneur Magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year.
The founder of Adafruit Industries was chosen among thousands of nominations the magazine received. She was the only female finalist when the nominations were whittled down to five for the main category in the early fall.
Fried's company has humble beginnings and has grown into a sprawling educational resource and one-stop shop for electronics hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, and experienced hackers alike. Remarkably, in a highly competitive marketplace where businesses closely guard code, schematics, and most everything they can, Adafruit is a pro-DIY company built entirely on an open-source business model where everything is made freely available and sharing is encouraged.
Adafruit is also no stranger to controversy, having made big waves and earning public disapproval from Microsoft in 20101 with Adafruit's Open Kinect/Xbox hacking contest, which offered an "X Prize"-style bounty for the first person to hack Kinect for Xbox 360.
Fried is featured in the January 2013 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine.
I visited Adafruit Industries in New York City and asked Fried what she thinks the award means for hackers, engineers, and open source. And she reveals what's cool about entrepreneurship.
Question: What do you feel that being named "Entrepreneur of the Year" represents?
Limor Fried: I think being named "Entrepreneur of the Year" represents opportunity for more makers and hackers to see it's possible to be a good cause and a good business. Adafruit wants to help make the world a better place through sharing and good engineering. One of my favorite quotes is from Dean Kamen, "We are what we celebrate" -- anyone who wants to help teach people electronics and make things can [make] a business out of it.
If there's one thing I'd like to see from this, it would be for some kid say to themselves "I could do that" and start the journey to becoming an engineer and entrepreneur.
What do you think it means that a hacker who has built an entirely open-source business now holds this title?
Limor Fried: Many of the best-known companies of today were started by hackers. If you look at history of Apple was started by two hackers, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. They even jammed TVs:
"When I was in high school Steve Wozniak and I, mostly Steve, made this little device called a 'TV jammer.' It was this little oscillator that put out frequencies that would screw up the TV. Woz would have it in his pocket and we'd go in to like the dorm at Berkeley where he was going to school and a bunch of folks would be watching like Star Trek and he'd screw up the TV, somebody would go up to fix it and just as they had their foot off the ground he'd turn it back on! If they put their foot back down on the ground he'd screw up the TV again, within 5 minutes have someone like this [Jobs posing all pretzel looking] for the rest of the Star Trek episode." -- Steve Jobs
Facebook has a "hacker" past too. Mark Zuckerberg hacked private accounts when he was 19 to make TheFacebook. I'm not on Facebook -- not my type of hacking I want to celebrate -- but you get the point.
As far a building a company on open source, it's always been hard to convince people that this can be a great business model. I give away what's usually considered the most valuable (intellectual property) all for free. We've never taken funding or loans of any type, we built Adafruit one kit at a time and invested everything back in to the company. Giving away my designs for others to make, learn and build upon has created a community of makers and hackers that support what we do.
The new trend we're seeing is when people are considering a company to buy stuff from they look at how many public open-source repos the company has. We'll be at over 200 shortly! (https://github.com/adafruit) Good repos is good business. Open-source works for software and for hardware.
The thing about hardware that we've always known from the start is that there really [aren't] any "protections" that make sense for a small company to move fast and innovate. There are patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Hardware generally isn't copyright, and we all see companies copying each other even if they have patents and teams of lawyers. So we decided to work on great hardware that benefits our community. There's a group of open-source hardware companies, and we all "grew up together." We could clone the hell out of each other, but we don't. We work together in various ways and innovate. In the end it's not the physical bits that will matter the most to our customers. It's the service, support, tutorials, videos, and community we're part of.
Why is entrepreneurship cool?
Limor Fried: Freedom, the ability to do great work with great people for great customers. It really is possible to help people all while running a business. These are not at odds with one another; they complement each other. It's hard to do this if you're working for someone else. But [if] the DNA of your own company from the start is about trying to do good, you can do it!
In the years of running Adafruit Industries, what took you most by surprise?
Limor Fried: Success is a lot like panic. When things really started to take off, it got harder (mentally and physically) as opposed to when the company was smaller and it was unclear if we were going to make it. We want to have great quality designs and products and keep the teams top-notch, all while meeting demand. So the thing that surprised me the most is how challenging it is to not give in to getting big too fast, hiring too many people, taking on funding, etc. -- so we decided to take a more methodical approach and build the business slow compared to others. Each time we add someone to the team, it's a big deal. Each time we release a product, we go the extra mile to make sure it's the best quality and best value. The biggest competitors we have are ourselves, and time.
What are you doing with Adafruit Industries that makes you different from other entrepreneurs?
Limor Fried: We do things that have nothing to do with our business. Entrepreneurs are usually very focused on one thing; we have a mission that sometimes takes us to weird places.
A year or so ago, we reverse-engineered the Kinect when it came out and published the protocols used so someone could make an open-source driver. We created a bounty and Microsoft basically threatened to sue us, so we raised the bounty. This happened a couple times and then after thousands of makers and hackers created an entire ecosystem of amazing projects. Microsoft backed down and embraced the hackers. And now there is a thriving market for Microsoft for Kinect "hacks."
Doing something like this had nothing to do with our products. We didn't sell Kinects or anything that would benefit us, but we knew a low-cost commodity piece of hardware like the Kinect could fuel tons of innovation if it was set free. We wanted to see this in the world so we helped facilitate it. All that being said, some of our best sales days were during the Kinect hacking. Our community really rewarded us!
What's next for Adafruit Industries?
Limor Fried: We tend to think in terms of ideas and products we want to see flourish in the world. We're really interested in getting wearable electronics in the hands of more people -- we just released FLORA, our wearable electronics platform. You will be able to "wear a movie" -- our smart pixels can be woven in fabric with our special conductive thread. There are of course a ton of sensors we're releasing, so the applications for medical, environmental, and more are happening as well. We're interested in the 3D space. In 60 days or less we'll have a really big announcements.
Our learning system is something we're going to continue to expand and enhance. We think it's the best learning and tutorial system in the world and our customers are delighted, we're making it part of each product with hundreds of tutorials.
We've also been working on our Linux Distro for the Raspberry Pi. It's called Occidentalis v0.2. Rubus Occidentalis -- the black raspberry. It's an out-of-the-box way to get up and running and making things with a Raspberry Pi, a low-cost computer for education. This is part of our WebIDE that teaches young people how to program. We want every kid to be able to learn computer science, all with open-source hardware and software.
We're trying to reach a younger and younger group, so we're also working on a kid's show (which is really for adults to watch with their kids) called "Circuit Playground" -- we worked with someone who designs muppets for Sesame Street. Our goal is spark the young minds out there to show how fun it is to be a maker, hacker, artist, and engineer. Imagine if Disney was an open-source company.
Most of all, we want to keep doing good work and good business with our team. People are not buying electronic parts from some random company. They're becoming part of something that was made with actual heart and soul -- every day we want to be able to say that's what we've put out in the world.