This is Louis Beaudoin, owner of Pixelmatix, a New York based company.
Pixelmatix sells controllers and LED matrixes to the DIY and early adopter market.
SK: Where are you located?
LB: I’m working out of my apartment in Manhattan
SK: I remember you living in California- did you start your company in New York or did you move it there from California?
LB: I had always wanted to work on connected internet displays but started working on a product idea in NYC about a year ago.
SK: Tell us about the product!
LB: Right now I have been releasing simpler products on the way to a connected LED matrix display product. The first product I've been selling is called the SmartMatrix Shield. It's targeted towards makers; it’s an adaptor board that is made to connect the Teensy 3.1 microcontroller to a 32x32 pixel RGB LED matrix panel. I wrote a library for Arduino so users can make an Arduino sketch that draws graphics, animations and scrolls text on LED matrix displays. I'm selling that through distributors online and the biggest one is Adafruit.
SmartMatrix Shield with SD card feature
SK: What is your prototyping setup like? Is that in your apartment also?
LB: Mostly out of my apartment. Doing hardware work, it is difficult to pack up and move it somewhere else. So...I do most of my work from home.
SK: Can you tell us a little about your manufacturing process and partners?
LB: I'm using a company in China that bridges manufacturing in China with small and startup businesses. So they're taking care of making the PCBs and kitting and then they send me kits. I keep the kits in the US because it's easier to get the kits to the distributors in a few days rather than a few weeks with International shipping.
I've also sold another product called the SmartMatrix Bundle both at Maker Faire Bay Area and Maker Faire New York. There are some accessories for the Bundle that I'm sourcing locally and some lighting acrylic and the paper board for a mounting plate that I get from a company in Brooklyn.
SK: Is the paper board like matboard? What is that used for?
LB: You mount the Matrix panel on it and then that goes inside of a shadowbox picture frame.
SK: Where does the picture frame come from?
LB: I'm actually not selling that part, I point people to local department stores like Target.
SK: That's probably good, then you're not liable for anything to do with the glass breaking.
LB: And also I don't want to use up any more of my limited warehousing space!
SK: What were the actual logistics to get started working with a company in China?
LB: I went to visit Shenzhen a couple of times about a year ago and I met with a couple of businesses that try to connect makers and startups with China manufacturing. The one I settled on is NOA Labs, who have grown a lot in the past year. They've been helping some companies including some that have gone through the HAXLR8R hardware acceleration program.
SK: Does NOA automatically accept any business?
LB: When I started working with them, they were taking anyone. They have some products which are sold on Tindie as well as some Kickstarter campaigns that have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. They may by now, be more selective.
SK: Does NOA have a limit on the how many parts you can have manufactured?
LB: First orders are usually 100 kits and the price goes down after that...but for testing out a design, I usually do 100 pieces.
SK: What about if you do a consumer product, and you get IKEA or Target as a client and they want to buy hundreds of thousands...how do you scale up?
LB: Even if NOA was capable, I wouldn't jump from the maker community product to retail store shelves. When I do a Kickstarter, I'm considering limiting the volume to something I know I can manufacture and support. If I want to scale up, I'll do it through a separate Kickstarter launch or through a distributor. I haven't seen many Kickstarters limit their quantities. There was one called Microview, the Arduino-like device with the OLED display on top. They limited their quantity to 5000 pieces.
I've seen many Kickstarters go beyond what they were expecting and then there are huge delays or issues getting the product to manufacturing.
SK: So when you get off the plane, how did you know to go there- had you set up an introduction ahead of time?
LB: I met with contract manufacturers in Shenzhen, as well as manufacturers of specific things like the LED Matrix displays. I found the LED Matrix manufacturer on Alibaba and just had a Skype conversation with them before setting up an in-person meeting. It was actually pretty easy - they picked me up from my hotel, and arranged transportation and lunch... it was a full day event to get out to their factory. The factories aren't in the city.
SK: Were you with a translator?
LB: The first time I went to Shenzhen I was with my wife, who was born in China and she's fluent in Mandarin. She was helping when we went to the markets in Shenzhen where no one speaks English.
But most of the factories have one sales person at least who speaks English and they arrange the tours and translate if you have questions for people on the line or technical questions.
SK: For many people going to Asia, it's a long flight, just getting off a plane where everything is really different can be a little daunting for those considering manufacturing there.
LB: Yes, I've been to Shenzhen three times and it wasn't until the third time that I was on my own and was feeling fairly comfortable getting around. I think there is a lot you can do connecting with manufacturers over Skype and services like Alibaba but really unless you visit you don't know who you're dealing with.
SK: Do the factories outside of Shenzhen look similar to American factories?
LB: No, they're much different. So the factories that I've been to in the US, a contract manufacturer that we used at a previous employer, it was anti-static devices, white smock, very clean environment. In China at least for the LED Matrix displays it was open air, no anti-static, the pick and place line was run by people in street clothes. I think it depends on the application, but the level of clean environment and quality control was not the kind of precision manufacturing environment I have seen in the US. [Editor’s Note: this varies a lot from factory to factory, there are a wide range of factories with different quality standards in China]
SK: I think for many people, getting a product manufactured is a dream, and information on how to get it manufactured in China can be difficult to come by. I personally don't find Alibaba easy to navigate.
