As the open-source maker movement gathers momentum, what was once a leftfield hobbyist activity is fast becoming a moneymaking business. DIY darling, Limor Fried aka Ladyada, is leading the vanguard, selling open-source hardware for a variety of purposes. Her company, Adafruit, which turned over $10 million last year alone, sells electronic kits from DIY mobile phone chargers to solar power systems.

Fried made waves back in 2010 with the launch of a competition to hack Microsoft’s Kinect so that it could be used on computers as well as the Xbox. Her success with Adafruit was recently acknowledged when she won Entrepreneur magazines Entrepreneur of 2012, the only women amongst a group of 15 finalists. Propagating the open-source philosophy, Fried has put up hundreds of free tutorials on Adafruit’s website so people can learn how to make their own electronic kits.

Humans invent caught up with Fried to find out the secret to Adafruit’s success.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer of the maker movement?

There are many great leaders in the maker movement. I think Bunnie Huang is one of the pioneers and heroes we should all celebrate – he’s been an inspiration and pioneer for all of us. I’ve been doing open-source hardware for almost 10 years now and my company, Adafruit, has a goal of education, sharing and showing open-source hardware is also a great business.

Is open-source going to change the nature of the relationship between consumer and company?

Open-source is something customers and smart communities seek out. There are a lot of places to get online, but our community likes to support companies that provide tutorials, tonnes of open-source code on GitHub and put value back. If you’re in the electronics arena, customers want to be able to make improvements and suggestions to companies; it’s a requirement for the modern DIY/maker movement.

Customers want to be able to make improvements and suggestions to companies; it’s a requirement for the modern DIY/maker movement

What kind of kits do you sell?

Adafruit sells simple and beginner kits like the MintyBoost (gadget charger) to more complex kits like an Ice Tube Clock. We like to have something for everyone regardless of their skill set or background.

Is the open-source route a viable business model?

Open-source, specifically open-source hardware seems to be past the point of needing to prove it’s a good business model. It’s not for everyone but there are dozens of multi-million dollar companies making, selling and sharing open-source hardware. Adafruit just reached the $10m per year milestone and Red Hat is a $1b company. We do not see any limit to how big and how good an open-source company can be.

What happens at the Open Source hardware summit?

The open source hardware summit is a yearly gathering of some of the best people and companies dedicated to sharing hardware and making the world a better place through great engineering. The tickets sell out fast and each year there’s always an amazing line up of speakers. In 2012 Chris Anderson gave an amazing talk on the business side of open-source hardware. At the time he was editor in chief of Wired magazine but he has since left to run his own open-source hardware company (3D robotics) full time!

Microsoft was initially against the open-source Kinect challenge but eventually came round to the idea. Why did they change their mind?

I’m not sure I get inside the mind of Microsoft but I’m sure they saw how amazing the open-source community was in bringing hundreds of projects to life using the hacked/open Kinect drivers we helped get published for makers to use. It was pretty much impossible to ignore how well it worked out. Microsoft is filled with very smart people and they embraced and celebrated the makers once it was clear there was no going back.

There should be a 16 year old girl planning on how she’ll be bigger and better than Adafruit now

How did you feel about winning the Entrepreneur of 2012 award?

Winning the Entrepreneur of 2012 award was very interesting. I see this as an opportunity to raise the profile of other open-source companies and also encourage others that you can be a business and give back. I was at a conference once where someone from a very large company said Adafruit was not a “real business”, Adafruit was only a couple of years old, so it did hurt to hear that – and everyone in the audience heard it as well. But now with Adafruit being a company and someone like me being considered an entrepreneur, I hope any perceived barriers were knocked down. There should be a 16 year old girl planning on how she’ll be bigger and better than Adafruit now.

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