This article is part of our September 2015 special report on startups, which highlights IEEE’s efforts to attract more entrepreneurial types to the organization.
Meet IEEE Member Limor Fried. Her do-it-yourself electronics company for hobbyists has carved out a category all its own and is worth millions. Through the new IEEE entrepreneur initiative, the organization hopes to attract more members like Fried who are developing engineer-inspired ventures.
Fried’s company, Adafruit Industries, makes hundreds of different kits, including ones for electronics experimentation built around an open-source prototyping platform to make gadgets such as smartphones, handheld video games, and a wearable for GPS-enabled clothing so “you’ll never get lost again.” The most popular is the US $19 MintyBoost, a charger for an iPhone or iPad. Its circuit and two AA batteries can fit in an Altoids mint tin.
The company sells more than 2,600 electronic parts, including wire and cable, conductive thread for wearables, multimeters, and breadboards and sockets. It also offers some 800 free tutorials. For the projects, you’ll need a soldering iron and a diagonal metal cutter, which are sold separately. Adafruit’s mission: to make electronics accessible and understandable to everyone. The company, named in honor of English mathematician Ada Lovelace, is “a wonderland of electronics,” Fried says.
As an electrical engineering grad student at MIT in 2005, Fried, now 35, often built her own gadgets, including the smartphone she uses today. Investing $10,000 she had saved up for her tuition into her company and without ever taking a loan or venture capital funding Fried has grown her business, which earned revenues of $33 million last year. It now has 83 employees at its 930-square-meter facility in New York City.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Adafruit Industries got its start after Fried posted her own DIY projects on her website. People contacted her about how they could build their own gadgets. “It was something for me to kill time with until I got a real job in industry,” she says.
Soon she found herself flooded with orders and making daily trips to the post office between classes to mail the kits. She finally felt she had no choice but to read up on the nuts and bolts of running a company, especially the financial parts. “The idea of crunching numbers didn’t scare me. I’m an engineer,” she recalls. “I thought, accounting is so easy compared to differential calculus.”
For Fried, it was about learning one aspect of the business at a time. When she hired her first employee, she learned to process a payroll. When it came time to file taxes, she determined which forms she needed.
Fried says she wouldn’t have been so successful, however, if she didn’t offer well-designed goods. “When you have poor-quality products, you need to deal with a lot of technical support, returns, and repairs,” she says.
In fact, she tests every product the company sells. “If I don’t think a product is good enough,” she says, “then I don’t put it in on our website.” And her attention to detail shows. Inc. magazine last year ranked Adafruit 11th among the fastest-growing manufacturers in the United States and the top one in the New York City metropolitan area from 2011 to 2014.
Fried was also the first woman engineer to be on the cover of Wired magazine, and she has been named a top entrepreneur by several leading business publications.
Adafruit offers open-source code to help people design their projects. “Customers are encouraged to hack into our products to make them their own,” Fried says. They could, for example, use the open-source code on GitHub, a platform that lets users access—and, if they wish, collaborate on—coding projects in order to add functions to their devices.
Fried has been influential in the open-source hardware community. She participated in the first Open Source Hardware Summit and the drafting of the definition of open-source hardware.
Fried doesn’t rely on typical market research to learn what her customers want. Instead, she gives away products in exchange for feedback. “Let customers teach you about what you’re making,” she advises.
Adafruit hosts a weekly “Show and Tell” Google Hangout session in which members of the DIY electronics community showcase the projects they’re working on. That provides the company with insight into not only how people use its products but also what they might want in new ones.
Fried has also made STEM education part of the company’s mission. To help teachers instruct preuniversity students about electronics and programming, she created a DIY kit for building a smartphone.
And Adafruit produces the YouTube series Circuit Playground, meant for children. Each episode covers an electrical engineering concept. For example, one episode is titled “F Is for Frequency.” Fried says she wants electronics to be “just as enjoyable for kids as watching their favorite movies.”
This article originally appeared in print as “The Do-It-Yourself Entrepreneur.”