ISP Blogweek 2014: Blogging and Business: The Adafruit Example


The International School of Prague is gearing up for Blogweek 2014. One of the ideas behind our annual blogging festival is allow students to explore ways that digital literacy is reshaping our world - and how we can leverage the power of social media in our own lives.

In that spirit, I thought I would write a short piece exploring - full disclosure - one of my favourite companies, and how they have woven social media into their DIY approach to business.  It is a story which illustrates how relevant digital literacy is for entrepeneurs.

Adafruit Industries is a company that specializes in designing and manufacturing electronics for a broad range of makers: simple to use for students or hobbyists, but high quality for rapid prototyping in professional design environments. I became acquainted with them through my interest in robotics and in promoting digital design technology in education.

Limor Fried and Adafruit Industries

Limor “Lady Ada” Fried, Adafruit’s founder, is a prominent spokesperson for the open-source and maker movements. She was the first female engineer to make the cover of Wired Magazine. 

I won’t bother to retell the full Adafruit story, but check out this piece on Lady Ada for her 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year profile, if you’d like some more information. It’s a good story.

Where Blogging & Social Media Fit In

Adafruit puts a big emphasis on social media to speak directly to their customers. It is basically the only marketing they do. They have new content every day on their blogs. They produce several weekly live video shows on Youtube. The have developed their customized “Adafruit Learning System” which includes project tutorials, product datasheets, code examples and anything people might need in order to use their products. They also regularly publish other sorts of content, from project ideas, tear-downs of commercial products, and other news relevant to makers.

Check out the new Adafruit.com and their Youtube channel to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

In keeping with their DIY philosophy, all of Adafruit’s social media content is either produced totally in-house, or through collaboration with the larger maker community - including their customers, who regularly share project ideas, help out in the forums, and contribute tutorials to the Learning System. Regardless, there is no external marketing team building their website or crafting “viral” advertising campaigns.

On a recent “Ask An Engineer”, one of their weekly live Youtube shows, they discussed their Youtube and website traffic and a little about their social media approach (this link will take you directly to the relevant clip).

Unlike almost all other sites, Adafruit doesn’t sell advertising space on their site, or accept paid editorial content. With the significant traffic it generates, it has the advertising potential be a stand-alone revenue-generating product. Adafruit has bucked the advertising trend in favor of clean design and functionality for their community.

So, if the editorial content itself doesn’t generate revenue, what is the angle, from a business perspective?  

On one level, the strategy is pretty straight-forward. Providing project ideas and high quality tutorials clearly encourages enables a larger community of people to buy the products. The more they learn, the more new projects they attempt, the more they buy.

It should come as no surprise that much of the content Adafruit produces discusses products they sell. Not exclusively, however - the surprise is how much time they spend discussing the industry at large and promoting other like-minded folks.

In addition to their products, they’ve positioned themselves as a go-to source of information. This includes information for the maker community, but also about the maker community.

We try to teach students about grooming their own positive digital footprint - this is an excellent example of a company leveraging blogging and social media to establish a position of corporate leadership.

Let’s be clear, I'm not talking about creating some kind of illusion. Both Lady Ada and Adafruit have earned their authoritative positions through real and substantial individual and corporate success. But, in the modern world, speaking with 2 million unique page visitors and hundreds of thousands of social media connections definitely helps to establish another type of authority and relevance.

But there's more to it than building traffic: Adafruit uses social media very effectively to help define and communicate their brand. Their corporate philosophy is definitely part of their overall sales pitch.

First and foremost, it is a story of a well-run operation - they are well-known for product quality and almost-instant order fulfillment. They leverage blogs, forums, and other social media to provide an amazing level of customer support. They manufacture their products in New York instead of overseas. They support the open-source movement, and are open with their own designs and code.

Transparency is central to their philosophy. This is particularly relevant to the community they serve; makers: people who are interested in how things operate behind the scenes, like how the components are made, and other aspects of running a hardware business. Much of this transparency is achieved communicating via social media.

