There are times in life where work feels closer to a hobby than “a job” – doubly so when a company you work with makes products that tie in to people’s hobbies. As (apparently) more than a few of my colleagues know, I’ve been working with “some cool gadgety startup” since the Winter, and now I can finally talk a little bit about them. The company is called Bug Labs, and it is producing an open-source hardware and software platform for building, well, gadgets. And not just gadgets like the conventional ones we think of and see every time we walk into a Best Buy, more like the gadgets that couldn’t possibly make it to a retail store shelf.
I’ve spent about 10 years designing, building, and marketing “convergence” devices. I’ve helped companies big and small attempt to bring them to market, and I’ve watched others try to do the same. With the exception of the Slingbox, all performed poorly on the market. But the reason for this is mostly due to the definition of market success. In 2000 or 2002 or even 2006, the “digital home” market was a small one (and in many ways still is today). So when I built a device with a Pioneer or an HP, and it sells by the thousands or tens of thousands, it’s a failure. These types of companies spend no less than six figures (and typically seven) on product development, and it’s typically much more than that (not even including marketing budgets).
Bug Labs’ platform, on the other hand, enables anyone to configure a device for a niche market, whether its 1, 1000, or 10,000, and be a market success. The company is effectively disintermediating the entire consumer electronics design, manufacturing, and retail process. By taking down these massive barriers to entry, an engineer (or entrepreneur) can purchase hardware from Bug Labs, build software for it, and create a new market for the configuration of their choosing.
Peter Semmelhack, the company’s founder and CEO, blogged today calling the product “Legos meets Web services & APIs”, a phrase I think is very appropriate. Most hardware kits contain pieces as low level as transistors, chips, and resistors (oh my!) which even with drivers and SDKs still require a lot of knowledge to work with. If you think about a Lego block, it’s a basic module that you inherently know how to use. This is the right analogy for Bug modules, they are pieces that make sense to any programmer. I’d say I’m a well-below average coder, but can still hack well enough to hook up Facebook and WordPress for example. With the Bug platform, I probably couldn’t make the best gadget, but at least I’d be able to give it a shot. That’s the hobby I enjoy.
Last night’s dinner with Peter, Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, Ryan Block, and Jerry Michalski was the first time we had the chance to talk openly about the company. It wasn’t “the launch” and there’s no “official press release” available. Instead, there’s a conversation, and a blog post with an early greeting (yes Zoli & Henry, we will have product info out soon). One of the key goals of the company is to embrace numerous communities, including open source, digital divide, and online technologists. While we’ll do some traditional marketing activities such as a press tour, you’ll also see us on college campuses, at XYZ-Camps, and doing other very “accessible” and inclusive activities.
I’ll be handling the outreach for the company, and while we still have a way to go until the Web site and products are available, I encourage anyone interested in being involved to get in touch, either here through a comment, by email, or even by IM. Looking forward to the next steps!
Update: wanted to share some of the thoughts from some of the individual VCs whose firms invested in Bug Labs (Brad Feld, Bijan Sabet, and Fred Wilson)
Wow, I love this idea. I designed 5 or 6 devices in my head while I was reading about it. Can’t wait to hear more.
I want to build some stuff too. Too bad I need to learn how to program and it’s not like those 3D printers that will just spit it out. Because when I was a small child I drew a picture of a time machine (it required quite a few light bulbs).
Certainly interesting, especially as a whole bunch of devices are converging on the half-inch-thick rounded slab form factor. I’m curious to see what the hardware looks like, though, because it seems that will be a major limitation in the types of devices you could build. Let me know when you get to “press release” stage.