Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey before Pesky Products?
I am at the end of a 25 year career in nuclear weapons design at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (I still work there part time) and have three young kids (12, 15, and 18 now). I am a physicist by training and have always been interested in technology, but mostly for applications in my erstwhile day job. About two years ago my youngest (then 8 years old) son approached me with a request to buy some vibrating motors for a robot-making science project he wanted to do. I went online to a site his teacher had recommended called Sparkfun. While buying the required motors I happened to notice a kit on sale at the time (this was around December) called the Sparkfun Inventor's Kit which came with a bunch of sensors and promised a guide to making them work using something called an Arduino. This was the first time I had heard this word and I had no idea what it was but I bought it thinking it would make a perfect Christmas gift for my son.
As it turned out, he did enjoy it and we spent many happy hours together going through the very well-done tutorials. Shortly thereafter this same kid asked me how a quadcopter worked, and fresh from my introduction to the Arduino world I suggested that we build one and find out. This lead me to MEMS sensors and sensor fusion, motor control circuits, other non-AVR MCUs and eventually to designing and assembling my own pcbs for circuits I needed and then to actually making rolling and flying robots. While doing this I discovered the Teensy, Paul Stoffregen's Arduino-compatible ARM CORTEX M4 MCU and I started to design very small add-ons (shields in Arduino-speak) including battery chargers, 2.4 GHz radios, and motion sensors. I shared some of my doings on the Teensy forum at www.pjrc.com and was eventually asked if I would sell some of the things I had made. This led me to Tindie at Paul's suggestion and I started my Pesky Products career with my first sale on July 23, 2014, one day before my 57th birthday. It is still somewhat amazing to me that this was just about six months after I first learned what an Arduino or MEMS motion sensor was. I never intended to be in business, but since that first sale I have enjoyed on average two orders a day and I have had to learn the ins and outs of running a (still small) business. This includes procuring components, making products to meet demand, processing orders, packaging and shipping, and accounting and taxes. I still do everything by myself but I have learned to reach out to collaborators for my more ambitious projects that require more skill than I currently have. Pesky Products is still my core business and one I still greatly enjoy, but it has led to several consulting jobs for customized electronics for startup companies all over the US. In some ways, Pesky Products is the marketing arm of my rapidly growing electronic design business.
How did Pesky Products start, what is your mission and what is/are your primary product(s)?
I covered the time line of my journey to Pesky Products, but the main goal is to make things I am interested in and that I think can be really useful. I specialize in appallingly small add-on boards for popular MCUs like the Teensy. "Appallingly small" is a kind of trademark that arose from a debate over future form factors for a Teensy 3.1 follow-on under discussion at the www.pjrc.com/teensy forum. I advocated retaining the very small form factor while others advocated a larger form factor with all of the GPIOs exposed to edge pins. Well, one participant mocked my suggestion that "...small is all..." by responding "...too small appalls..." and I have used the appallingly small description for Pesky Products ever since. The business side has always been easy for me; I just treat people the way I would want to be treated if I were a customer. I answer all questions customers pose if I am able, promptly ship out orders, take suggestions for customization, gladly replace or refund when customers are unhappy for any reason. Seems like common sense to me, and it is most gratifying when I get repeat business; this is validation both my products and my business approach are valued. I also make sure to thoroughly test and use anything I design in my own projects so I know the product well. This usually means intimate familiarity with the data sheet, register map, and application notes. I also write working software sketches in Arduino and post them on github, make the hardware design open source, write a detailed description of the product and what it is expected to do on the Tindie store site, etc. I want customers to know as much about the product as I do so they can make an informed decision before they commit to purchase. That's what I want when I shop! I have started to transition to more complicated products. In addition to staples like battery chargers, radios, and motion sensors, I have started to design and sell microcontroller boards for interesting processors including the popular ESP8266, the electric imp IMP003, and the newest addition the STM32L4. In many cases I do this as part of a collaboration with others either for the purpose of developing products for sale on Tindie or for commercial applications as part of my consulting business. The best part of Pesky Products and startup consulting is the opportunity to learn; if I am not learning new things I get bored. And to avoid boredom, I am always on the lookout for new sensors, devices and technologies I might be able to exploit for my own uses or for customer applications. A large part of the value I bring to commercial clients is knowledge of how to use a lot of technologies to solve (their) problems. My goal is to learn everything there is to know about electronic design, sensor utilization, robotics, RF communication, microprocessing. Technology is progressing faster than I can take it all in. I don't think I'll ever get bored!
I see Pesky Products are available for sale. What are your sales channels? How did you obtain them?
I sell mainly on Tindie. I have attempted to forge sales alliances to expand sales channels with very little success. I even approached Digi-Key about selling one of my products but they politely turned me down. Tindie has been a great vehicle for getting my products noticed and generating sales. I don't advertise, except by occasionally showing my results in discussion forums. I would like to increase sales, of course, but I am at that interesting transition between hobby and business. I can enjoy the fun of creation and experimentation. I don't have to meet a payroll, and I have the luxury of saying no, either to troublesome collaborators or would be customers. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do, and I can focus on spending a lot of my time on the things I do. I call that success! But I want to expand the business, of course. I hope to soon have my IMP003 development board listed on the www.electricimp.com site as an affordable entry into the world of agency and cloud computing. I am hoping for high sales of the new Arduino-programmable Dragonfly STM32L4 development board. I have started having many of my products fabbed in China to improve quality and lower production costs (and free up more of my time for design work). My plan is to lower prices as sales volumes increase. It must be every business owners dream to be able to lower prices as sales volumes rise. I hope I will get there too!
