March has been a good month for Raspberry Pi. The Pi passed the Commodore 64 as the third best-selling computer of all time, the Raspberry Pi celebrated its fifth birthday, and the Raspberry Pi Zero W was released. Well, the Pi Zero W actually came out at the end of February, so maybe not a calendar month...
The Raspberry Pi has opened the doors for all kinds of small businesses that make software and hardware add-ons for them. With the help of crowdfunding platforms, there's more opportunity than ever to produce HATs and other additions.
Add-ons for days. This RPi Zero is now a battery-backed file server.
Dan Julio and Mike Seiler from Rocket Blue Automation successfully funded and are now shipping a Raspberry Pi addition that they designed called the Solar Pi Platter. The Pi Platter was made for Raspberry Pi Zero, but it's compatible with all Raspberry Pi models (including the Zero W). The Pi Platter connects via USB so you can still use HATs with it—although, I don't know which HATs I'd use with it because the Pi Platter does a little bit of everything. I learned a lot when I got to interview Dan and Mike.
All About Circuits: I read that you two met at the Solid State Depot Makerspace in Boulder, Colorado. Are there any advantages for engineering professionals who join maker spaces?
Dan Julio: It’s a great place to network with other professionals. It can also be a good educational resource, both as a way to learn from others and as a way to share your own knowledge with people who are interested professionally or as a hobby.
Mike Seiler: As a product development consultant, I often find myself quickly needing to understand some technology that I may not be that familiar with. Frequently, I can quickly get what I need from a casual conversation with another professional at the hackerspace. This gives me much greater confidence to consider projects that I might otherwise not feel comfortable taking on. Also, when I help out somebody else on their project, I often learn a lot, too. This cross-pollination is under-appreciated because it's hard to quantify.
Dan Julio (left) and Mike Seiler (right)
AAC: What effects do you think the maker movement is having on the electronics industry?
DJ: It’s a creative renaissance, allowing individuals or small groups of people to create amazing new products and even entire new markets. It made available things like inexpensive 3D printing and other inexpensive robotic manufacturing technologies, an explosion of technology used in the visual arts (think Burning Man), and amazing gadgets like quadcopters. Embedded computers like the Arduino, Particle boards, and Raspberry Pi have powered much of the early IoT. You can see, directly, its impact by seeing how electronics manufacturers are targeting people outside of the traditional corporate forms with many of their latest technologies because they see potential for these devices to be used in new and exciting ways.
MS: I tell everyone who is interested in electronics that this is a great time to be alive. It is now 10x easier to make something than it was 10 or 20 years ago. It used to be I had to design and make modules from scratch. Now I just do a search and somebody likely has already done most of the work and all I need to do is mix and match modules from related projects. The maker movement is rocket fuel for creating quick prototypes.
AAC: Many devices are designed because they solve a problem. Was there a specific inspiration for the Pi Platter?
DJ: The Pi Zero represents an amazing milestone. A capable computer running a modern and powerful operating system that costs essentially nothing. A machine more powerful than desktop computers of only a few years ago, capable of running on a battery.
There are lots of existing Raspberry Pi expansion boards, but I wanted to design a device that would allow the Pi Zero to operate in additional operational spaces by giving it a battery and a set of IO tailored to sense and control applications. With a USB power source, the Pi Platter provides the capability of systems like file servers or routers or IoT hubs running during power failures. With a solar power source, the Pi Platter allows the applications to become remote. I also wanted the design to allow the use of existing Pi HATs.
A close up of a Solar Pi Platter with connector details
AAC: Are there any business advantages to being located in Boulder, Colorado?
MS: There is a real culture in Boulder of helping each other out with various aspects of a high-tech start-up. The networking possibilities make it much easier to find the right people and resources for a project. It's a vibrant brain trust.
And of course, all the outdoorsy activity possibilities fuel creativity.
AAC: How did you determine the goal amount for your Kickstarter campaign?
MS: As a practical lower limit, you need to make at least 100 of an electronic product for any economies of scale. You want the number to be as low as practical for the “green bar effect”. This effect is when a project looks successful if you quickly get to 100% funded. Also, a precise number, rather than a round number, looks more credible.
AAC: Any special Kickstarter tips?
MS: It's very important that your “hero shot"—the picture that shows up on the tiled discovery page—tells a story with the immediacy and precision of a billboard.
Initially, I just had a placeholder picture for the hero shot, but then I realized how important it was. The Kickstarter became an assured success once I fixed the image by adding the Raspberry Pi logo and four targeted words. Marketing is such an interesting mix of analysis and intuition. The Kickstarter was a real trial by fire in getting people to notice us. I also got some great feedback from a Denver crowdfunding meetup and advice from John Shovic of SwitchDoc Labs.
The aforementioned "hero shot"
AAC: It takes a team effort to successfully crowdfund and distribute a product. How did you assemble your team?
MS: Look at this another way. It takes a number of factors for successful crowdfunding. Product, market size, and available talent are all part of the puzzle. It took three years of sifting and sorting before the puzzle pieces fell into place for what became the Solar Pi Platter. Fortunately, I have the broad business development experience to provide a lot of the puzzle pieces, including marketing. I have a bookkeeper who I use for many of my projects and I had experience with shipping, which took an amazing amount of effort.
AAC: Since it's Pi day, what is your favorite kind of pie?
DJ: A conglomeration of apple, strawberry, banana, and whatever other berries are fresh
MS: My mom loved making raspberry pi long before the internet was even a glimmer in Al Gore's eye.