There are some companies that just seem charmed, possessed of a deft balance of corporate instincts, with the courage and conviction to lead, to make bold, even audacious moves that repeatedly turn out to be the right ones. Adafruit Industries is such a company. Founded in a dorm room in 2005 by MIT engineer Limor “Ladyada” Fried as an online learning resource and marketplace for do-it-yourself electronics, Adafruit is now a highly successful community-driven electronics company, educational resource, and maker community thriving in SoHo, Manhattan.
Limor sees three keys to the success of the company: “Being focused on others, having an unconditional belief that you can be both a good cause and a good company, and seeing risk-taking as your friend and your only real competition as yourself.”
It is these high-minded tenets that make Adafruit something special. That they’ve managed to hold on to these values as they’ve grown — creating an increasingly open source company culture around them — is especially laudable.
Limor embraced open source before many other makers going pro did the same, largely from her environment. “Boston and MIT had a very strong open source culture,” she says. “In my youth, I spent time hanging out with GNU/Free Software Foundation people and others in the open source software community. I learned to code by looking at open source software, so it only seemed natural to try and apply that same philosophy to my fledgling hardware business.
“I didn’t think it would ‘pay off’ at all,” she says. “But it was just something I felt very strongly about, and if it worked out, if it became profitable, then great.”
From the very beginning, with early product successes like the MiniPOV (persistence of vision) and SpokePOV (POV for your bike wheel) kits, and the MintyBoost (the world’s first open source device charger), Adafruit has always made well-designed, user-friendly kits and components accompanied by excellent online tutorials and build videos. The company now carries more than 3,500 products, including over 400 original designs. With these efforts, and educational offerings like the Adafruit Learning System, Adafruit has done more than just about any other organization to humanize electronics to make them fun, accessible, and useful to the tinkering masses.
Anyone who knows Limor, and her partner in crime, Phillip Torrone (aka “Mr. Ladyada”), knows that they live and breathe Adafruit. This company, this community, this mission, is a passionate 24/7 commitment. How can Limor handle being CEO of the company, the star (as Ladyada) and co-creator of so many of Adafruit’s YouTube shows (and other online content), and the main product designer? It’s exhausting just to think about it all.
“A lot of it is just knowing how to do triage on projects and manage my time effectively,” she says. “In planning what I’m going to do, I often decide based on what can get the most people on our team going. This maximizes my efforts.” She continues: “When leading a group, it’s important to identify what we call ‘NP problems’ [“Nondeterministic polynomial time”] — these are tasks that may take some time and care to complete, but they can be quickly verified. Such ‘NP problems’ can be given to people on the team so that they can quickly take them on, practicing and learning new skills as they tackle them. Then, we can come back together and I can check in on the final result.”
Limor also maximizes her content creation time by doing lots of video live — eliminating the time-consuming editing process. “Oftentimes, I will do a video just as I’m wrapping up work on something I was doing anyway. Or I might design a PCB live, on-air. So, I’m able to do ‘double duty’ for that time.
“It’s a balance of strict-time and free-time scheduling,” she says about managing her days. “For example, the live shows happen every Wednesday night, and we have weekly group and individual meetings that can’t be moved. And then there’s the free time in-between. ‘Free time’ is for handling the little and immediate things that come up. The toughest part is looking at the free time available and figuring out the right task to fit into that time slot. It takes practice and experience, knowing what you can realistically complete within the allotted period.”
Despite the success, Limor stays active with engineering. “I still design or review all of the hardware designs as well as approve the samples for other things that we stock.” She adds: “KTOWN [Kevin Townsend], our amazing wireless and embedded engineer, does the firmware, design, and hardware for our more complex and valuable hardware projects.” Limor spends most of her time on the testing procedure and fixture design, and says she pretty much does all of it. “I make one tester, then our in-house fab team helps build the testers from my prototype.” Limor believes that having good test and quality assurance procedures are a must. She says that a significant amount of the time and cost of a product is taken up in the test/program/verify stage. “So, I work a lot on optimizing that,” she says. “We reuse a lot of our designs to do so. For example, all of our dev boards are tested using a Raspberry Pi 3 running OpenOCD (an open source on-chip debugging program), with a PiTFT screen (an RPi-compatible touchscreen made by Adafruit).” She continues: “They make for lovely, small, stand-alone testers that are easy to duplicate, and they’re very inexpensive.”
How it’s Made
“I develop products by listening to people in the community,” Limor says. “At places like Maker Faires, tech events, and on our Show and Tell, I see what people are working on, what projects are popular, and what problems they are having. Then I think of ways of solving them.