When you think about the early stages of the design roadmap (ideation, concept, research, evaluation, design and prototyping) what was the most challenging part of the journey? What tools or information sources did you leverage to overcome the challenge?
The most time consuming part has been mastering the tools required to realize my ideas and concepts. I had to (re-)learn the rudiments of electronics and electronic design, I had to learn how to use EAGLE well enough to design four-layer pcbs and use 0402 passives and WLCSP packages. I had to learn how to program MCUs, how to use protocols like SPI and I2C, and peripherals like SD cards and displays. These things were all straightforward; it just took a long time to get proficient enough to make products useful for other to want to buy them. I benefited greatly from videos and tutorials on www.Sparkfun.com. They taught me how to use Arduino MCUs, EAGLE, and reflow soldering techniques. I owe Sparkfun a huge debt of gratitude for starting me off on my journey and I try to repay that debt by making (almost) everything I do open source and talking freely about my methods, both successes and failures, to all comers. There are still major gaps in my knowledge. I can't for the life of me negotiate the use of adult tool chains like Keil or IAR. I tried mbed but have found even this to be to require too much patience and to be too limiting for my needs. I started with the Arduino IDE and have become spoiled by its Teensiduino extension. I am not a very good software programmer and I rely on others to do this when I can. I also have reached the limitations of EAGLE and need to progress to Altium or some other tool which would allow me to design with 0.4-mm pitch BGA chips but I don't quite know how to learn this skill (other than by blind trial and error) and I am not ready for the step up in expense required for the more advance tools and the more complicated fab processes involved.
Turning your idea into a viable business is a major challenge. From the later stages of the roadmap (funding, marketing, production, distribution and support) what element was or is the greatest obstacle? What resources if any did you use to get past the obstacle?
I never meant to be in business; at least I didn’t start with a business plan. It just sort of happened. Now I do plan products that both I am interested in using and I think others will want to buy. I focus a bit more on the latter these days. The biggest obstacle to increased sales is exposure of the products to more people who have a need for them. I get many e-mails a month from new customers that read something like this: "I have been struggling with this for months/years and I just now found this site with just what I need for my problem!" It is enormously gratifying to have something I created and made with my own hands and think is useful also be the answer to someone else's need. I've thought about starting a Kickstarter campaign, not because I need money for producing my products, I don't. But because there always seems to be a lot of interest (and sales, one must think) generated by these campaigns even for products I really don't have any use for. But there is something artificial about this approach to me. I don't want to sell products based on hype. I want people to discover the value of my products, by successful use or by word of mouth and recommendations from satisfied customers. This means more to me than sales volume. Besides, if I went from 2 to 20 orders a day, I wouldn't have time for anything else. I would probably have to hire staff, rent space, meet a payroll, and I would be having a lot less fun!
What was the most exciting part of your journey so far?
I didn't expect to get actual pleasure from selling stuff I make. It is a form of validation. That my concept, its realization in the form of a product, and the utility discovered by a customer, has a value that people are willing to pay me for is still the most satisfying and gratifying aspect of Pesky Products. I make every Pesky Product for me, because I see it as something worth doing even if no one else knows about it. But when someone else (or a lot of someone else) demands the product, wants to know when they can buy more of them, thanks me for making it. Wow, this never gets old! It is exciting to have my services in demand also. I never expected to be in the electronic design consulting business either. But people see the products I make and ask me for custom work to help solve their problems or commercialize their idea. This has turned out to be the most financially rewarding part of the business. I have more work that I can handle, and I am constantly learning new techniques and discovering new devices to solve the rich set of real world problems I am asked to confront. It is also exciting to think that something I took part in designing might one day be for sale on retail store shelves. It hasn't happened yet, but it will soon and this is an exciting prospect!
What surprises did you not foresee along the way?
I mentioned the surprise enjoying the validation Tindie sales offers. I did not expect to be perceived to be such an expert (I'm not) on electronic design and sensor fusion that people would be willing to pay me a lot of money to help them solve their problems. Just imagine how much of an expert I would be if I had been at this 25 years instead of the two and change since I first heard the word Arduino. I can't really be an expert though; look it up in the dictionary. An expert is someone who has already made every mistake possible in his or her chosen field. I am still making mistakes!
If there was one pearl of wisdom you could share with future maker professionals, what would it be?
I have two to offer. The first, you can do it. Whatever it is, if you can conceive it and want to achieve it badly enough you can. Learn how, learn from others, and learn by doing. The key to success in any task is motivation to succeed. If you are driven to know or to create, you will. And if your desire is one of genuine interest and you become an expert at it in the proper sense of the word (see above), others will be interested in what you have done, maybe so interested that they would be willing to pay you to do it for them. Second, don't give up. Persist. The obstacles will fall with persistence. I have had very few complete failures. Often, my ideas don't work very well, I make mistakes, I have to learn from error (or re-learn, which is most embarrassing). Even though in the worst cases months pass with unsolved problems, in almost every case I have found a solution, understood what was missing, eventually made sense of the mystery. In my view, these two are the keys to success in any endeavor. If you're not motivated enough to persist in your goal, maybe you need a different goal!
Thank you for the opportunity to share. I enjoy what I do at Pesky Products.
Please check out Pesky Products Store on Tindie: https://www.tindie.com/stores/onehorse/