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As I write this (11am CST) I’m repeatedly hitting Apple-R on my keyboard to refresh my browser. That’s right, I’m one of the thousands of giddy electronics fans trying to cash in on SparkFun’s Free Day. Last I saw, almost 92% of the funds remain, mainly due to people DDOSing the server with their frantic reloads.

OK, hands off the keyboard. Let’s take a deep breath, step back a moment and consider a question: in the final analysis, is this $100,000 free-for-all — the nerd equivalent of 10,000 soccer moms battling over a limited number of Teddy Ruxpins on Black Friday — really a good idea for SparkFun? Ultimately will it help or hurt them? I asked two hardware hackers, Garrett Mace and MAKE’s own John Edgar Park, to weigh in. Bear in mind that they wrote these opinions last night.

First, Garrett Mace says negatory, bad idea:

It just seems like a bad move for SparkFun. More of a risk, actually. They are definitely getting a lot of publicity from Free Day, but I don’t know if it will outweigh the negatives. Their site has been slow all month, bad for any online business. They’re losing $100,000 of income, or about $20,000-$50,000 in costs. About 1,000 people will get their free stuff, but many thousands more will fail to do so, for various reasons. The people who didn’t get their free stuff will somehow feel cheated, either by SparkFun or by the ones who did get the free stuff. There will be hundreds, maybe thousands of emails to SparkFun support complaining, or begging for special consideration because a computer crashed, the power went out, etc. And I think that many of the lucky 1,000 will be those only looking for something free, instead of those who would fully appreciate and use the hardware. I expect that a lot of the free stuff will end up in the bottom of a drawer forever. There are definitely 1000 electronic hobbyists out there who would truly appreciate SparkFun’s gesture and would put the hardware to good use, but there’s no way to select for them. I think SparkFun would get much closer to what they’re trying to accomplish here if they held smaller giveaways throughout the year, with a more selective approach (design contests, quizzes, etc). Regardless of what happens, we’re not going to hear any misgivings from SparkFun after the fact…they have to play it off as a grand event now that they’ve committed to it, so we’ll hear upbeat reports with lots of words like “amazing”, “exciting”, “overwhelmed”, “community” and so on.

I hate to be negative, since the actual intention behind the idea is great. I’m just speaking from experience seeing other giveaways; hackaday and “i want this book”, the Woot.com Bag Of Crap, etc.

For the counterpoint, J. Edgar says yea:

SparkFun’s Free Day is a great idea for a number of reasons. Foremost, they’re getting a ton of free publicity for it. I won’t claim to have run any numbers, but I’d guess that this kind of advertising is worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (remember, $100K of merchandise will cost them between $25-50K at cost, and they ain’t paying for shipping). Why is this stunt worth so much? Because it’s not limited to a single ad in a few print publications or banners on websites. It’s the juicy kind of advertising that’s hard to buy; it’s buzz. People are tweeting about it, blogging about it, excited about it. Not only are the major hacking/building/making sites writing about it, but so are the deal sites, the forums, and so on. They’ve even got 274 comments on their original blog post announcing this — when people make the effort to become part of the conversation you know they’ll remember you the next time they need to buy a breakout board.

Next, their stated reasons are sound. They want to stress test their new servers. This’ll do that. They want to engender good will to their customers. Engendered. They have excused themselves from shipping it all immediately, so they won’t need to hire extra hands or crush the existing staff.

Sure, most people will be turned away at the door, and some people will send email to complain about that, but in the long run this is a terrific move. SparkFun has great products and a winning personality, so anything they can do to get their name out to a wider audience will benefit them in the end. [Full disclosure, SparkFun distributes ScrewShield kits, of which I'm a co-creator.]

What are your thoughts, readers? Did you successfully battle your way to the checkout window? What loot did you score or not score? Leave your comments but please keep them rational and courteous.

John Baichtal

My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net


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