Imagine waking up and seeing your design for a circuit being used in a product by someone who never contacted you to ask if it was okay. You will not get any payment for their usage of your design, they’ve raised over $31,000 dollars, and they’re selling something you worked really hard on. You have no control over what someone does with something you made. Is this a nightmare? Perhaps for some, but this is actually a dream come true for others. And it’s what this week’s Soapbox is about: Open-source hardware kick-starting Kickstarters!
Let’s kick it
Kickstarter is quickly becoming one of the most popular funding options for people who make things. It’s called the largest funding platform in the world, and for good reason: it is.
Kickstarter recently hit a million “backers.” Not only that, there’s more…
Kickstarter backers have now pledged more than $100 million to projects. To put this in some context, the 2011 fiscal year budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is $154 million. At the current pace of more than $2 million in pledges each week, Kickstarter backers are pledging more than $100 million a year.
I’m seeing it more and more here on MAKE. Have a clever idea? Are you talented and skilled enough to make it happen? You can submit your project to Kickstarter, and if it passes their guidelines (this is where their editorial comes in), you can post your project and get funding. The average amount of funding is $71, and the most common funding is $25 per backer. The people with Kickstarters usually give some incentives for people to back projects like the physical item, a T-shirt of the final shipping product, etc.
- Projects. Kickstarter is for the funding of projects — albums, films, specific works – that have clearly defined goals and expectations.
- Projects with a creative purpose.
- No charity or cause funding.
- No “fund my life” projects.
- Rewards, not financial incentives.
Kickstarter even has a “school” page so you can figure out how to make the best Kickstarter, step-by-step.
But many of the Kickster projects are open source. This means they’ll get funding and release things like software, hardware, schematics, code, and more. This is the feelgood part and the community side of the best projects, and my favorite ones.
Now why would someone do open source? Sometimes they just want to, and other times it’s because they’re using open source for their Kickstarter. That’s right, with open source, you can make money off of someone else’s work. You’ll just need to publish your work under the same license and share back any changes. This is really useful for software (the world runs on open source software), and for hardware it’s becoming increasingly popular. Why? In a bit, I’ll let a maker explain some of that, but here’s why I think open source hardware is going to fuel many, many Kickstarts:
- Kickstarter is about getting funding to achieve a project, but the people who get funding need demos and videos to show that their ideas are practical and possible. Using open source hardware shows what they’re doing is proven (in some way) and that it’s possible to quickly productize something: prototypes, breakout boards, mods, and hacks to existing open source hardware. You can get far using open designs.
- Most people are not EEs — a lot of people have ideas and can do prototypes, but they simply do not have the time to become product engineers. Some of the best open source hardware is made and released by engineers who ship products for a living. Kickstarter projects can bolt onto this expertise and use it for their own project.
- Most of the design/technology projects wouldn’t be possible if the money had to be used to hire a consulting engineer as part of the end result.
- Open source tools and software are free to use and can be used in commercial products.
- For the open source hardware maker, they get all the changes back since the Kickstarter projects need to share back improvements.
- Also for the open source hardware maker, they can see how and if any of their designs can be productized when others use their designs. It’s market research, focus groups, and risk management all for free.
- In some cases, the Kickstarter project owner will want to manufacture, and if their project is based on your open source hardware design, they may want you to do the manufacturing. It’s like giving your cookie recipe away, and because it’s so good, having someone pay you to make a special version of your cookies just for them.
Here are a few of my favorite examples where open source hardware is either being used for projects on Kickstarter, or the projects themselves are open source.
So by now I hope you’re saying, OK, Phil, maybe open source hardware could be used to get some really interesting products out in the world with Kickstarter, but is there anyone out there actually doing this who could talk about it? Do you have firsthand knowledge about this, Phil, or are you just trying to convince people open source hardware is a good thing, again?
Yes there is, and I interviewed Ryo Chijiiwa of bootstrapsolar.com, the maker of one of my favorite recently funded projects on Kickstater that uses open source hardware and is based on something I even helped develop at my other job at Adafruit (an open source hardware maker in NYC). There are a lot of projects that use open source hardware, but this one I knew about and was thrilled to see in a successfully funded Kickstarter.
The maker, in his own words, talks about how he got into electronics and how open source hardware helped him. It’s a great maker-view of what it’s like working on a project that’s crowd funded. Say hi to Ryo!
Thanks for doing this interview!
You’re welcome, and thank you.
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Ryo Chijiiwa. I’m a software engineer by training, and in a past life, worked in Silicon Valley at companies like Yahoo and Google. I left my job in 2009, bought 60 acres of bare, undeveloped land in the mountains of North-Eastern California, and spent the subsequent 2 years pursuing what I called “minimalist comfort.” I think I achieved that goal when I finished building my second hut, and survived a month-long stay in the winter, during which time I didn’t leave my property at all. I recently returned to civilization, after first doing a two-month stint as a disaster relief/recovery volunteer in Japan.
