Maker Business: Adafruit Industries, how it’s made – an open source hardware company in NYC

Maker Business: Adafruit Industries, how it’s made – an open source hardware company in NYC

Mz Makerbusiness-1

“About Adafruit video” by RocketBoom

A lot of readers are likely familiar with Adafruit Industries, supplier and maker of many kits found in the Maker Shed. In addition to my role here at MAKE, as senior editor, I also work with Limor (Ladyada), helping her with the open source hardware kit business. I’ll have a few articles about general things we do around here to keep the ship afloat and charting new waters, but I thought I’d start this “Maker Business” article with an overview of how it all works and how we use many many web tools/services. One of the most asked questions I get from makers is “what shopping cart do you use?” The short answer is Zencart, and while I think it doesn’t actually matter what you use when you start out, this is what we’re using at Adafruit. A recent milestone, we just shipped our 50,000th order. We mostly create and sell open source hardware, most of the tools we use are open source — I’ve never seen an article detailing “everything” a business uses online, so here’s one. I think you’ll enjoy it. Let’s take a look…

If you haven’t heard of Adafruit, check out the video above or the about section of Adafruit, this will give you an overview of what we do — open source hardware, tutorials, electronics, hacking — helping makers on their journey of learning electronics.

Above is a slide presentation, you’re welcome to review. The first part is “what is open source hardware?” You can skip that if needed. This article is an expanded version.

Pt 2673

The hosting provider

We use, the $89/month plan. We have only amazing things to say about They’re the best, and we’ve never been let down. Shop around, do your research (we did). We’re very happy with them. We’ve been on Slashdot, Digg, Engadget, Hackaday, Gizmodo and our site has withstood all of that.

Pt 2671

The software we run is what is usually consider a “LAMP” site. Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Because we don’t need to pay a licensing fee for all of this, we can better run the biz. LAMP means commercial use is allowed, we can use all this, and run a business on it. For the folks who want open source hardware but not allow commercial use, imagine not being allowed to run a shopping cart using Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP without paying someone a licensing fee. This is why open source software works and this is why open source hardware is usually defined with commercial use allowed – a little detour, but worth mentioning.

Pt 2674

The shopping cart

We use Zencart. An open source shopping cart. Huge community, tons of hacks and mods. You’ll need some expertise to do exactly what you want, but if you’re just doing this for a living and you’ve maxed out some of the hosted solutions, we really like Zencart. Sites like .:oomlout:. and Seeed Studio also use Zencart. SparkFun uses OSCommerce, which is what Zencart forked from.

Pt 2675
Here’s what orders look like when we view them in the admin screen.

Pt 2676
Here’s what an invoice looks like, we print these out, pack up the kits, and scan in the barcode to print a shipping label.

Pt 2700
Because we’re using open tools, it’s easier for us to do things like making our own inventory system (pictured above).

Pt 2677

Taking credit cards

We use to “authorize” credit cards and take payments. Notice that I said “authorize.” We decided not to store credit cards, we just store an authorization and once the order ships the credit card is charged. We like this because it’s another layer of security. The downside is that authorizations only last 30 days, so if we don’t ship a back order in 30 days, the order is canceled. It’s pretty rare, but once and awhile, it happens. Since we’re using Zencart, and open tools, we use the Authorize API to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, not incredibly tough, but a lot of work to get it right.

We’re playing with SQUAREs iPhone credit card reader too, we’ll likely use this at the next event where we sell things. There’s an app as well, but it doesn’t have a dongle (yet). We’ll try both and also see which one has the lowest transaction fee(s).

Pt 2679

Taking Paypal

We take Paypal, there are tons of resources on using Paypal and Zencart, the latest version even takes Paypal Express, so the customer can buy something without needing an account on the shopping cart. Paypal is good for international customers because of all the weird banking issues when you do money around the world, but the Paypal site is really slow, doing work takes a long time, but it’s the best thing out there it seems. We use a Paypal dongle, this means you need a special physical security key that generates random numbers synced with their server to log in and do anything. This takes extra time for us, but it’s worth it. We don’t want any security issues.

