How does one design a credit card-sized computer, sell over half a million of them to students at $25-35 a pop, all while the foundation behind the project happens to be a non-profit funded solely by donors? You’d have to ask Pete Lomas, engineer and co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Lomas writes about the foundation’s experience in building and manufacturing the Raspberry Pi computer in his recent op-ed, “Raspberry Pi’s Secret: Sell Out a Little to Sell a Lot,’” which appears in Wired.
The Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer that can plug into your TV and keyboard. It’s capable of running spreadsheets, word-processing, games, and can even play high-definition video. The idea behind Raspberry Pi originated with Eben Upton, computer science professor at the University of Cambridge. He and his colleagues began to notice the yearly decline in the skill levels of students applying to study Computer Science. Upton found that students’ programming experience seemed to diminish over the years, and decided to design a mobile device that would teach students about computer programming.
With the help of colleagues Rob Mullins, Jack Lang, and Alan Mycroft and engineers Pete Lomas and David Braben, the Raspberry Pi Foundation was formed and the Raspberry Pi device was born.
In his op-ed, Lomas talks about the struggles the foundation faced in meeting the high demand for units that came about just three weeks before the product was to launch, and the difficulties in financing the project as a nonprofit. Here’s a teaser from the article:
The original plan was to build just 1000 units for new undergraduates at Cambridge University. We figured we could kickstart that ourselves: if we sold each at $35 and it cost $36 to make, well, we would lose $1000. That was worth it, we thought, to engage with keen early adopters who would help us with the debugging, documentation, and education.
But instead, our small, part-time only team was faced with a success disaster. Just three weeks before launch, initial demand was well beyond 200,000 units. And at one point on launch day we were even trendier than Lady Gaga.
We desperately needed a sustainable model. As a U.K.-registered charity, we could not fund demand by normal loan methods. Nor could we rely on our own money to subsidize production at a level over 200 times what we had initially expected. The Foundation was already running on donations by the trustees, some of whom had remortgaged their own houses to provide funds.
What we learned is that you have to sell out (a little) to sell (a lot). I’d argue that many makers have to do this when they want to scale. Going from 0 to 1 million units projected in just our first year meant we had to make a number of tradeoffs – from where to manufacture and how to work with partners without alienating our core community, to what features we chose (or didn’t choose) for the Raspberry Pi in the first place.
Intrigued? Take a look at the rest of Loma’s op-ed in Wired.
Readers, any Raspberry Pi users out there? I’d love to hear about your experience — share with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.