Inspiring Future Generations to Innovate
BY Gina Pace
So much for trade secrets. Limor Fried has based a business around the idea that everyone can do it themselves.
Limor Fried, who earned her masters in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, runs Adafruit industries, which sells do-it-yourself electronics kits. For every kit Adafruit sells, Fried posts design files, schematics for circuit boards, and any software code needed. She welcomes people to use the information, as long as they credit where it came from and post any modifications they make. She sees it as a way to foster innovation.
"For the most part, everyone finally agrees that open source software has been a success. It runs the net, it runs Google, it runs everything," Fried said. "Millions of companies and billions of dollars are made possible by open source software. Open source hardware is just starting to take off."
She also hosts weekly video chats with partner Phillip Torrone and blogs, because she sees the hardware she sells—things like MintyBoost, a backup charger for iPhones or any USB device, that is housed in a tiny Altoids can—as not just products, but part of a larger cause. "People want to see the world become a better place through science and engineering," Fried said. "We're going to need the current and future generations to get inspired."
One way to inspire them? In November, she offered a $1,000 bounty to unlock Microsoft Kinect's motion controller, so people could use the technology for projects like robots. After Microsoft expressed dismay at the challenge, she upped it to $2,000. And then to $3,000. A week later, a Spanish engineer won the prize.
Fried has even become a cover girl of the DIY movement: She was the first female engineer ever to grace the cover of Wired in April.
"Dozens of companies are making millions of dollars all while selling and giving away their designs," Fried said. "When it comes to high-quality goods, tutorials, community, and a sense of helping the world, it doesn't matter that your intellectual property is being given away."
Fried launched her company in 2005 with $10,000 that was supposed to go to her MIT tuition. Any time she made a profit, she made a tuition payment.
Today, they ship between 150 to 200 orders a day, some of them worth thousands of dollars. The kits cover tools you'd need as an engineer hobbyist to offbeat products like TV-B-Gone, which can turn off TVs from more than 150 feet away, in case you wanted to zap off a TV across the street or while you were at a restaurant eating dinner.
An example of a blog tutorial? How to make a "Tron"-inspired laptop case using electro-luminescent wire. As the sunny summer season approaches, she's working on teaching people how to make their own solar chargers.
Through her video chats and blogs, there's the feeling that Fried is involved in every aspect of the company. Currently, it has 10 employees and a few part-timers and contractors, working out of an office in downtown Manhattan. She expects Adafruit to bring in $5 million in revenue in 2011.
Her goals? Double revenue again and keep the staff "small but efficient."
Fried has said that when she comes up with ideas, she thinks about the stuff that she wants to make—or maybe things that her friends would like. It just so happened that hundreds of thousands of people have wanted the same things.
"It turns out this is a pretty good business," Fried said. "People are willing to pay a fair price to come along on this journey."