“Sometimes, I’ll have these ‘problems’ stewing in my head, and whenever I see a new chip or a design idea, I’ll ‘test’ it against one of the problems I’ve been thinking about,” she says. “Sometimes, that means adapting an existing solution to a new use. I’ll give you an example: the PCA9685 is an LED driver chip. But when I saw its datasheet, the adjustable PWM (Pulse-Width Modulation) rate and high-bit-timer meant that it would be perfect for controlling servomotors and robotics. That wasn’t a recommended use on the datasheet, but it has now become the top use of the chip.”
Adafruit’s Circuit Playground, an all-in-one board with built in sensors and LEDs (and one of their top sellers), came about because teachers and parents needed something easier to start kids with. “[They] kept telling me that they loved wearables and Arduino, but they couldn’t get a student’s laptop set up, teach breadboarding, and cover the basics, all in a 45 minute class. They wanted something that required no soldering or breadboarding. And they wanted it for $20. As any engineer knows, the bigger the constraints, the more fun.”
Limor is quick to point out that this is not the most time-consuming part of new product design. “Hardware is, arguably, the easiest part of the puzzle to solve. The tough parts are firmware, software, and support,” she says. “For instance, right now, we’re focusing a lot of our effort on MicroPython/CircuitPython. That effort is being headed by Tony DiCola and Scott Shawcroft. The hardware takes only a few days to design, but doing a good port of the Python core to the processor takes many months.”
Regardless, Limor’s not an insomniac. “I actually sleep for 10–12 hours a day. I sleep a lot!” she says. She also says that she likes to spend time with her beloved shop cat, MOSFET, but then, she does a lot of that on-air, making the cat part of the programming. Spend any time with Limor and you get the distinct impression that there are few firewalls between her job and her private life. When I asked her what she does in her downtime, besides playing with MOSFET, she offers: “Hacking.”
Open Source Business
Besides being a company and community championing open source hardware and software, Adafruit is also a company that has open-sourced many of their business operations to share with the rest of the maker pro/small business communities. Each week, they offer #MakerBusiness posts on the Adafruit blog and chronicle the successes and challenges of an open source maker business in their daily newsletter, AdafruitDaily.com. “We discuss everything, from how many packages we ship, to helping makers consider things like getting a trademark for their company,” says Limor. “We consider this a public service that we provide. There were few, if any, such resources when I started, so this is us giving back.”
Adafruit TV Guide
Adafruit hosts a number of highly regarded YouTube shows (youtube.com/user/adafruit). Here are a few of our faves:
Electronics Show and Tell (Wednesdays, 7:30pm ET, G+ Hangout On Air) – A weekly Hangout where Adafruit customers, from young makers to seasoned engineers, show off their projects and what they’ve built using Adafruit products. Ladyada gets many ideas for new products from these shows.
Ask an Engineer (Wednesdays, 8pm ET) – The longest running live weekly web show about electronics and engineering, Ask an Engineer finds Ladyada holding court and clearly and patiently answering viewer questions, demoing products, and talking to guest engineers and makers.
Live from the Desk of Ladyada (Check listings for showtimes) – Look over the shoulder of Ladyada as she livestreams herself at work. From the Desk is a great way to learn about electronics, circuit design and troubleshooting, writing code, and more.
3D Hangouts (Thursdays, 3pm ET) – Join brothers Noe and Pedro Ruiz for 3D Thursday’s 3D Hangouts show to discuss all things 3D printing and desktop fabrication.
Collin’s Lab (Check listings for showtimes) – The quirky, brilliant, and always-entertaining Collin Cunningham teaches viewers the basics of electronics, from what components do, to how to assemble basic circuits, to how to use electronics tools. And he does it all in a natty suit.
John Park’s Workshop (Check listings for showtimes) – Well-known maker extraordinaire John Edgar Park builds whimsical and creative technology projects, such as illusions, costume props, and robots, while teaching you the skills you need to venture into projects on your own.
State of the Fruit
Adafruit prides itself on the supportive culture it creates among employees. Limor says she especially loves seeing employees grow and advance, and she takes great satisfaction in offering excellent employee benefits. Limor also notes that Adafruit has been able to bring significant electronics manufacturing to the U.S., specifically, to New York City. The positive, open source culture that Adafruit has engendered has attracted talented engineers and makers from around the world who want to engage with the company, support its community-driven products and culture, and to work there.
Every week there’s an all-hands “State of the Fruit” meeting where the entire group convenes for a weekly assessment of what’s going on; to brainstorm ideas, talk about upcoming products and initiatives; and to touch base with the entire team. At the end of these meetings, they have something called Hug Reports.
