Where we’ve been
Dangerous Prototypes has been around four years this summer. This internet gig started at the DIY Life and Hack a Day blogs when I was a poor student roughing it in Amsterdam. A couple hundred bucks for a feature piece bought a lot of
ramen stampot, and paid for an otherwise unsustainable electronics hobby.
When Seeed Studio approached me about building the Bus Pirate I was highly skeptical. “We’ll build 20 and see if they sell”, Eric said. “You’ll be stuck with 19” was my reply. Instead, the initial fundraiser for Hack a Day sold more than 1000 Bus Pirates in a week.
Buoyed by this initial success I started Dangerous Prototypes at the end of summer 2009 with the goal to release a new project every month. The name was chosen specifically to scare off anyone who might not understand the spirit of our projects. They’re not complete, they’re zygotes of a full idea. Seeed Studio can sell you a copy to tinker with, usually cheaper than you can build it on your own.
For the first few years I hid behind the blog – even the Seeed Studio guys thought I was a retired engineer, not a 20-something college kid. Finally I sucked it up and showed my face at Maker Faire Bay Area with Seeed Studio. Hooked instantly, I starting hitting every Maker Faire in sight. Meeting community members and exchanging ideas has been amazing. From New York to San Francisco, India to China, Singapore, South Korea, the UK, there’s never been a bad experience or dull moment.
The trip that stands out as a game changer was our first big trip to Tokyo for Make Meeting. I received Tayken’s invitation while at the office in Iowa. It was both amazing and surreal that we were invited, and even more crazy that we could attend. At the same time I had already lived through a graduate program in Hawaii, a place highly influenced by the relentless pursuit of ever more Japanese tourists upon which the economy is largely dependent. It left me with zero interest in seeing Japan up close. That was wrong.
I would never claim to know Japan but I’m in love with the pace of the Tokyo, the largest city in the world. Everyone moves fast – too fast – and everyone works hard – too hard. The first time we filmed the Akihabara tour video our team was so agape that we didn’t get anything usable, we went back a few months later to shoot it again. Every detail is done and over done, and then done again. Surreal attentive service and amazing food, trains that run every 2 minutes precisely on time.
Dangerous Prototypes has never truly been my full time pursuit. I’ve been in academics, contract with software companies, and always have on a primary job of some sort. Open hardware seems too temperamental to depend on full time, have adequate insurance, and a way to retire. When I started there were a handful of people offering kits and boards, now there’s a whole ecosystem of crowd-sourced funding to support anyone’s idea. If our contact form is any indication, tons of people are conceiving and promoting crowd funded open hardware projects every day. It’s amazing to see so many people expanding the market for Open Hardware.
What to do next?
Over the first three years we consistently doubled in size: traffic, projects sold, and profit. Year four we hit a bit of a plateau – blog traffic continues to grow, as does our resale network, but profit has not kept pace. Too much travel? Not enough projects? Too much competition? Who knows. But if we try too hard the fun drains out and the creativity stops, so I try to ignore it.
Reflecting on where we’ve been and were we’re going makes a few things increasingly clear. If we want to be a big player with an actual office staffed with a few employees we’ll need to make some changes.
We’re increasingly focused on our most profitable areas. Most good businesses do this, but we’ve been having so much fun we never cared. Our first effort is the Bus Pirate educational kit. Inspired by Oomlout’s Arduino Experimenters’ Kit, and copious goading by Aaron across three continents. We’re trying to wring a couple extra bucks out the Bus Pirate by adding an educational component and making it more accessible. Value added. Sorted.
Second, we need some of that sweet, sweet bundle of wires markup. SparkFun, Adafruit, Seeed Studio, Oomlout – they don’t just make money on hardware. Rumor has it the bread and butter is often in the simple bundle of jumper wires or bag of LEDs with a huge markup. Easy to source, easy to sell, no development cost, no support.
We’re just a design shop, we don’t sell anything ourselves. Seeed Studio does the tedious stuff like running a webshop, packing boxes, and shipping things. That’s dandy, but we can’t compete with Seeed in their own shop – so we don’t get to sell our own bundle of wires. Instead we’ll use the brand we’ve built over the past few years to release Dangerous Prototype tools like reflow ovens, as well as sets of components with open source Eagle and KiCAD footprints, datasheets, renderings, and more. All have lower development and support cost than a new hardware project.
In conjunction with Oomlout, our goal is also to make your workshop tidy and better organized. We want to eliminate the stress of digging through Mouser, Digikey, Farnel, etc trying to find the right part, or making that last minute order because you have a 2×5 connector but not a 2×6. These “part boxes” were on display at Maker Faire Bay Area a few weeks ago, and we’ll have a lot more about them soon.
