Made with CC
Sep 25, 2017 · 7 min read
Image by Bryan Mathers, CC BY-SA

The twenty-four case studies in Made with CC were chosen from hundreds of nominations received from Kickstarter backers, Creative Commons staff, and the global Creative Commons community.

We did background research and conducted interviews for each case study, based on the same set of basic questions about the endeavor. The idea for each case study is to tell the story about the endeavor and the role sharing plays within it, largely the way in which it was told to us by those we interviewed.

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SparkFun is an online electronics retailer specializing in open hardware. Founded in 2003 in the U.S.

Revenue model: charging for physical copies (electronics sales)

Interview date: February 29, 2016

Interviewee: Nathan Seidle, founder

Profile written by Sarah Hinchliff Pearson

SparkFun founder and former CEO Nathan Seidle has a picture of himself holding up a clone of a SparkFun product in an electronics market in China, with a huge grin on his face. He was traveling in China when he came across their LilyPad wearable technology being made by someone else. His reaction was glee.

Being copied is the greatest earmark of flattery and success

Nathan said. “I thought it was so cool that they were selling to a market we were never going to get access to otherwise. It was evidence of our impact on the world.”

This worldview runs through everything SparkFun does. SparkFun is an electronics manufacturer. The company sells its products directly to the public online, and it bundles them with educational tools to sell to schools and teachers. SparkFun applies Creative Commons licenses to all of its schematics, images, tutorial content, and curricula, so anyone can make their products on their own. Being copied is part of the design.

Nathan believes open licensing is good for the world. “It touches on our natural human instinct to share,” he said. But he also strongly believes it makes SparkFun better at what they do. They encourage copying, and their products are copied at a very fast rate, often within ten to twelve weeks of release. This forces the company to compete on something other than product design, or what most commonly consider their intellectual property.

“We compete on business principles,” Nathan said. “Claiming your territory with intellectual property allows you to get comfy and rest on your laurels. It gives you a safety net. We took away that safety net.”

The result is an intense company-wide focus on product development and improvement. “Our products are so much better than they were five years ago,” Nathan said. “We used to just sell products. Now it’s a product plus a video, a seventeen-page hookup guide, and example firmware on three different platforms to get you up and running faster. We have gotten better because we had to in order to compete. As painful as it is for us, it’s better for the customers.”

SparkFun parts are available on eBay for lower prices. But people come directly to SparkFun because SparkFun makes their lives easier. The example code works; there is a service number to call; they ship replacement parts the day they get a service call. They invest heavily in service and support. “I don’t believe businesses should be competing with IP [intellectual property] barriers,” Nathan said. “This is the stuff they should be competing on.”

SparkFun’s company history began in Nathan’s college dorm room. He spent a lot of time experimenting with and building electronics, and he realized there was a void in the market. “If you wanted to place an order for something,” he said, “you first had to search far and wide to find it, and then you had to call or fax someone.” In 2003, during his third year of college, he registered and started reselling products out of his bedroom. After he graduated, he started making and selling his own products.

Once he started designing his own products, he began putting the software and schematics online to help with technical support. After doing some research on licensing options, he chose Creative Commons licenses because he was drawn to the “human-readable deeds” that explain the licensing terms in simple terms. SparkFun still uses CC licenses for all of the schematics and firmware for the products they create.

The company has grown from a solo project to a corporation with 140 employees. In 2015, SparkFun earned $33 million in revenue. Selling components and widgets to hobbyists, professionals, and artists remains a major part of SparkFun’s business. They sell their own products, but they also partner with Arduino (also profiled in this book) by manufacturing boards for resale using Arduino’s brand.

SparkFun also has an educational department dedicated to creating a hands-on curriculum to teach students about electronics using prototyping parts. Because SparkFun has always been dedicated to enabling others to re-create and fix their products on their own, the more recent focus on introducing young people to technology is a natural extension of their core business.

“We have the burden and opportunity to educate the next generation of technical citizens,” Nathan said. “Our goal is to affect the lives of three hundred and fifty thousand high school students by 2020.”

The Creative Commons license underlying all of SparkFun’s products is central to this mission. The license not only signals a willingness to share, but it also expresses a desire for others to get in and tinker with their products, both to learn and to make their products better. SparkFun uses the Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA), which is a “copyleft” license that allows people to do anything with the content as long as they provide credit and make any adaptations available under the same licensing terms.

From the beginning, Nathan has tried to create a work environment at SparkFun that he himself would want to work in. The result is what appears to be a pretty fun workplace. The U.S. company is based in Boulder, Colorado. They have an eighty-thousand-square-foot facility (approximately seventy-four-hundred square meters), where they design and manufacture their products. They offer public tours of the space several times a week, and they open their doors to the public for a competition once a year.

The public event, called the Autonomous Vehicle Competition, brings in a thousand to two thousand customers and other technology enthusiasts from around the area to race their own self-created bots against each other, participate in training workshops, and socialize. From a business perspective, Nathan says it’s a terrible idea. But they don’t hold the event for business reasons. “The reason we do it is because I get to travel and have interactions with our customers all the time, but most of our employees don’t,” he said. “This event gives our employees the opportunity to get face-to-face contact with our customers.” The event infuses their work with a human element, which makes it more meaningful.

Nathan has worked hard to imbue a deeper meaning into the work SparkFun does. The company is, of course, focused on being fiscally responsible, but they are ultimately driven by something other than money. “Profit is not the goal; it is the outcome of a well-executed plan,” Nathan said. “We focus on having a bigger impact on the world.” Nathan believes they get some of the brightest and most amazing employees because they aren’t singularly focused on the bottom line.

The company is committed to transparency and shares all of its financials with its employees. They also generally strive to avoid being another soulless corporation. They actively try to reveal the humans behind the company, and they work to ensure people coming to their site don’t find only unchanging content.

SparkFun’s customer base is largely made up of industrious electronics enthusiasts. They have customers who are regularly involved in the company’s customer support, independently responding to questions in forums and product-comment sections. Customers also bring product ideas to the company. SparkFun regularly sifts through suggestions from customers and tries to build on them where they can. “From the beginning, we have been listening to the community,” Nathan said. “Customers would identify a pain point, and we would design something to address it.”

However, this sort of customer engagement does not always translate to people actively contributing to SparkFun’s projects. The company has a public repository of software code for each of its devices online. On a particularly active project, there will only be about two dozen people contributing significant improvements. The vast majority of projects are relatively untouched by the public. “There is a theory that if you open-source it, they will come,” Nathan said. “That’s not really true.”

Rather than focusing on cocreation with their customers, SparkFun instead focuses on enabling people to copy, tinker, and improve products on their own. They heavily invest in tutorials and other material designed to help people understand how the products work so they can fix and improve things independently. “What gives me joy is when people take open-source layouts and then build their own circuit boards from our designs,” Nathan said.

Obviously, opening up the design of their products is a necessary step if their goal is to empower the public. Nathan also firmly believes it makes them more money because it requires them to focus on how to provide maximum value. Rather than designing a new product and protecting it in order to extract as much money as possible from it, they release the keys necessary for others to build it themselves and then spend company time and resources on innovation and service. From a short-term perspective, SparkFun may lose a few dollars when others copy their products. But in the long run, it makes them a more nimble, innovative business. In other words, it makes them the kind of company they set out to be.

Made with Creative Commons

CC’s digital whiteboard for ideas, thoughts, and questions about open business models made with CC.

Made with CC

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Made with CC is a guide to sharing your knowledge and creativity with the world, and sustaining your operation while you do.

Made with Creative Commons

CC’s digital whiteboard for ideas, thoughts, and questions about open business models made with CC.

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