“Hug Reports are the opposite of ‘Bug Reports,’” says Limor. “A Hug Report gives everyone a chance to say thank you to someone. Little things matter, and if we’re all celebrating each other, it makes our work and our values better. And that’s something our community and our customers notice in how we do things.” For the hug reports, employees single out someone who’s done something special, admirable, above and beyond the call of duty. These can be as global as Biniam Tekola in the kitting department saying: “Thank you for such a diverse company led by a strong woman” to very specific praise, like Dano Wall in the fabrication department thanking fellow fabber Vance Lewis “… for doing a ton of re-work and fixing a bunch of boards that needed some love.”
Adafruit Learning System
Since the very inception of Adafruit, educating people of all skills levels and interests about electronics and high-tech making has been a top priority. In 2012, the company launched The Adafruit Learning System, a free online resource for learning about electronics. The well-designed and maintained system currently features over 1,000 user-friendly tutorials on electronics, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Flora/wearable computing, Internet of Things, NeoPixels, 3D printing, LEDs, and other topics of interest to the DIY/maker community.
Great Moments on Ask an Engineer
Every week for the past seven years, makers, hackers, engineers, and nerds of all stripes tune into Adafruit’s live YouTube video show, Ask an Engineer. On it, Ladyada answers engineering questions live, shows off new products, and does various electronics demonstrations. One of the hallmarks of Ask an Engineer, Show and Tell, and all of what Adafruit does, is how approachable Ladyada manages to make such complicated subject matter and how diverse the participants are; all ages and walks of life, men and women, boys and girls, and with widely different skill levels. Ladyada tells one of her favorite moments from it:
“I often have my friend Amanda [‘w0z’ Wozniak] on the show. She’s also an engineer. Once, she shared the story on an episode where a parent had emailed to tell her that their 11-year-old daughter, who watched Ask an Engineer, had asked: ‘Do boys do engineering, too?’” Ladyada says she was also asked the same thing at last year’s HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference by a little girl. “These girls will never know a world where there aren’t women doing engineering,” she says.
With such devoted and ambitious champions of open source hardware, software, and empowered maker businesses as Limor Fried and Adafruit, we can only hope for this and so much more.
Parts Number: 2005
Online learning resource, marketplace, and maker community for do-it-yourself electronics
- Adafruit employs 105 people in their 50,000-sq.-ft. factory in Manhattan
- 100% woman owned, no loans, no venture capital
- Recorded $45 million in revenue in 2016
- Received its millionth order in January 2016
- 14 million website page views and over 2 million uniques a month
- 34 million YouTube views and over 207,000 subscribers
- Social media reach: 119,000+ Twitter followers, 2.1 million followers on G+ (4 million for Ladyada), 77,000 Facebook subscribers, 51,000 Instagram followers
- Limor Fried was featured on the cover of Wired (April, 2011) and was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Entrepreneur magazine in 2012
- Limor is a founding member of the NYC Industrial Business Advisory Council
- Adafruit is ranked No. 11 among the top 20 U.S. manufacturing companies, No.1 in New York City by Inc. magazine, and is listed among Inc.’s 5000 “fastest growing private companies”
- In 2016, Limor was named one of the White House’s “Champions of Change”
Adafruit’s 10 Most Popular Products
- Adafruit Ultimate GPS Breakout — 66 channel w/10 Hz updates
- Adafruit Motor/Stepper/Servo Shield for Arduino v2 Kit
- PowerBoost 1000 Charger — Rechargeable 5V Lipo USB Boost @ 1A
- Circuit Playground — Integrated microcontroller and sensor board
- PiTFT Plus 480×320 3.5″ TFT+Touchscreen for Raspberry Pi
- Adafruit 9-DOF Absolute Orientation IMU Fusion Breakout — BNO055
- Adafruit Feather HUZZAH with ESP8266 WiFi
- Adafruit Feather 32u4 Basic Proto
- Adafruit Feather 32u4 Bluefruit LE
- Adafruit Pro Trinket — 5V 16 MHz
[*Source: Adafruit product stats 2/18/17]
Ladyada’s 10 Lessons for Building Open Culture Companies
- You can be a good company and a good business.
- Open source isn’t a business or a marketing strategy for us, it’s the DNA of our company, it’s part of what we do.
- Metrics — if you’re not measuring things, you cannot improve them.
- We have a weekly all-company meeting called “State of the Fruit.” Be transparent with all parts of your business, early and often.
- Skills can be taught. Good people making good decisions should be the focus and what is celebrated.
- Celebrate others. It’s not just about you and your products.
- Traveling takes too much time. Use the power of the internet. Publish frequently, from videos to blog posts.
- Say no to things. It’s not about what you can do, it’s more about what you will not do.
- Get a good trademark lawyer. If you’re open source, you’re giving away everything but your name, it’s important to protect it.
- You do not need a fancy office or building to do great work. Great work can happen anywhere, even in an apartment.