Osborn: I’m interested in what projects are you working on now, now that you’re in Shenzhen?
Lesnet: I tell people I’m here making wine. What I love about coming to markets, and that’s all markets in the world. Huaqiangbei is obviously the biggest—is the hands-on part, the playing, the touching, knowing a part before you use it in your design. I find that so valuable. What I wanted to do was come here and put that in a box and share it with other people. One of the big projects we’re doing here is to make part kits with one of everything, so we have a connector kit with pre-crimped wires and all sizes of a certain con- nector type, from one by one up through twenty by one. You can just stick the pre-crimped wires into the connector and make a custom cable. Right now you either have to buy a cable of the right size, or you have to hunt through datasheets and web sites to find the right connector. Then where do I get the little connectors to crimp onto the wires? Do I have the right crimping tool? How do I use the crimping tool? Here, I can get that all for you, put it in a box, give you a complete set of parts. Be it connectors or buttons or LEDs or whatever, you can have a complete set of parts on your shelf. Then when you’re working on a project, you don’t have to do all this hunting and searching through parts catalogs because you’ve got everything there. I feel like I’m going out to the vineyard, I’m plucking the choicest grapes off the vines, and I’m making wine. I’m trying to distill the best of Huaqiangbei, but not just any part. I touch all the parts. I feel all the parts. I say, “This connector is a good connector. It’s quality material. It doesn’t look like it’s going to break. I’m very happy with it. This will be in my connector set.”
Osborn: That sounds a little bit like what Inventables did early on, what Zach Kaplan at Inventables did for industrial designers.
Lesnet: That’s sort of a vision we have. I’m working with a company in the UK called Oomlout on this project. Another goal in this is to eliminate that last- minute Mouser order, when you’re working on a project and you’ve got the two by five connector, but you don’t have the two by six, and what you really need is the two by six and you can’t finish your board because you don’t have the right connector. But instead of ordering ten from Mouser or whatever and waiting two days for it to show up, you have a connector box with every connector, at least every popular and common connector, and a complete set of all the sizes. And then you just pull out the right envelope, you open it up, you pop it in, and you’re good to go. This is another example where I needed this for myself. This was not made for other people. I was so sick of making that last-minute Mouser order, mak- ing the minimum order to get free shipping, and then spending too much. Instead, I have a nice box with every one of them on my shelf. When I’m designing a board now and I need a part, I go to my shelf and I pull it out. It’s neatly organized and it’s easy to reorder stuff.
Osborn: What I find myself doing is, when I want a certain type of connector or I’m not sure exactly what would work best for my design, I’ll buy one or two of maybe twelve different connectors, and then pay for two-day shipping, which is expensive. I get it and look at each of them to decide which one works best for my design and then I make the order for the part I end up using. Then it’s another three days. At this point, I’ve spent more than a week basically trying to make a selection for one part.
Lesnet: That is exactly it. That is exactly the problem we are trying to solve. I was facing the same dilemma. I needed hex standoffs, and I didn’t know which hex standoff I needed. So I literally went on Mouser, and I ordered, I think, ten or twelve of every size they had. It cost me like three or four hundred dollars, just for ten or twelve of each, to get a complete set. I was floored. Instead, we have a box now, with both nylon and stainless steel hex standoffs, one of every size, and we can sell it for twenty bucks. It eliminates the problem you just described. Everything is open source, as always. We have open-source datasheets, open-source renderings of all the parts, open-source mechanical drawings, all the footprints in both Eagle and KiCAD. You don’t have to design your own footprints. We have the equivalent part numbers from every vendor we can find, so that way, if you design with something out of the box and then you want to order a thousand for your small production run, your Kickstarter, whatever, then you have the Mouser part number, the Digi-Key part number, the manufacturers’ equivalent part numbers if you go directly to the manufac- turer. It’s going to make it easier for me, and hopefully other people like it too. We’re trying to change our focus because we don’t sell anything. We don’t have our own shop. We don’t handle products. Seeed Studio sells things. They’re our main retailer. They take the money and ship things for us. We have a lot of distributors around the world, too, that sell things for us, but we don’t sell anything ourselves. We never have what I call the sweet bundle of wires money. As I understand, a lot of the open hardware retailers make their money by selling stuff like wire bundles. They buy it for five cents and sell on for five dollars. SparkFun does it,Adafruit does it, and Seeed does it. Oomlout does it in the UK, and Watterott in Germany. They’re making their money selling bags of LEDs, wires, the simple high markup stuff as I understand it.
Osborn: Even large retailers like Best Buy do that sort of thing. They sell you an LCD TV cheap and then they convince you to buy a forty-dollar HDMI cable.
Lesnet: Exactly. And there’s no development overhead in that stuff. They don’t have to write firmware. Then they don’t have to support it. There’s very little support for a bag of LEDs, whereas I spend four or five hours a day in my forum answering questions and helping people with stuff and taking com- munity feedback and integrating it into projects. There’s none of that when you sell a bundle of wires. Our goal is to get into the sweet, sweet bundle of wire business. We can’t do it, because we don’t have our own shop. We can’t sell a Dangerous Prototypes–branded bundle of wires because Seeed already sells that, and we can’t compete with them in their own shop. So these boxes are our way of doing the bundle of wires. We’re added value to it because we’re providing a lot of information and making it convenient, but we’re also able to sell things that don’t require a whole bunch of development and support. We’re also trying to expand what we get out of our current products that are very popular. The open-source hardware market is flooded now. It’s just flooded. There are so many Kickstarters and great projects out there. When I started, there were just a handful of people doing this. Right now, there’s just so much stuff, it’s hard to keep up. So we’re trying to get more value out of our existing stuff, instead of just trying to make new stuff and depending on that.
So we’re trying to do a Bus Pirate educational kit. We’re trying to put together a set of chips and a nice illustrated booklet, a nice breadboard with overlays that show you how to wire up the chip to the Bus Pirate. We’re trying to sell this as an educational experience, something that teaches you about electronics, about high-level electronics, about how you communicate with the chips. How do you store information on a chip and get it back? What do the com- mands look like? So we’re trying to take our projects like that and build an educational experience around it. So that’s where we’re trying to go with this, to expand our market a little bit in that way that doesn’t require as much user support and development time.