LB: Yeah, I just used it to find 4-5 manufacturers that I could email or send messages to, and narrowed that down to the ones I wanted to visit. But it wasn't the easiest site to use...some people didn't respond at all or others came back with out of the ballpark price quotes.
SK: That's been exactly my experience with Alibaba, ridiculous numbers and just bait and switch, which is always a turnoff.
SK: So you're prototyping in New York and manufacturing in Shenzhen and it's all open source hardware. So what happens when you release an open source design without a good marketing plan and someone uses your work to create their own product?
LB: My current products are all open source - they are open source hardware and they have open source software libraries that run on the hardware. I plan to continue releasing open source hardware until there is a really strong business reason not to. But I think it’s important to have a strategy on how you are releasing.
SK: Are you releasing manufacturing files as well?
SK: Are you also releasing Bill of Materials and build notes? Do you need to have build notes at all for the manufacturers in China?
LB: Yes I'm releasing the bill of materials, but there isn't a need for build notes as I'm selling a kit and I'm not having the PCBs assembled. It is a bare PCB and a kit of connectors to put together so I released the instructions for users to assemble. When I release the next controller board it will have everything on one PCB and be assembled....it is interesting what people tend to release for open source hardware. It is usually PCB, bill of materials. Beyond that ...test fixtures and manufacturing notes I haven't really seen those released, and I wasn't planning to release those.
SK: What has happened to you when you released a product without a good strategy to take it to market?
LB: I had an experience where I released modifications to a USB bootloader so that it would work on the ATtiny series of microcontrollers and at the time there were no Arduino-like ATtiny development boards. I had an idea of making my own boards using the bootloader that I'd modified, but I got busy with work and didn't get around to it. So about 6 months later I looked on Kickstarter and someone had published an ATtiny Arduino-like dev board and they raised around $350k. Later Adafruit created the Trinket and Gemma and I don't have any figures on what they made from that but I'm sure those are both good products for them. I got credited in the source files for the bootloaders - each product had their own improvements on what I did- but I never made a cent from the work I did. Which is totally understandable, but if I was to do that again, I'd definitely be careful with what I release before I was ready to market something.
So for the SmartMatrix product I am definitely keeping that in mind. As I release new features, there are some that I am ready to share and some that I will release later as part of a new product launch...so I am keeping those back.
SK: Where do people get your open source files from?
LB: Everything is on Github.
SK: What did you do before you started your own business?
LB: I joined a startup company - I was the fourth member of the startup and we did wireless monitoring for vending machines. So the part I worked on was a hardware product that goes inside of the vending machine. It has a cellular modem and it collects information from the machine and sends it to the cloud and then there's a web application that tells drivers when they should visit the machine based on how much cash there is inside of the machine, how much product is left, and if there are any errors. I was with them for 9 years and decided to leave to work on my own ideas. The company and product is still around. It was a great job but I wanted to work more on designing my own products and getting back into the more technical design. I was doing more project management and high level design than actual coding after 9 years.
SK: Which is what I think is the natural progression of things if you work at a company for a long time...Management!
LB: I stayed more on the technical side, managing projects more than people. I always really enjoyed writing code and designing hardware and prototyping.
SK: You've currently been in business for just about a year- do you have any employees?
LB: I'm working with a partner - Jason Coon. He's got a full time job and he's working on software...we've been working together for the past four months. The SmartMatrix product has really gone a long ways since then.
SK: Financial security- moving across the country, starting a business, how did that work for you? Did you have savings, an investor?
LB: I planned for years during my previous job. I wanted to take some time to start my own business and I didn't want to take on investors, mostly because I wanted the freedom to work on whatever I wanted to. So I'm bootstrapping and I'm making some money from the SmartMatrix sales. But really the goal is to release a product that is targeted towards more than just the maker community and to use Kickstarter to fund manufacturing in volume.
SK: As the next goal you want to have a product marketed to consumers- a much bigger market.
LB: That's right.
SK: Are you using the maker/ DIY community for your first offerings because you yourself are in that community and you can get feedback on how to make it better?
LB: Yes, both those things and I was also able to find Jason from releasing those libraries open source. Definitely people contributed to the libraries giving feedback or adding features so if I had kept it closed source I wouldn't be nearly as far along as I am right now.
SK: What is your process for testing? What is contributed before you release it?
LB: First a thorough review of the code and then testing it on my own hardware. Many of the changes are minor that are easy to review and test. More major ones I would release as an experimental feature.
SK: Can you tell us about the internet-connected consumer product that you have planned?
LB: The first product that I'm going to release is not going to be connected- I think adding Internet connectivity adds complexity and cost for certification. The first product is going to be an LED art display that displays patterns and animations, and another feature that I'm not ready to talk about yet. It is targeted towards people who want to add some LED art to their home.
SK: What are some of the business challenges that you are experiencing right now?
LB: One of them is as a small, mostly one person business, managing my time.
SK: What have been some of the good things that you've experienced since going out on your own?
LB: Releasing the products open source, people contributing and sharing what they've been working on. Other things that have been good about working for myself - I get a lot of satisfaction when I make a new feature or people appreciate what I'm working on. It's great to have flexible time and work whenever I want...a double edged sword because you can end up working too much.
I get satisfaction out of the work because it is directly benefiting me versus just providing a paycheck.
Find out more about:
Open Source Repositories on GitHub: https://github.com/pixelmatix
SmartMatrix Community: http://pixl.mx/SmartMatrixUsers