Limor Fried, Founder & CEO, Adafruit Industries
Electronics. Companies. Movements. Limor Fried can build anything. In fact, the MIT graduate loves sharing her ideas and the tools for creating them so much she created Adafruit Industries, a top-20 U.S. manufacturing firm and a global online community that follows her every machine-making move.
Founder & CEO, Adafruit Industries
Electronics. Companies. Movements. Limor Fried can build anything.
Limor Fried, Founder & CEO, Adafruit Industries
DIY Kid: Fried grew up outside of Boston and shared a passion for electronics with her father. “My father is a professor of mathematics. He would bring home these early computers, so I naturally spent time with them. I loved being creative, and I loved building stuff, making stuff, and taking stuff apart, understanding how they work.”
Peer-to-Peer Engineer: When Fried landed at MIT, everyone shared code. She took it a step further, sharing her electronic gadgets and launching the “open-source” hardware movement. “I was soaking in this idea: if you’re creating new technology, new capabilities, you have to give it away. Otherwise, you’re being kind of selfish.” She’d post online what she’d built and sell kits so others could build it, too. Today, her company Adafruit Industries—named after computer programming pioneer Ada Lovelace—sells kits for making everything from clocks to illuminated costumes.
Reformatted Image: In 2011, Fried was the first female engineer featured on the cover of Wired. (What took so long?!) “The traditional image of an engineer is being changed. Right now, the people who are building electronics in my community, they’re not what people would traditionally look at as an engineer.” But that’s all about to change. One young girl who avidly watches Fried’s online workshops, recently turned to her dad and said, “Wow, this is so cool. Can boys be engineers, too?”
LIMOR FRIED: is just saying I've got a problem, and I've got all these techniques and tools in my head, we're going to solve this problem together. Engineering is making solutions for people.
I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is right outside of Boston. When I was a young girl, actually one of my favorite memories is I would watch "Mr. Wizard's World" with my dad. And it was awesome. There was building your own record player.
- There's the needle on the amplifier.
- Oh, wow.
LIMOR FRIED: At the time, it was totally OK to set up explosives, as long as you called the fire department ahead of time.
LIMOR FRIED: I just loved being creative, and I loved science. I loved building things, like taking things apart, understanding how they worked.
I was actually having just a lot of, fun because I'd been gaining all these skills in building, and in microcontrollers, and LEDs, and art, and technology. And I'd post these projects online and send them to people, and say, hey, here's a cool project I built. In Boston, Cambridge at MIT, there's a strong open source culture. It was just soaking in this idea of if you are creating new technology, new capabilities, you have to give it away. Otherwise, you're kind of being selfish.
So I took that approach, which is called open source software, and applied it to the projects I was building to make open source hardware. I'd post up these projects and I'd get a lot of emails that said, hey, you know, this project is really cool, I want to learn how to build this too. But I have to buy all these parts, can you just sell me a kit, something that's an all-in-one box, and when I open it, all the parts are in it, and then I'll be able to follow along.
I was living in a condemned apartment. But eventually, that actually got torn down, and then we ran out of space. And so we got another apartment in the same building. And we would shuffle storage back and forth. I was taught engineering, but you don't really know how to run a business, how to manage people, how to create a community. I think having started it when I was 25, I just had to prove everyone wrong. And I was just like I know I can do better than everyone, and I'll show you.
Hey everybody, it's me, Lady Ada, and this is our Internet of Things box. Electronics engineering for me is my art form. What I'm trying to do is inspire people to become curious and practice using technology, learn electronics so that I can build that thing that is in my heart and make it real. At AdaFruit we share everything. I share all the plans, the schematics, the design, the files, the code, it's all online.
And every week, we do show and tell. It's a live video, like hang out. Anyone with a webcam can show off what they're building. So we have people who are doing cosplay. We have people who are sewing. We have people who are mixing like clay, and metal, and glass with electronics to build sculptures.
When somebody who glass blows shows, hey, I embedded the electronics in the glass sculpture so it lights up, I'm inspired. I'm like, hmm, that's a good idea. What kind of technology would help you achieve your goal. And then we publish that online for free. And that can inspire the next engineer in waiting.
The traditional image of engineer is being changed. Right, now the people who are building electronics in my community, they're not what people would traditionally look at as an engineer. And that's good. That means that we're getting more brains, more experience, more people that have new exciting problems to solve.
The most heartfelt moment I've had running AdaFruit is we got an email from a parent, and he'd been watching the show and tell with his young daughter. The daughter turned to him and said, wow, this is so cool, can boys be engineers too? And it was really inspiring, because it's like, one down.
- I don't think that my push to Adafruit was that strongly affected by my gender. But I think it's people's experiences and lives in their community and where they come from.
We're all humans. We're all in our skin. And whatever your background is, if there aren't people with your background doing the business that you're interested in, you're going to come in with a fresh, unique take. I don't think that anything other than your desire to create, and do business, and treat your employees well, and teach your customers well-- I think that's the most important. Just be a good person.
