Limor Fried: building electronic dreams
Image credit: Adafruit Industries
She’s the MIT hacker and engineer who burst onto the DIY electronics scene when she founded open-source hardware company Adafruit in 2005. Meet Limor ‘Ladyada’ Fried.
Best known for Adafruit Industries, the New York City-based open-source hardware company she founded in 2005, Limor Fried is the first female engineer to make it onto the cover of Wired magazine and has a number of accolades to her name, including being named a Whitehouse Champion of Change in 2016.
Fried uses her platform to realise her mission of sharing the joy of the making culture as widely as possible and in educating others, particularly women and young people, and encouraging them to explore science and engineering. Created while she was still studying at MIT, Adafruit creates an online hub for learning electronics and aims to develop the best-designed products for makers of all ages and skills. The company designs and develops open-source electronic kits, components, and tools that Fried personally selects, tests and approves before going in to the Adafruit store to sell.
In addition, Adafruit also provides video shows and tutorials via its YouTube channel where subscribers can discover hundreds of unique open-source projects, and other highlights like the A to Z of electronics with Adabot and friends in Circuit Playground, for young engineers, and, from the very ‘Desk of Ladyada’ herself, live-streamed engineering and shared maker business secrets.
In 2010, the company employed eight people, but has now grown to over 100 employees in the heart of New York City with a 50,000sq ft factory. Fried, at the helm of her 100 per cent woman-owned company, is a leader of the open-source hardware movement and, as Ladyada, proves an unconventional role model for female entrepreneurs everywhere. Here, she talks to E&T about inspiration and education, Adafruit-style.
E&T: Adafruit was famously created in your dorm room at MIT in 2005. How did you come up with the idea/concept?
Limor Fried: I was having a lot of fun building electronics - I had just been learning as part of my undergraduate internship about microcontrollers and it was tons of fun! Once I built some projects, I would publish them on my website. People loved the projects like my Mint-tin MP3 player and emailed asking if I would sell them a kit of parts. Eventually I got so annoyed by all these emails, I started kitting up some simpler projects for sale and they were so popular, it became my life!
E&T: Has Adafruit evolved over time or does its original remit still hold true?
LF: Adafruit is still the same core, it just has more resources. I still design electronic kits and products. Now we have a 50,000sq ft factory so we can manufacture more and use the latest high-tech parts. We still sell some of the original kits and all our plans are still up on the website for free!
E&T: How important is the educational side of the business to you?
LF: The whole point of Adafruit is to share with people the joy I have found making electronics. In addition to the website that I've had since day one, we also have a daily blog, that is updated all the time with industry news, maker tips and tricks, and DIY projects. We have a weekly live video show called Ask an Engineer and before then an open-to-the-public Show & Tell where people come by and show what they’re working on. Our creative engineers on staff also have shows where they can demonstrate their projects as they are building them. We’re using new media in every way because that is how we can reach the most people.
E&T: Where did the Ladyada moniker come from? Is it a nod to Ada Lovelace?
LF: Yes! It’s from my handle when I used to log into BBSs [bulletin board systems]. Nobody had it yet, it was less than eight characters and I think Ada Lovelace [the 19th-century female mathematician commonly considered to be the world’s first computer programmer] is cool and (at the time) was not a well-known historical figure.
E&T: Do you think that your visibility and your Ladyada persona demonstrate to kids in particular that coding and DIY electronics is an activity for them?
LF: There’s so many creative kids in this community, who impress me with their smarts and skills. We’ve tried hard to separate the ‘math and physics’ skills that advanced engineers may need, from the building and problem-solving skills that makes making fun. That’s why we have over 1,300 guides with projects ranging from skateboard under-lighting to sensor-laden skirts to pet GPS tracking to cosplay. Kids have time and passion and a beginner’s mind, so they can look at the problems and desires they have in their world and build things from cardboard, fabric or electronics.
E&T: How important is it to you that you remain hands-on and keep up with the engineering?
LF: It's what I do best! I still test all the products that go in the shop and QC or design all the products we manufacture. Having one person as the 'customer advocate' with engineering design ensures we have a holistic and empathic product offering: there’s little overlap or incompatibilities. That way we strive to always make the best new sensor or audio-effects board, what-have-you, rather than fighting seven different standards.
E&T: You also provide resources and info to other start-up maker businesses - what inspires you to do this?
LF: Yep! We have a weekly newsletter where we share tips like how to reduce postal shipping costs, or great sources for ESD packaging, or how we design our testers. It’s a good way to give back to the vibrant maker-business community. DIY electronics kits work well as a small-scale business, so there are easily 100+ smaller kit companies, some selling only one or two kit designs. We already open source so much, it makes sense to also give tips about business practices - I learn a ton, too! Then the community also gets a window into our practices, which makes them a closer community, and also they give us ideas and suggestions. Many have been engineering managers for decades.
E&T: What do you do in your spare time!?
LF: I like to go for walks in NYC, it’s a vibrant and exciting city!
E&T: Where next for Limor Fried and Adafruit?
LF: The next step for us is self-disruption. We are using electronic designs like Circuit Playground (adafruit.com/circuitplayground) - our all-in-one learning board - and new electronics-friendly programming languages like MakeCode (makecode.adafruit.com) and CircuitPython (adafruit.com/circuitpython) to make it even easier for anyone to make and build their electronic dreams.