Also, by being very hands-on with their various blogs and videos, the community is given the opportunity to “know” the Adafruit people in a much more informal and intimate way than is typical in a customer-business relationship. To me, they seem like the kind of people I would like to hang out with. 

Basically, they make it really easy to support them - no mean feat among the DIY set, who (if I may generalize for a moment) are probably more suspicious of corporate interests than your average person. But everything about Adafruit seems to be run as a reaction to how business is normally done. For some reason, despite millions of dollars in annual sales, supporting Adafruit still feels pretty “punk” to me.

But where did this narrative come from? Where did I get it?  Simple - they told me.

Primarily, they were able to tell me directly, using social media. It wasn’t one particular blog, or one video, but it was a story - a corporate identity - that was crafted across the whole digital sphere. It was “what” was said, and also “how” it was said. It was reinforced on social media by testimonials from customers and supporters.Then it was picked up by mainstream media. I don’t intend to make this all sound contrived. And it doesn’t mean their story isn’t true - their success speaks for itself.

But it speaks to the power of social media, and the importance of learning how to leverage these new forms of digital literacy. Adafruit has been able to tell their story directly to the world, uncompromising and unfiltered by the usual marketing machine, disrupting a number of traditional ways of working.

It is not much different from what we all should be doing, albeit on a much smaller scale: taking ownership of our digital footprint: leveraging social media to present the best, most authentic, most marketable parts of ourselves to world.



Building An Audience for Student Blogs. Tips for teachers.

If you build it, they will come. Or not.

Kevin Costner might know a few things about ghostly baseball fields in the corn, but not so much about blogging. 

 is one of the most important elements of blogging. It creates an authentic, intrinsic motivation that is difficult to produce in back-and-forth interactions between teacher and student alone. 
However, teachers and students are sometimes disappointed when the audience and comments don't automatically come flooding in. As any dedicated blogger knows, building an audience is a little more elusive than that - it requires no small amount of self promotion and social media savvy.
This is an absolutely authentic skill - to survive and make a living as a professional writer these days requires persistance. Even engaging the digital world in other sorts of professional or academic talk doesn't happen automatically. Building a community takes time and effort. 


Create a central meeting spot. In our school, mostly, kids have their own eduBlogs (although I've seen some excellent group blogs too!). But it can be tricky to promote and share 25 individual blogs, all with their own addresses.  If you create a "directory", linking all your students blogs onto a single page (perhaps your blog, or a class website), you can share a single link instead. Must easier for Tweeting. 
Find a partner. Build a relationship. It is a lot to ask for random strangers to spend time reading your blog, or your students' blogs, even if you were to put in a lot of time promoting them. A great way to get started is to partner with another colleague, and their students. You dedicate some time with your class reading and commenting on their writing, and you return the favor. The great part about blogging is that is could equally be a colleague across the hall, or around the world. 
School Bulletins / Announcement / Letters To Parents. For schools, these are classic forms of social media. Don't forget to share your blogging with the school community. We all want a global audience, but pushing your blogs locally makes sense - your own community are the most likely to be interested. Besides, especially in the international school world, global clicks come from our extended families around the world.
Facebook & Twitter, etc.: Using social media to promote your social media should be part of the plan. First and foremost on official school channels, but also on personal networks. 
For you, I assume many of your friends (in both the real, and Facebook sense) are educators.These are great folks to engage. If can't get your friends interested, engaging strangers is a tough ask. Similarly, students should promote their own writing to their own peers and social networks. 
Some schools get squeamish about this idea, but this is really the key to teaching digital citizenship and creating a positive digital footprint -  giving students the opportunity to publish and put positive stuff out there.
If you want to engage the world at large on Twitter, try the #comments4kids hashtag. Teachers who are looking for folks to visit and comment on student work often use this hashtag. It is courteous to return the favor. 
Also, for my staff, there is this Blogweek thing. Designed to be a good place to start. Just sayin'.



