Zach Supalla is the founder and CEO of Particle, a self-described “prototype-to-production platform for developing an Internet of Things product.” Particle offers two wireless-enabled microcontroller boards, the Photon and Electron, as well as software development tools and an Internet of Things Cloud platform for both Wi-Fi and cellular connected products.

Photo courtesy of Particle

Photo courtesy of Particle

With the Photon and Electron respectively, Particle offers two kinds of connectivity: Wi-Fi and cellular. How should makers choose between them?
You have to identify the problem you’re trying to solve, and your business model, and then work backward. Is your customer willing to pay the monthly data fee for a cellular device?

If your product is out of range of Wi-Fi, you’ll need a cellular connection. Another consideration is reliability. If your product is mission critical, like a security system, you might want cellular connectivity.

Adorable Illustrations by James Burke

Adorable Illustrations by James Burke

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One unexpected thing we discovered: For a lot of commercial or industrial applications, they have a Wi-Fi network, but they don’t want to deal with the hassle of getting their device on that network, so they use cellular. A lot of business decisions are made to go around the IT department.

If you make the right decision at the beginning, a lot of the rest of the technology flows from there. The way the devices react to each other, and the way they react to the web — all of it becomes kind of intuitive, if you figure out the business model and strategy up front.

How can a maker cut through the noise, and the hype, surrounding the Internet of Things?
We used to avoid the term “Internet of Things,” because of the hype. We preferred “connected devices.” But a lot of our customers are IoT people, they’ve bought in, so we want to respect that. For others, IoT is meaningless jargon. What they care about is what problem the product is solving.

For instance, we work with Opti, a stormwater management system. It’s a great product, given the increase in extreme weather and flooding. They don’t say, “We are an IoT product.” They say, “We have a great stormwater management system.”

I have an advisor who likens the term “IoT” to “robots.” You use the term “robot” until a product has utility and deserves its own word; it’s not a “robotic bread warmer,” it’s a “toaster.” That’s happening with IoT as well.

What are some future IoT technologies that Maker Pros should keep their eyes on?
There are interesting and semi-related battles happening in three areas: new IoT aspects to the current LTE wireless standard (Cat-0, Cat-1, Cat-M), mesh networking (ZigBee, Thread, 802.15.4, 6LoWPAN), and low power wide area networking (LoRa, Sigfox). It’s not clear who’s going to win these battles, but it will probably play out over the next 5 years.

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That’s challenging if you’re trying to launch a product this year.
It’s frustrating, because if you have an application that you’re trying to build today, you’re probably thinking, “Just tell me which one to use! I don’t want to wait for 5 years!” But if you’re sitting on the sidelines, it will be fun to watch this play out.

Particle has a “hybrid open source” business model: a lot of open source, but some proprietary code as well. Is that a model you recommend?
The hybrid open source model can be effective if you do it right. We believe in peer review, and we believe that code that has more eyes on it will become better code. A big part of our philosophy is that we wanted developers and engineers to be comfortable using our hardware and software, and not to perceive too much risk in working with us. Open sourcing a lot of what we do has been helpful in reducing that risk.

Yet if everything is open source, how will you make money?
We don’t need to make money from every single customer; we need a ratio that works. A maker can use 100% of our stuff and it will all be open and free. That’s fine. For an enterprise, maybe 40% of what they need is free, so that’s a business that’s available to us: providing that 60%.

So do you think itʼs a model Maker Pros should consider?
You have to be thoughtful. Don’t just do open source because you love open source. It builds a community, and it gets developers, engineers, and makers involved in a way they wouldn’t engage with proprietary products. But you also have to build a business.

Illustrations by James Burke

Have you discovered that creating a community around your products has turned out to be more important than you originally thought?
Community is huge, and really hard to get right. I didn’t understand that before we built the community. It’s incredibly valuable when you’re a startup, because it gives you something to build off of, it makes you robust and self-sustaining.

Imagine you have a product with no fan base, no community, no one talks about you except you. Then it’s really expensive to get people to buy your product, because you have to put up ads. Most of what we do is community generated. By working with the community, our voices and their voices are amplified.

When should a Maker Pro book a trip to China?
Everyone should book a trip to China. Like tomorrow. There’s a lot of value in understanding what China is, and isn’t, and how to navigate that ecosystem. The earlier you learn those lessons, the better, because if you’re manufacturing electronics overseas, you’re going to be designing for China. Going on factory tours and talking with various people who do different kinds of services — contract manufacturers, engineering firms, logistics firms — makes developing your product a lot more intuitive from that point on.

Image courtesy of Particle

Image courtesy of Particle

Particle has a lot of industrial customers. Do you think more makers should aim their products toward industrial markets, rather than consumer ones?
Consumer stuff is more obvious out of the gate, but it’s the less sexy, dirtier, more industrial products and applications that make better businesses. If you target the consumer, you’ll likely be facing five or 10 or 20 companies that will be trying to do the same thing. But if you go down the industrial path, you’ll find big areas, big opportunities, with no competitors. You’ll find lots of customers with big problems they need to solve and high willingness to pay.