Boulder (moving To Niwot in 2014)
$30 million in sales and a mission to train a new manufacturing workforce drive Matt Bolton and Sparkfun
Nathan Seidle started SparkFun Electronics in 2003 in a rented room on "The Hill" in Boulder. The then-undergrad at CU Boulder saw an opportunity making circuit boards and other gizmos and gadgets for electronics hobbyists like himself.
A decade later, the 150-employee company is bringing in $30 million in annual revenue. SparkFun has outgrown its Boulder facility and building a new 80,000-square-foot factory and warehouse near the IBM campus in Niwot.
The company makes and distributes more than 3,500 different products, ranging from sensors and switches to pumps and motors. "It's a one-stop shop," says Director of Production Matt Bolton, noting that about 500 products are made in Boulder.
Bolton says the company's mission is to make products for people who want to make things. "People don't necessarily want to be consumers. There's an undercurrent of makers. There are people who say, 'I want to make it myself.'"
"We try to make tools that are approachable by just about anyone, and you can take it and customize it to do what you want," he adds. "That's how we've shaped our product design -- we don't want to lock you in. We're getting better at strategy, but we're very reactive. If our customers, say something, we listen to them."
Bolton explains how SparkFun's growth has completely outdone Seidle's initial expectations: "There's just a lot more people like Nate out there than he realized."
These people run the gamut from garage-based hobbyists to engineers at large companies who have used SparkFun products for prototyping to Felix Baumgartner, the daredevil who broke the skydiving world record in 2012 when he jumped off a balloon 24 miles above the ground -- he used a SparkFun circuit board to log data during the jump.
And SparkFun practices what it preaches. The maker ethos is apparent in innovative circuit-board testing equipment that developed in house; Bolton says the price is about $200 versus $15,000 for off-the-shelf test equipment. "We found a way to build them ourselves," he says.
Education is another big part of the SparkFun model, and the company even has a director of education as one of its team of eight directors who report directly to Seidle. The company has hundreds of tutorials on its website and makes student outreach a priority.
"We're in the midst of our national tour," says Bolton. "We've been going across the country teaching kids about electronics. We're going to most every state, stopping at libraries and schools and hacker spaces and museums."
Challenges: Bolton says finding "how to strategically prepare for seasonal demand" remains difficult, although seasonal fluctuations have been shrinking. "We get better and better at it every day."
Opportunities: The potential of SparkFun's educational market has not been fully realized. "We love to teach," says Bolton. "I think students learn very well when they're getting hands-on experience."
Needs: Space. SparkFun's 52,000-square-foot facility in Boulder is bursting at the seams. The building in Niwot should be open for business in May 2014, says Bolton. "When you move into a building that already exists, you just have to fit into it. This building is our clean slate."