This is Emile Petrone, owner and founder of Tindie.com. Tindie is a place where hardware designers can post their finished and populated boards for sale.
Tindie caters to the manufacturer selling both small quantities and very niche items. It allows people to start their own small electronics product businesses by giving them a place to sell.
SK: Hi Emile, I see you as an example of a tech entrepreneur with a company (Tindie) that is a vehicle for helping lots of people start their own businesses. Where are Tindie's offices?
EP: I'm in my apartment in Mountain View, and we run Tindie as a distributed team. We had some free office space for a while, that was given to us by AOL. That came to an end, but our Head of Engineering, Julia Grace, is in Mountain View. Julia works at her house, I work at my house. Our engineers are spread out all over the place.
Are Tindie’s engineers hardware or software?
All software. Tindie is written in Python and all of our engineers are software engineers working in Python and Django, which is a Python site framework.
Do the hardware sellers post their hardware design files on Github too?
Some of them are starting to. It is interesting how there is that disconnect in the tools we use between the software startup world and the hardware startup world.
I was on Github this morning, and playing around with some of the firmware that is on a hardware project that's being sold on Tindie. It was interesting to see that people are using commits to talk about issues in the software for a hardware project and to see people use it as an issue tracker.
Github is adding so much support for so many file types, I think they just released support for Photoshop and they also do STLs. I did a search for STLs on Github and Thingiverse just to see which had more, and by an order of magnitude, Github has more STL files. The stuff that is on Github is hidden, and there is a lot going on behind the scenes that just isn't obvious.
There were a couple of online electronic stores with a similar idea to Tindie, none of the sites worked particularly well or got as much of a community behind them. Make had a marketplace, and now Radio Shack is giving a certain amount of shelf space to independent designers.
With Radio Shack, you have to get it manufactured by PCH and with PCH you'd have to get significant volume. PCH is a huge conglomerate that does all of the peripherals for Apple.
So when you buy an Apple product like headphones, instructions, packaging, that's all made by PCH. So for a maker to go and get something manufactured by PCH, it would be very difficult to get something manufactured at that scale. And the Radio Shack deal is probably tailored better to people who are building their own hardware business, people with a big team and trying to build a big company.
Does Tindie only have specific hardware categories?
That's been an interesting thing that has changed just this past weekend (7/5). We've been releasing new markets, or categories, which are determined by Tindie's users.
What are some examples of a Market?
A simple example would revolve around SparkCore and ElectricImp, so for products that are compatible with a Sparkcore or an ElectricImp.
Texas Instruments made a market for Launchpad and they also made a Texas Instrument market (or category) as well. Any user or vendor can create a market for free.
Have you seen the new markets we've been releasing?
Yes, I’ve seen you posting on Twitter- hey, when's the virtual reality category coming?
Ha! When when you create it!
There have been so many changes around categories, where we were renaming categories, trying to re-categorize, removing categories and changing things every 6 months to react to what kinds of products people were posting on the site.
That's natural as we want to react to what people post. It became apparent that our approach of constantly reacting wasn't working, and it was frustrating to sellers to have to pick a category where their product didn't fit, but they'd throw it in there anyway.
It was confusing for customers who would go to a category and not get what they were expecting, and for us, frustrating to figure out how these puzzle pieces could fit together. So the solution became that we would give total control over the categories to the community. And we’d do it much the same way that Reddit does with subreddits.
If the community is interested in a topic and they are listing a product that they don't think fits any other category, then the seller is now able to create their own category and list the product under that category.
And that answered the question for where should a seller put their product, where can a customer find the product they want and it solves the maintenance problem from our side.
Was the idea of having a place for products that work with larger market product the idea that got you started?
Yes. This is exactly the reason that Tindie was started. I had posted in a subreddit that I'm building things with Arduino and I am looking for fun things to build with Arduino.
In exactly the same light, I own a Sparkcore or I own an ElectricImp and I want to look for ways to build on top of it.
We have ElectricImp as a brand tweeting the Tindie url out and saying you should join us and you should list your product on here. Those are just two examples of markets that popped up. Another category that popped up is for Lego, another one for Drones, AVR microcontroller....there are markets that spring up from the community. And over time, it will be interesting to see how that continues to grow.
So the community can create their own categories based on their interests without necessarily populating it with a product?
It’s a combination of people joining so that they can express interest and create a community around that product, and also making sure that there are products that fit. And these are made without Tindie's approval or authorization...we built the platform for people to list products for sale and we’ll see what happens when there is the ability to create a category for anything that they may be interested in.
Micah Scott created a product and first sold it on Tindie, then it got licensed by Adafruit and Sparkfun. So for Micah, her product has gone from selling tens to selling thousands. How many other people on Tindie have been able to achieve that?
A lot. I don't have a specific number of people. The real question is if people are getting picked up by other brands and the answer to that is yes.
There is stuff that was picked up on Seeed, stuff on Sparkfun, stuff on Adafruit. There are sellers not just here in the United States, but sellers in Europe as well.
Tindie allows a seller to get off the ground in a way that naturally doesn't get found by a maker or engineer coming up with a product and listing on their own site and hoping to get discovered. And the crowdfunding Kickstarter route isn't for everyone either.
So that's the sweet spot that Tindie provides ... it is a place for people to see if they will get market attention and viability behind them.
