The Internet of Things, for Everyone: An Interview with Limor Fried

“Oh really? There’s debate about open-source hardware? I’m going to keep shipping open-source hardware while you all argue about it.” – Limor Fried

Limor Fried (“Ladyada”), founder of Adafruit Industries.

One of the many highlights of the Next:Economy summit in San Francisco this month (Nov. 12-13) was a virtual tour of Adafruit Industries given by founder Limor Fried, or “Ladyada” as she is known to her many fans. (“Ada” is a reference to Ada Lovelace, the 19-century mathematician widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer.)

Fried has built a $30 million, open-source hardware business in just 10 years using no venture capital (and no cell phone either – it’s a time-waster – in fact, she designed a cell phone/GPS/Wi-Fi jammer as part of her thesis at MIT).

Adafruit is now on track to grow to $40 million next year. Fried has achieved this impressive growth by giving away tutorials and instructions on how to create your own cool electronic gadgetry and IoT (Internet of Things) projects at home, and by selling the pieces of hardware you need to do it. “It’s an IoT tutorial company with a gift shop at the end,” Fried likes to say. But, you don’t have to buy Adafruit hardware in order to make Adafruit DIY projects. You can make them with anything you happen to have.

So, what can you do with IoT at home? To name just a few things, you could create a Secret Knock Activated Door Lock (because, why wouldn’t you?), or a color-sensing, fiber optic, illuminated ballerina dress, or you could build your own watch with an LED scrolling marquee with time and date, a binary watch display, and a moon phase display. Incredibly fun. Or, you can design your own Raspberry Pi (a single-board computer).

In my view, there is a seriously important aspect to Fried’s enterprise as our built environment becomes increasingly driven by sensor technology and IoT. That is, there is some delightful subversiveness in challenging the dominance of companies that have traditionally owned the hardware landscape. Instead of standing in line to buy the next new thing, we get to make the next new thing ourselves, and we decide what that thing is.

As Tim O’Reilly, who kicked off the Maker movement 10 years ago, told me in a recent interview: It’s “a vision of people who make rather than just people who consume as a key to our future economy.”

So, what does the success of Adafruit mean in the context of the next economy? Why is it important to know how IoT technology works? I corresponded with Fried right after the Next:Economy summit to find out she thought about these questions, and about the future of her business.

Julie Noblitt for TriplePundit (3p): The description of your panel session says, “We are entering a world of smart stuff (and dumb stuff built with smart tools).” Do you think the “dumb stuff” that people build for fun is a gateway drug to building things that have wider significance in the future? Do you see Adafruit as having a role in nudging people to use their creative powers for good in the next economy?

Limor Fried: The things makers, hackers, artists and engineers build on the weekends are what we’ll all be using in our daily lives in a few years. It’s a good business and a good idea to pay attention to this.  Adafruit is the starting place for many people getting started on their journey of learning electronics and engineering.

3p: Make and Adafruit started at about the same time in 2005. Why do you think that was the right moment for the beginning of a Maker movement?

LF: The late ‘80s and ‘90s really focused on what you could consume, but eventually all the stuff is purchased and everything gets cheaper and not as special. With the Internet, videos and ease of publishing, everything became really shareable, really take-apart-able, and hardware became more like code – easier to put together. It was terminal mass and terminal velocity. Something had to happen, and the maker movement did.

3p: With IoT poised to become an integral part of our built environment (as with smart buildings that know who and where you are), how important do you think it is for the average person to know how this technology works?

LF: If you can’t take it apart, inspect the code, make it better, you’re going to end up being in a very “smart” cage.

3p: I see that you are partnering with Microsoft to offer a Starter Kit designed to help people learn how to use Windows 10 IoT Core.

Do you see Adafruit entering into more such partnerships, with Microsoft or with others?

LF: Microsoft is smart by jumping feet-first in to the maker market. The IoT pack we worked on together, and many of their developer and maker-friendly efforts, demonstrate their new direction to get more people using their tools and products. After we “helped” open up the Kinect [see the TechCrunch article about this], Microsoft started completely new business units to embrace and extend what the open-source communities started. This is the new normal for businesses looking to be part of the trends in our fast-paced tech landscape.

3p: I read that you are interested in promoting pre-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Can you say more about what you are doing in service of that goal?

LF: The pre-5-year-olds of today are totally better and smarter than we all were when we were that age. They use phones, tablets – everything lights up and is a touch screen, and they want to learn how it works. We decided to do a series of shows called Circuit Playground. We explore each letter of the alphabet with a concept – A is for ampere, B is for battery, C is for capacitor – you get the point. It’s been called “Sesame Street 2.0” – we’ll see how that goes!

We also have two coloring books, “R is for Robots” and “E is for Electronics.” This is all in addition to our learning system – educator packs, curriculum, discounts AND weekly live shows on YouTube, Periscope, Twitch.TV, Ustream and more.

3p: Where do you see the Maker movement going over the next five years?

LF: More biohacking and IoT. Lots of drone regulations getting worked out and then more products and services around that.

A lot of people who are makers are frustrated by the lack of interoperability for their smart home products and services and are building their own to make them work for them. Google, Amazon and Apple are fighting for your home real estate. Just wait until more and more sensors, fitness trackers, and health gadgets are affixed to us. Makers will do what they always do: bend and hack the technology to make it work the way they want it to and have control over who and how the data is used.

3p: You have taken no venture capital funding. My favorite quote from one of the interviews with you: “We have savings — we can do math.” Do you think Adafruit is unique in this regard, or do you see this approach being adopted by more new entrepreneurs?

LF: Historically we’re not unique, VC [venture capital] and loans were not as celebrated or as common for businesses in the way are now. We’re not against investment or loans, we just have not needed them and not having multiple entities telling us what to do, with who and why, has allowed us to take risks, build product lines that were interesting to us and our customers and not have the daily pressures of an exit or the stock market. It’s tough at times not having a “net” but maybe that makes us consider things more carefully and make better decisions. We’ll see how it all works out long term – so far so good.

3p: What market forces will be driving Adafruit in 2020?

LF: I think we’ll see some AI [artificial intelligence] and agents [think Siri] driving (literally) a lot of the home automation and smart homes. I’ve been experimenting with our Adafruit.io services + IFTTT [if-this-then-that – a web-based service that creates “recipes” of conditional statements that allow different web services to talk to each other], and it’s getting really interesting. That is still in beta – for more, see The Past, Present, and Future of Adafruit IO.

Image credits: Photo used with permission of Limor Fried.