What got you into making electronics?
To be honest, even though I love to make things, this is my first electronics project since middle school (I discovered programming in high school).
I first started thinking about this project in the days immediately following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan back in March. There were a surprising number of people in the worst-hit areas saying that, after essentials like food, water, fuel, and medicine, what they needed most was a way to charge their cellphones. I saw this as a relatively new problem, since we’ve never been as dependent on these little devices as we are now, and this trend is being reinforced by widespread adoption of powerful smartphones.
Unlike many of the other problems in a disaster, I also saw this as a relatively easy problem to solve. I knew this because I was living in my cabin at the time, and the only supply of electricity I had was my meager 145-watt solar array. As small as that is, keeping a handful of phones charged is even cheaper and easier. I knew that $100-$200 worth of gear ought to be able to keep half a dozen phones charged, and that could keep an entire community connected with the outside world.
About a month later, I went to Japan to volunteer with a U.S.-based organization on a project based in Iwate, one of the hardest-hit prefectures. One of the things I did there was to take a team of about a dozen volunteers to this remote town, where we camped out (literally) in a tsunami-struck house that had no power (and only about half the walls). We were working in three different job sites, and to coordinate, we needed to use cellphones. Guess what? We had a hard time keeping them charged. One of the volunteers had a solar gadget, but it was nearly useless.
Later, when I was starting BootstrapSolar, this experience inspired me to work on a portable solar phone charger. As a software engineer, you get used to creating something if you’re not happy with what’s out there. I think I approached this project with a similar mentality, even though I have no background in electronics.
What is BootstrapSolar?
BootstrapSolar is a name I chose for my business, because I was literally trying to bootstrap a business with basically no money (remember, I’d been unemployed for 2.5 years). The assumption seems to be that to start a hardware company, you either need to be a genius or have lots of capital. I’m no genius, and I’m broke. So I had to get creative.
Instead of writing a business proposal and getting funding, I decided to bootstrap the process by developing a product first, as one would do in the software world. My initial thought was to build something for disasters — a kit that could be stashed away in evacuation centers, or be given to disaster responders. But, after some exploration, I decided to start with something smaller that had widespread appeal. Based on my experiences in Japan and on my property, I decided that it would be cool to have a solar phone charger that was affordable, but also powerful enough to actually be practical. So that’s what I made.
The BootstrapSolar Power Pack Kit (soon to be renamed the “Chi-qoo”), is a portable solar device for charging small electronic devices like phones, iPads, eBook readers, Arduino projects, and many others. It comes with a 5W solar panel (with the option to upgrade to a total of 10W), a 6000mAh/22Wh LiPoly battery, and two USB ports that support up to 1.5A of output. It comes with a bamboo enclosure, and will be available as a kit that requires basic assembly (but no soldering). The way it works is quite simple. You can use solar panels (or a wall plug as backup) to charge the power pack’s internal battery, and then you can use that stored energy to charge your device by plugging it into the power pack’s USB ports.
Why did you decide to use Kickstarter?
While I was able to develop a functioning prototype on a shoestring budget, I knew I needed money for an actual production run. I talked to a friend who’s an entrepreneur, and he suggested I try Kickstarter because he had seen some cool hardware projects there. The idea of crowd-funding appealed to me at an idealistic level too. While working at public companies in Silicon Valley, I became somewhat disillusioned with traditional investors and shareholders. It seems that much of what we perceive as “corporate greed” can be traced back to investors, who are profit-driven and only make a profit when corporations grow. So investors pressure companies to grow, and grow perpetually — kind of like cancer. Since executives legally work for investors (and are usually shareholders themselves), I think that kind of dynamic can compel companies to do things that come at a high social or environmental cost. I think it’s a suboptimal model, and crowd-funding is one possible alternative; it allows us to circumvent Wall Street.
How did open source hardware and open source software help your project?
I would not have been able to do this project were it not for open source hardware and software. I started the project in late June, and when Ladyada introduced the Open Source Solar Lipoly Charger on July 1st, it felt like a godsend. Since I don’t have any background in electronics, I couldn’t have designed that myself, and hiring someone else to do it would’ve been prohibitively expensive. The fact that the design is open source is pretty crucial because it means I can make custom changes to fit my particular application.
On the software side, I used Inkscape, an open source graphics program, to design my laser-cut bamboo pieces. If I’d had to go buy a copy of a commercial graphics program, that would’ve blown away a quarter of my budget. While not open source, free (as in free beer) software, like Eagle CAD for circuit board design and SketchUp for 3D modeling, helped too.
