Way back in 2006, Emile Petrone and I were both taking classes at UNC as members of its first class of Entrepreneurship Minor students. I was working on a Computer Science major and Emile was a Political Science major. He was extremely interested in technology startups and made an incredibly impressive leap: he taught himself to program and launched a tech startup called Tindie, a marketplace for indie hardware that has blown up with thousands of products, $1.2 million in venture capital funding and press from publications ranging from Wired and Techcrunch to the Wall Street Journal. The growth and accomplishments would be impressive for anyone, but especially someone who wasn't even a developer until his college years. Below is an interview with Emile that covers his journey towards programming, Tindie's start on Reddit and how things are going now.
Hey Emile! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Thanks Joel! Sure thing - I'm a self-taught programmer, and UNC poli-sci grad. Since 2005, I've been working on startups.
We met back at UNC during Entrepreneurship classes and you were always interested in tech startups. How did decide to make the move to San Francisco?
I moved to SF after being hired at Yelp to join their emerging sales team. Back then there were maybe 40 employees. After they hired me, I packed the car and drove west!
What made you decide to make the jump from sales to programming?
After Yelp, I joined a super small startup, Redbeacon, that was later acquired by Home Depot. At Redbeacon, there were the 3 founders, another engineer, and myself. I could see them coding all day and realized it was something I could pick up, and if I ever wanted to start a company in the valley, I'd have to learn. The chances of launching a company without a technical founder are so low, its almost not heard of. You also hear the line, I'll find a technical cofounder.” so often its crazy. Those people never find a technical cofounder. Therefore I'd have to learn. So I left Redbeacon, and took a year off to teach myself.
Was Tindie your first startup as a developer? Tell us about how you decided to start it.
No, I joined SimpleGeo after that year off as Developer Advocate, showing other developers how to use SimpleGeo's APIs. 2 months later SimpleGeo was acquired by Urban Airship (UA), where I became a web dev as my day job. That was really my first proper developer job.
While at UA, I started to tinker with Arduino and thats when I realized there was something bigger going on in DIY hardware. Others were listing interesting projects (like robots to play Angry Birds), but without a place for others to buy & sell them. It seemed like an interesting project, so I tossed the idea on Reddit, and the community said go for it. That was really the point where I decided to start it.
I tossed the idea on Reddit, and the community said go for it. That was really the point where I decided to start it.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to transition into software development?
Save up enough money to live for at least a year, and pour yourself into it. If you don't go 100%, you'll do what most people do - "I'll learn after work and on weekends." I couldn't tell you how many people have told me that and never followed through. However if you save up and quit your job, you've made a commitment. The world knows you are going after it and that is a real incentive to follow through.
You've really connected with the reddit community with two popular AMAs. Why do you think this has been a great fit?
Good question - I'm not 100% sure, but here's my take.
I think reddit has appreciated my honesty and a pretty high risk tolerance. At this point, the stock options I left at Yelp would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. At Redbeacon, I would have been hire #1 or #2. Those options would have also been worth a pretty penny. However I knew I couldn't stay at either job if I ever wanted to build my own company. I didn't want more sales experience. I needed engineering experience, and had to take a few leaps that have paid off. Stories of the little guy taking a gamble are usually reserved for exceptional feats. My story is pretty tame, but very tangible for most people. Most people our age can still take that jump - it's just a matter of will. I think following that tale in real time is interesting to reddit - but then again I honestly have no idea.
The first AMA I did while at my parents before the rest of the team was awake on the west coast. It brought the site down for hours and our engineers weren't even awake. Lesson - while the chances are very small that you'll end up #1 on Reddit, before posting on Reddit, make sure everyone knows ahead of time.
Outside of reddit, what are the most successful activities you've done online to promote and build your business?
The most effective thing we've done has been stickers & shirts. Rewarding the community for supporting you has been the best way for others to learn about Tindie. The reason is that our current users hang around similar people to them. They see the shirt or sticker and ask, What is that?”, and that is how Tindie has spread so far. I wish there was some other incredibly clever promotion we've done, but it is really that simple.
What have you tried that you thought would work, but didn't?
Ads don't work because we have a super niche community.
Facebook is incredibly spammy and any traction you get on there is almost certainly spam or fake users.
Twitter has been great as a way to stay in touch with our community.
Google + seems to really be taking off with our demographic. We haven't really used it much yet, but it is definitely picking up steam against Facebook with our audience.
What tips do you have for others looking to build a community and business online?
The hardest part is focusing.
However whenever you build something new, it is at the detriment of something else.
I'm the first to admit we got pretty distracted last year building tons of different features and ideas. We are the first indie hardware marketplace and that means we are breaking ground whenever we try something new. Whether its a feature to grow faster, get more products on the site, you name it there was a goal which lead us to build a wacky feature. However whenever you build something new, it is at the detriment of something else. You could be improving signup or checkout or any number of basic features that any marketplace requires. Learning your priorities and how to focus on them is the most important thing in building any business. It means saying No” much more than you say Yes.” It isn't sexy, it won't get you a Techcrunch article, but it is necessary if your business will ever be successful.
As a final question, what are some of your favorite products on Tindie? What would be a fun project for someone just starting out with hardware?
Gamby - an Arduino Retro Gaming shield for playing retro arcade games on an Arduino. Its amazing
Whistled - control an arduino by whistling. Turn on your lights for example by just walking in the room and whistling!
Tapster - by Jason Huggins, creator of Selenium. It's a mobile app testing robot so if you design mobile apps, you really need this. It will help you test them better than every other software suite out there.