LIMOR FRIED: The best advice I ever got was from another business owner. And he told me, only do business with people you feel comfortable with. If your gut is telling you no, no matter how much money don't do it because you're going to regret it and you're going to doubt yourself later. So never do it just for the money. Do it because you want to do it.
LIMOR FRIED: When I design kits and projects, I'm not just trying to follow a curriculum where you have to learn this, do that, and here's a list. What I'm trying to do is inspire people to become curious and practice using technology, learn electronics, because they want to build that final thing. People don't learn guitar because they're like, oh, I just want to sit there and practice chords. They're like, no, I want to play the Beatles, or I wanna be Lenny Kravitz. That's why people learn something, because they have a goal to aspire to.
LIMOR FRIED: One really good example of open source hardware in practice is the accessibility tech community. These are people-- teachers, parents, caregivers, who are making technology for people who need some assistive tech. Whether it be they need a button to turn on or off the TV, they need switches or some sort of sensor to help them move their wheelchair.
It ranges from any kind of need. But everybody's need is a little bit different. And this is something that maybe a company will come along and make, but for a lot of people with accessibility needs, that need isn't met.
And maybe they don't want to wait. 3D printing, electronics, software, all these parts come together so people can make a customized solution for their own personal needs. So that's a really good example of open source hardware where it's really affecting people's lives, which shows the power of having something be open source.
LIMOR FRIED: I think that the most important thing in engineering is we are what we celebrate. If we celebrate the engineering that does good for people and the engineering that helps people, we're going to get more people who want to do good and want to help become engineers. And vise versa, engineer who want to do good to help others.
When people see that being celebrated, they realize, hey, I can be a part of this community and they feel better and the community feels better. So, it's about being inclusive and getting some of the old guard interested, and also getting some of these new and up and comers interested. And then, hopefully, getting them to work together. The people who have been engineers maybe for 30 40 years, they have so much knowledge. They can help they can teach. They can inspire a new generation.
LIMOR FRIED: Being underestimated is the greatest gift somebody can give you. When you're underestimated, you have a lot of freedom to do what you want without worry of disappointing them. You've already disappointed them. It's too late. It's over, right? Like what's the worst they're going to do?
I think anyone who's creative has, like, deep-seated self-esteem problems. And I think you just kind of harness that and ride it.
LIMOR FRIED: My advice for any young engineer or someone who just wants to be creative and use technology is look at a project that you really like, that you're inspired by. Start small. Build something small to get your confidence up.
It's OK to remake something that you've already seen. And then after you finish that project and you feel like, OK, I was able to follow some other person's project, get something working, build upon it. Add your own twist. Customize it.
No matter what your interest may be-- you want to be a veterinarian or you want to be an architect or you want to be a designer-- you're going to use technology. So it's always a good idea to be comfortable with it. Technology moves so fast that by the time you do want to have a career in medicine or an astronaut or whatever it may be, you'll feel comfortable with the technology that's evolved to that point. And you'll be able to move forward and use technology with you, not against you.
LIMOR FRIED: So Ada Lovelace-- she was the daughter of this famous poet, Lord Byron. This was before computers existed, but the theory of computation was being discussed. People had this idea that maybe we would have machines that would do computation.
And so what she worked on was, how can you take a machine that maybe did one task-- like, for example, a weaving machine-- and generalize it so it's not just weaving fabric, but maybe it's weaving any fabric. Or maybe it's computing, you know, trajectories for the military. Now we use technology to sequence human DNA to detect disease. So that idea of creating a reprogrammable machine-- she's one of the first people who kind of came up with this idea.
LIMOR FRIED: Well, we're humans, and we got here because we engineer. Right, we engineered the wheel, we engineered cooking food. Engineering is just saying, "I've got a problem, and I've got all these techniques and tools in my head. And maybe have a community of people and they all have these techniques and tools, and we're going to solve this problem together." Engineering is making solutions for people.
LIMOR FRIED: We all have doubts and fears. I mean, we're human and it's normal and natural to be afraid, to be scared. You're building something, you're afraid of losing it. You're sometimes afraid of success. Sometimes that's even more terrifying. But sometimes you just have to get up and just do it every day anyways.
Failure is inevitable. One thing that helps me from taking the little disappointments or difficulties that come along the way of starting a business is just think, in six months from now am I going to care about this or not? And taking your brain and saying, OK put myself in the future and then look back, it sometimes helps give you that distance.
Because in the moment, you know, your skin is heating up and you're like freaking out, and eyes are boggling. Do you think in six months, you know, am I going to think about this or am I going to forget about it? And that kind of helps wash that emotional overload away.
LIMOR FRIED: In Boston, Cambridge, and MIT, there is a strong open-source culture, which is kind of socialist in a really cool way. It's sort of like, look, if you're smart enough and capable enough to create new technology, don't keep it for yourself. Share it publicly so other people can use it.
And growing up in that, literally I was just soaking in this idea of if you are creating new technology and new capabilities, you have to give it away. Otherwise, you're kind of being selfish. So I took that approach, which is called open-source software, and applied it to the projects I was building to make open-source hardware.