Since you’re basing your product on open source hardware, are you publishing everything you do back as open source hardware?
Yes, all the design files will be made available under an open source license (or OSH-compatible Creative Commons license). Some of the circuit designs are already on GitHub, and the other design files will be posted once they’ve been finalized.
Since BootstrapSolar is crowd-funded, I will also incorporate openness and transparency into all aspects of the business, by making my expenses public too. This is actually an idea that’s inspired by my friends, who opened a transparent produce store called Open Produce in Chicago.
As a side note, I recently got a message from someone who is interested in manufacturing and selling clones of my kit in the Philippines. That kind of venture would only be possible to do legally with open source hardware. Some people might wonder whether I’d lose money that way. The reality, though, is that at the price point I’m selling my kits at, my product would not really be viable in that market anyway. I can also maintain my competitive edge by staying ahead of the innovation curve. It takes weeks or months to start manufacturing and selling a product, even a clone, so if I crank out new products or new versions every couple of months, I’ll always stay ahead. Furthermore, I can compete with copies by ensuring that the product experience is more than just the physical components.
Have you contacted the designer, Limor “Ladyada” Fried and Adafruit?
Yes. Actually, I asked to see if she might be interested in manufacturing my customized version of her solar charger circuit, and selling it to me at a profit. It seemed like a possible way to reduce my workload, while making sure she made some money from my use of her design. That particular idea might not pan out, but I might try to support her business by buying some other components. Personally, I think open source is about sharing, and I think it’s important for those of us who benefit from open source to give back where we can.
What is your goal for your project?
Right now, my plate is pretty full just getting the kits to manufacturing. Since BootstrapSolar is still a one-person operation (though I’m trying to hire a couple of interns ), there’s a lot for me to do, and I recently started a full-time job during the day, so I’m struggling to keep, essentially, two jobs. As soon as I get off my day job, I head to TechShop, where I work on BootstrapSolar stuff until they close at midnight, before heading home. Home, incidentally, is a spare room in the house my day job is based out of — I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had the time (or inclination) to go apartment hunting. On any given evening, I may be tweaking the circuit board designs, making changes to the laser-cut designs, while responding to messages from backers on Kickstarter, and corresponding with manufacturers and suppliers. So, my goal for now is to ship. Once I’ve got that figured out, I have more product ideas in the pipeline. Ultimately, I want to turn BootstrapSolar into a financially and environmentally sustainable business. That, and world domination, of course.
If this product works out, will you use Kickstater again?
I really like the general idea behind Kickstarter, and I think they provide an excellent service for creative projects. Having said that, I think I’m using the site in a way that’s pretty different to how they intended, so it’s difficult to do some of the things I want to do. For instance, most of my backers are essentially making pre-orders, but I’m having to do a lot of manual work to take custom orders. They also have policies that limit what kind of rewards I can offer and how I can use the funds (for instance, they said I couldn’t buy carbon offsets because offsets have “cash value”). Some of the rules have to do with Amazon Payments, but I think some of the rules are in place to tailor to a specific audience.
In fact, even though my project has done well (I’m just shy of reaching 400% of my goal as I write), they initially rejected my proposal because they didn’t think it was a good fit. To some degree, I think they were right. I’m hoping that sales of this first kit will fund the next project, but if I decided to turn to crowd-funding again, I might look at alternative options. I don’t know if there are any yet, but I think it’s a matter of time before someone builds a crowd-funding service tailored specifically to small businesses.
I wanted to point out that Kickstarter isn’t the first to do crowd-funding, it won’t be the last, and even Starbucks is considering it. Here’s what the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz is thinking about:
Americans themselves would start lending to small businesses, with Starbucks serving as the middleman. Starbucks would find financial institutions willing to loan to small businesses. Starbucks customers would be able to donate money to the effort when they bought their coffee. Those who gave $5 or more would get a red-white-and-blue wristband, which Schultz labeled “Indivisible.” “We are hoping it will bring back pride in the American dream,” he says. The tag line will read: “Americans Helping Americans.”
And lastly, before I wrap this up, I wanted to share this Kickstarter that could use some love:
As the maker movement marches forward, we’ve hit a lot of milestones: a place to share what you make (MAKE magazine/MAKE blog/Maker Faire, Make: Projects, Instructables), places to meet up and build things (hackerspaces, TechShops, meetups/DorkBots), tools to create (Inkscape, MakerBots, laser cutters, gEDA, kiCAD), places to sell what you make (Etsy, kit businesses, Maker Shed, direct), and now ways to fund your projects (Kickstarter). It really is true: if you can dream it, you can make it, and now you can probably get funding for it. And if you use open source hardware, you have an advantage and a way to give back value at the same time. That’s what’s so exciting to me right now, and I hope we see more open source hardware fueling great Kickstarter projects.