Finally, we need to be where the action is. I’ve been in Shenzhen to visit Seeed Studio and the Huaqianbei electronics market almost every month over the past year. Its a great place to work and the resources are unmatched anywhere in the world, but the 15 hour flight from Amsterdam to Hong Kong is killer. Jetlag ruins the first 10 days of every trip, I cant eat and spend a lot of time in a hotel curled up in a ball.
Shenzhen and the surrounding cities are are probably the biggest concentration of electronics assembly and manufacturing resources in the world. The Huaqiangbei electronics market sells components, small scale manufacturing tools, and digital products. In the northwestern Bao’an district manufacturers make test rigs and assemble boards. Dongguan and Guangzhou, both less than an hour north by high speed rail, handle heavier manufacturing like PCBs, tools, and some components. Any assembled product you buy is probably touched in some way by the industry here.
It’s tempting to “move” to China and tap into this torrent of resources. We’ll call this the Zach Hoeken and Hackvana approach. Cost of living is very reasonable. Shenzhen is a new, efficient, and – dare I say – fashionable city that is beginning to rival Tokyo in the race for skinny jeans stuffed into complicated boots.
For all the good points, China offers very little in terms of legal permanent residency or citizenship for foreigners running a business. Many foreigners live in a strange situation – they have tourist or business visas good for a year, but each stay limited to 60 or 90 days. After 60 or 90 days they have to leave China and return. A minute, a week, it doesn’t seem to matter. Shenzhen is literally connected to Hong Kong, so most expats jump the Hong Kong boarder on a quick visa run then turn around and cross back to China.
Another approach, we’ll call it the Bunnie Huang approach, is to live near China and commute in as needed. Bunnie lives in Singapore, a cheap four hour flight from Hong Kong serviced by multiple discount carriers. He can hop over at a moments notice and be back home for dinner. This is closer to my ideal situation, but moving from the cold laid-back Netherlands to a flaming-hot draconian island city-state like Singapore is out of the question. Hong Kong is also too expensive, crowded, and another droll city-state.
Earlier this year star community member Tayken took me to a Tokyo hackerspace presentation about opening a business in Tokyo and securing residency with an investor visa. It takes a ~$50,000 investment to receive the visa and live in Japan, though it’s also possible to get a visa via a branche office of an existing US company without an initial investment. Bingo.
Japan – Tokyo – the biggest city in the world, amazing transit, food, and a path to residency. That was the place for me, so I thought. Tokyo is more than stumbling on oddities like Department H with FreakLabs, or crawling home through Shinjuku after eating meats on sticks. It’s 4 hours from Shenzhen, and Akihabara is available to fill in the cracks. There’s also amazing open hardware people and great friends all over the place.
On March 19, 3 months ago, I set out to start our Tokyo branche office. A few weeks in Shenzhen, adjust to the time difference, then onwards to Tokyo to meet with the lawyer. The meeting with the went perfectly and we started hunting for an office space.
Learning to love Shenzhen
In the mean time, however, I fell in love with Shenzhen. Japan was great, I could have a business and live there, but Shenzhen was better. The resources, the cheap taxis, the friendly people, the street BBQ, the possibilities. Returning from Tokyo to Shenzhen it was immediately apparent that Shenzhen was the place to be. It’s cheaper and very livable, despite what Bunnie may say (I kid Bunnie!).
Between social media, street food, shaizi (liar’s dice), and Tsing Dao beer I made a huge network of contacts who work in Huaqiangbei almost overnight. In Shenzhen everybody is from somewhere else. Its very easy to make friends because everyone is a stranger, and any attempt at speaking Chinese is highly appreciated and entertaining for everyone.
Where is Ian?
Two months ago I threw away my return ticket home and stayed in Shenzhen an extra month. After a brief trip to the office and Bay Area Maker Faire I’m back in Shenzhen. The initial three week trip is now going on three months.
What happens next? I’m not sure. For the time being we’ll focus on releasing the parts boxes and various educational kits. The residency problem remains, but we’ll definitely setup an office in Hong Kong and try to secure an investor visa while spending as much time in Shenzhen on business as possible.
Things have finally settled enough to write a series of posts about my experience in Shenzhen. Every Tuesday and Thursday I’ll write about a different Shenzhen related topic. Electronics will be a big focus, but as Zach and I will tell anyone who listens: life here is about so much more than that!
If you have suggestions, questions, or ideas please post them in the comments and look for them in a future post.
Since I’m away from the office for an unknown amount of time our weekly free PCB giveaways will change shortly. Instead of PCBs we’ll probably start giving away cool parts, tools, and other stuff from the markets here.
If you made it to the end of this winding, rambling post, thank you. It’s been three months in the making, written and rewritten every bit as much as my plans have changed since March.