Pt 2681

Blogging software

We have an active blog that’s embedded directly in the shopping cart experience. We used the amazing hackable and moddable WordPress. We love it, lots of work to get it seamlessly integrated, but well worth it. We have RSS feeds, podcast feeds, multiple authors, commenting, everything. It’s a great way to keep customers informed and provide a good resource. We just hit one million page views in one month! I’ve used every blogging system, from the custom-built ones on Engadget to MoveableType (here on MAKE), and there’s nothing better than WordPress. But I think you need to have a lot of expertise around to really get it tuned up the way you want it.

Pt 2686
We have have a hack/mod that pulls posts in from the blog to product pages.

Pt 2705


We use phpBB, a great open source forum package.

Pt 2682


If you’re not measuring stuff, why bother doing it? We track each product page, posts, sections of the site, tutorials, etc. We use Google Analytics, because it’s free and there isn’t anything better it seems for us at this time — it just works. We like the reports. I like to see 10% growth across many metrics, sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. Up is good.

Pt 2683


We use Instructables, wikis, a WiFi camera, and Flickr to create and share as much as we can with the 24 hours we’re given each day.

Pt 2684
Instructables (Adafruit) – giant community, great for contributors and for running contests!

Pt 2696
Pt 2697


Here’s the Ladyada wiki, filled with some of the best electronics information online. There are tons of wikis out there, but we like to use dokuwiki. Try them all out and see which one fits your needs. We’ve completely documented things like our laser business as well as the pick and place machine.

Pt 2689
We use Flickr to post images (Adafruit account), show what we’re up to and have an easy way to use photos on our site. Most importantly, we have an Adafruit Flickr photo pool for customers to share what they’ve made. We also have a Ladyada and pt account for non-electronicsy things.

Pt 2685
This is the EyeFi camera card. We take quick photos of what we’re up that automatically upload to our Flickr account, from there, the photos are added to the product pages and more. This is why WordPress and Zencart are so great; we can do stuff like this. I started to time how long it was taking me to do quick photos, take the card out, upload, etc. It was hours and hours a month, this card gives me a little time back and it’s fun to use.

Pt 2687
Here are some photos pulled in from Flickr to product pages, some come from the camera…

Pt 2690

Social networky stuff

We use Twitter feed to post the photos and blog items to our Twitter account. We also try to put valuable information on Twitter for followers that like to tune in. We keep a few lists on Twitter: open source hardware, pick and place, etc. We share this account and I pt have my own for other things.

Pt 2691
Adafruit Twitter with open source hardware and pick and place lists.

Pt 2692
And of course, one of our products, the Tweet-a-watt also tweets.

Pt 2693
We have a Facebook fan page and group page, they’re not used that much, but they’re there.

Pt 2694

Uploading videos

We try to have a great video for each product, or at least some cool videos throughout the month. We use a few services: blip, vimeo, youtube – but Tubemogul is what we use to upload a video to one spot and then have it uploaded to all the video services. Very handy.

Pt 2695

Live video chat

Each week, we do a live video show called “Ask an Engineer”. Ladyada shows demos and answers questions for an hour each week, Saturday nights 10pm ET. We have about 600+ people watching each week and we use Ustream to broadcast. It’s a great way to do customer support and chat with the community.

Pt 2698

Customer service – admin

We use Gmail. It’s a good way for multiple people to work on the same email account. The search feature works great, we have filters that help us run the business better.

Pt 2699

Google voice

We have our phone hooked up through Google Voice. This makes it easier to get messages and text versions of messages instead of listening to voice mails. A time saver and it’s free (invite).

Pt 2702

Shipping packages

We use the postal system (they have an API) as well as UPS. We use Endicia for the postage and their Dazzle software for printing labels. And we use the postal service site to schedule daily pick ups. Each day, UPS comes here around 5pm and each day we have a package pick up and mail drop off from the post office.

Pt 2703
Shipping computer, off the shelf everything. Barcode scanner and label printer from eBay, we use a Shuttle PC. To “scale” to ship more than 100 orders a day (holidays), we simply cloned this system to ship 2x+ the orders.

Pt 2704
Bins of kits going out.

I put together a quick video of all of this in action, most of it in under a minute. An order only takes seconds to ship, but you’ve seen all of what goes into it now. Because Ladyada uses, promotes, and creates open source hardware/software, we thought it would be interesting to share all of this. I’m sure some could say it’s not a good idea to tell everyone your “secret sauce,” but we think it is. We’d like to see more maker businesses out there and we hope this helps to make that happen. A kit company is greater than the sum of its parts and all that :)

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