Making hardware is hard when you’re starting from scratch. Selling it is tough too, especially when you're not sure how polished your product needs to be or who will ultimately be your audience. Emile Petrone, CEO of Tindie, knows this well. Two years ago, he started building out an indie hardware marketplace that has become a go-to spot for things like robots that do mobile app testing and cheap hardware parts from Shenzhen.
"Because we’re the first hardware marketplace out there, we’ve basically tried to learn on the fly," says Petrone. "When you have niche, specialized things that people have never thought of, you’re basically introducing to them for the first time. That’s not easy."
Twelve thousand orders and 2,500 product later he’s learned a few things. "We get orders from hobbyists. And also from Google, Intel, NASA, the U.S. Navy, Lockheed Martin, MIT, Harvard. It’s kind of the secret of the site," says Petrone.
So how do you get a hardware product (or marketplace) off the ground? Here’s his advice.
"If there isn’t a group that’s going to rally around it, then it’s going to launch and it’s going to flop," says Petrone.
The first step, he says, is to align with other sites and influencers who can give advice, credibility, and spread the word. "We had to focus on supply for the first year. Hack spaces in London and New York were sharing it with people," Petrone adds." And I think being on Reddit was the huge jump-start for us."
But having friends isn’t all you need. You also need to manage supply and get customers, which can be chicken-and-egg for any product startup. Which comes first when you really need both? How can you get both at the same time? Petrone has a couple of tricks. And he started using them way before he even had a product to launch.
"When I launched the site, it was two months of work. Me doing it on the weekends and nights and I got something out the door that worked. The first thing I threw up was the homepage that said ‘reserve your username,’ says Petrone. "In reality, they were signing up, but I just put it as ‘reserve your username.’ So they were already putting a password, email, and a username—done."
While this was happening, Petrone was building out the backend—quickly creating the as-yet-unmade product people were signing up for. "A couple weeks later once I had minimum MVP of the product layer, the backend. They would see the page ‘We’re stocking the shelves—submit products that you want to sell or projects,'" he says. "People were already uploading title, description, photos before there was even anything to do. On that first day, we already had 20 sellers and orders. On Day 1, there was a community and product."
While this might be slightly different for a marketplace than a product, the same basic approach applies. Get something out there. Start enlisting support early, and build interest. Petrone tells the story of one of his soon-to-be sellers who did just that. He validated his market the not-so-old fashioned way. With 100,000 hits on YouTube.
"Arduboy is a Game Boy the size of a credit card or your business card. Basically it’s a super thin, super lightweight gaming platform. It’s $50. No cartridges. You just throw games on this thing. Right now, it’s a bare PCB but a plastic case around it and all of a sudden it’s the best thing since sliced bread," says Petrone.
The product has ridiculous potential. But how did the guy who made it go about getting support? Originally, Petrone says, he just slapped together a prototype and posted it on YouTube. "It got like 100,000 views when he went ‘This is what I made!’ explains Petrone. "So now he’s decided to make it and sell it. It’s in manufacturing now."
One of the things Petrone did to accelerate growth was broaden his view of how large his marketplace could be—a lesson any hardware manufacturer can take to heart. "The staggered approach which Yelp took, for example, where you start in the U.S. then you roll out to the next country and the next country is an old mindset," Petrone says. "You have to start with everyone in mind because otherwise you’re going to miss out on potential customers. And chances are they will teach you things that you didn’t know."
Tindie made a part of being market agnostic and international from day one. Petrone says that’s only way to go. "If we had said orders are only from the U.S., we wouldn’t have sellers from the U.K. who are some of our top sellers. We have tons of people from London like an ex-Google engineer who’s now making his own hardware."
In a surprise comment, Petrone points out that international growth is actually on par with that of the U.S. "We’re now in 81 or 82 countries. Growth internationally is on par with the U.S.—Europe and U.S. traffic right now are basically even." He also gives an indication of where hardware is hottest right now, a stat worth noting whether you’re a maker or a seller. "New York, London, and SF are all tied," he says. "They flop back and forth for the number one city."
People look at the slick, well-produced products on Kickstarter and forget what it took to get from the raw idea to that polished product. The commonly held idea is that perfection is required for success. That's a misconception says Petrone. "'If we polish it, we will be successful is the logic,' whereas the reality is far from it," he explains. "GoPro is a great example. It took years and years and years to create and it actually started out with 35MM film. There’s a photo of the early GoPro—it was just like a bare PCB and a lens and you throw in the film."
His advice to any maker: Get out there early. Get feedback. And get product out in raw form that people "can at least say what you’re doing is interesting." That’s what some of Tindie’s top sellers have done. They're not who you might expect—and they're selling like crazy.
"Tapster is our number one or two best seller right now. It’s a robot that does mobile app testing. It used to be this big hulking robot that was originally built to play Angry Birds. Now every iteration gets more and more polished and the people that are buying it are the biggest companies in the world. We shipped one to Beijing to Nokia. We shipped one to Intel in Austria or somewhere," says Petrone. "The biggest companies in the world are buying this robot for 500 bucks that does this specialized thing. Most people see it as ‘That’s an interesting little toy.’ The reality is, it’s doing a very specific job and it’s the best thing that’s out there.’"
Another example, he gives is a Raspberry Pi weather station called AirPi. It launched in the fall and was made by the most unlikely hardware manufacturers—two 17-year-olds who built it for a science fair. "That product was not meant to be commercialized, but they won the science fair and threw it up on Tindie. They made $30,000 in two weeks with a bare PCB that you slap onto a Raspberry Pi," he says. "They just rolled out v 1.4 and schools are buying it for classrooms around the world. The product sold out and a middle school in the U.K. has been emailing me ferociously. ‘We want to buy 30 of these things, can we get them?’"
Tindie got into the hardware marketplace business at at a good time. Hardware marketplaces are heating up. Alibaba is coming to the U.S soon. They just filed for their IPO. Amazon isn’t publicizing it broadly, but they’re quietly trying to do the same with AmazonSupply—a resource, among other things, for supplies like washers, capacitors, or LEDs in mass quantity.
However, even Petrone is banking on the fact that hardware makers and enthusiasts will continue to come to Tindie. That’s why he has flipped his attention to improving the user experience beginning with a huge shift in site organization that happened just yesterday.
"People don’t know how to categorize products, the syntax, and the taxonomy. And it’s very reactive because we don’t know what people are going to post. It doesn’t make sense for us to have 50 categories with only three products in them. So we’re giving control over the categories to the community," he explains. "As of [yesterday], we basically let that community take over, allowing for these little niche communities to start to emerge."
Bringing things full circle, it's a very Reddit approach. It is also one that lends itself to geographically based communities popping up. Good news for anyone who wants to check out components from China—without hopping on an airplane. "We discovered that we have tons of sellers in Shenhzen selling on Tindie because it’s easier for them to get directly to the Western market," Petrone says. "So now we have a Shenzhen market. People in Shenzhen can come together themselves, or you can buy directly from them. If you’re looking for cheap, mass quantity consumer components, you can basically gobble them up for pennies each."