The retailers say there is a certain amount of risk on the seller side to figure out how to manufacture at that scale. So in Micah's case, she licensed it to Sparkfun and Adafruit so that they are doing the manufacturing of Fadecandy.
Has anyone started out on Tindie and ended up quitting their day job because they've been able to make a living selling products on Tindie?
Good question. I know that there have been people who have quit their jobs, but I'm not willing to go as far as to say yes.
But there are people who are testing the water then? How much in sales do your biggest sellers do?
The top sellers are doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales.
That is really significant gross income, and it's also significant for Tindie, since that is how Tindie makes money.
We keep growing our sales numbers- we did 3X of our first year in our second year!
Is making products and selling them on Tindie the few top seller's day job?
No, some of those other people have other companies, they are daytime engineers, they are students, it is a pretty wide range, I think they go to the post office every day though.
Did you quit your regular job before starting Tindie?
I started Tindie while I was still at my old job as a software engineer, I stuck around for three months after I started Tindie. Within the first three months, the sales were doubling month after month, and it became clear that there was something going on if that was the traction we were having. So I left my job to do this fulltime, and Julia came on about 6 months later. Investors started approaching me about three months after Tindie launched.
Is this your first company?
I had a company in college that didn't go anywhere but got funding from my University so I had done this before. And then I had previously worked at Yelp and other tech startups here in the Bay Area...so I'd been around startups for the past 7 or 8 years.
What was the startup you had in college?
It was a site called Knowble.net and it was a social network for researchers to connect across disciplines, so if you were interested in carbon nanotubes and you were a chemist, you could find physicists or biologists or anyone else that potentially had an interest in carbon nanotubes across disciplines....so it was for for interdisciplinary collaborations.
Did you study engineering in school?
Political Science. I had that startup while I was in school at UNC, it failed, it failed, I applied to Yelp to do Sales, joined Sales at Yelp in 2008 and did Sales for them for 2 years and then did sales for another startup for a couple of years. Then I quit that job and took a year to teach myself Python for web development.
I like thinking about Tindie as a way for a hardware designer to realize their own potential -as owners of their own businesses. Do you do any quality vetting?
When I first started in 2012 and we were talking about it on Reddit, we'd discuss vetting and compare to sites like Amazon, eBay and Etsy.
I am not the best person to judge the quality of their work because I am just a beginner myself and I am trying to learn and have fun.
When the site was a hobby, not a business, I was just making a site for the people on the Arduino subreddit to share their work. And so being a beginner, I didn't have the background to judge the quality or the work of somebody else.
So if you came up with a product, you could just list it and the community would start to self-vet, and be able to tell the validity or the product through the photographs, the code or the description. That’s the way that a buyer would judge the quality of a product on the site. That's definitely been the right decision though, we've not had issues around a quality issue- we offer customer reviews and the products that popped up that were terrible, people recognized that they were terrible, and so they never went anywhere.
The products that were great, people naturally start to rally around them. If we had done any sort of vetting around...you have to have these certain qualifications to list on the site, we would have missed a lot of great projects and opportunities.
An example being the Raspberry Pi motor control board that is made by a high school student in London. I think most people would say that a high school student selling a product that is now sold through multiple hardware websites around the world, is probably an idea that most people would bet against. And the fact is, it sells well, and has a great community around it and is proof positive that leaving vetting to the community works.
The people creating interesting work range from the guy in his own start-up that has $10M in funding to ex-Google engineers to students that are still in school. That was the reason that I left the vetting out- whenever we've given more control to the community, it has always been a good thing.
Do you have a breakdown of how many people who sell on Tindie live in cities or in rural areas? The point I'm getting at is this what people are doing who don't have access to work in tech geographical areas?
Something I think most people would be shocked by is what the top three cities worldwide are for seller locations- they are London, then New York, and next is Sydney, Australia.
I'm looking at the last thirty days, so Sydney just passed San Francisco, and after that is Melbourne, LA, Berlin, Toronto, Brisbane.
None of these are thought of as specifically hardware tech cities.
Yes and London in volume is almost a third bigger than New York.
What kinds of things happen because Tindie is selling mainly small quantities?
I think Tindie lends itself to people doing very specific niche, specialized work that doesn't need to pertain to hundreds or thousands of people, but can be relevant to a group of 20.
That's what is interesting to me, people who are creating things at the fringes that are super specialized that no one has seen before.
These things don't fit into the business mentality of needing certain margins and certain volumes for this to be economically feasible. To get a manufacturer to set up the pick and place, to go through and do a line, it needs to do this many units per month and needs to have this much of a return.
Most of the stuff that Tindie sells does not fit into this model because they are projects that are naturally out there on the edge and don't necessarily have a return scheme in place. And that is why traditional hardware and traditional electronics companies have not funded those projects or built them themselves, and it is the reason why we see super low volume, but super well done, super specialized and I think that lends itself to a much more diverse...a much different group of people.
I wonder what kinds of offers you'll get for the sale of Tindie.
Well that would mean that Tindie is available for purchase and we aren’t.
Do you feel like you're missing the security of a day job and the warm feeling that that security brings?
No! Everything is good. I think people are starting to see what is going on and more people are starting to get interested and I don't know if this is because the interest in things like Raspberry Pi and products around that are growing, or if it is that Maker Faire is growing in record numbers, but good things are on the way.
Check out Tindie at Tindie.com and if you are selling on Tindie, please comment!
Contact Emile Petrone @emilepetrone