Building The Boss (Interlude): Video

My robotics club at school has been pretty busy, and I've been given the green light to plan a Design Technology elective for next year. So, in more ways than one, I've been building more than blogging. Here is a video update:


Building The Boss (Interlude): Fritzing Software

NOTE: More news on The Boss, and the Makerbeams that are making him, coming in a day or two. Sorry ... I've been busy!

Fritzing is a free, open-source tool that I have explored while developing ideas for a low-cost design technology program. It is a software application which allows designers to easily document and share their projects by dragging and dropping the parts onto a virtual breadboard.

It has libraries which include all the main Arduino boards, servos, motors, sensors and common electronic components you would find in the vast majority of classroom projects, and the ability to create custom parts if necessary. Even better: the software can automatically generate a technical schematic or a plan for a printed circuit board, based on your drag-and-drop design.

In a professional or hobby setting, it allows quick mockups to share with others- extremely useful for feedback and troubleshooting. By saving projects digitally, you can reuse your supplies of real-world parts, while still keeping a record of the projects you’ve done.

In an educational setting, I would require students to keep a digital portfolio of all the projects they accomplish - from their first “light-an-LED” program, to their major independent projects later.

Keeping a record of their projects- not just some scribbled notes but a precise technical drawing, is both useful while learning, and also an authentic skill from the professional world. From a teaching perspective, this is also extremely useful for assessment purposes.

Crucially, this software makes it easy and fast to document projects, which is important anytime you’re considering requiring something of a teenager.

If you're considering getting into Arduino yourself, or using them in the classroom, it is a must-download. Also, if you like it, consider supporting them by buying their Arduino kits, or with a donation. Support open-hardware!


Building The Boss (Part 2): Arduino, the Anchor

Check out Part 1 of this series here, if you missed it!

The first decision in both designing The Boss, the robot, and the vision for design tech that he will (hopefully) champion was to determine the basic development platform. To my mind, Arduino was the obvious choice.

Being both an open-source and robotics enthusiast, I’ve been aware of the Arduino project for some time, although I must stress that I’m a total newbie from a hands-on perspective.

 Arduino has been around since 2005, so it is a mature platform, many generations refined. Arduinos are operating on satellites and collecting data for the Large Hadron Collider. I’m certainly treading on pretty familiar ground building a simple Arduino-based robot - it’s a hobbyist staple. And there is no doubt that there are teachers in world who years ahead of me in using Arduino in the classroom.


But that’s the point, isn’t it? First of all, starting simple is smart, which is an important guiding principle for the whole project. Secondly, getting engaged with a community like the one based around the Arduino platform allows me to tap into a wealth of existing expertise and resources, including tutorials, hardware advice and sample code.

For the uninitiated, a little bit of background about the Arduino may be helpful. Arduino is basically  a generic, programmable microcontroller (yes, like a little computer <sigh>) which was basically invented to make it easier for designers, artists, hackers and students to design and build different sorts electronic devices. See the excellent TED talk by Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi for more about the philosophy behind Arduino, the open source community generally, and also to see some great Arduino projects.

 You can combine inputs, like sensors, and outputs, like movement from a motor, or a sound, or a message on a screen- to create your own interactive electronic devices.

The electronics are real, and they need to be wired together correctly, or LEDs will burn out and motors will blow. The amount of power required depends on what you hook up, and the work you are asking it to do. This is an absolutely authentic environment for learning basic electronics design.  It is basic electronics design.

Programs are coded on a computer, using open-source software, and downloaded to the Arduino. The Arduino language itself is merely a set of functions from the more robust programming language C/C++, so (as I understand it, which may be poorly) there is a direct application towards learning more advanced computer studies too.

A professional designer might mock-up a circuit design for a new product on the Arduino to incorporate it into a working prototype, or “proof of concept”. Later, a manufacturer could mass produce smaller custom electronics for the product, using the Arduino design. The hardware is also open source, and explicitly allows for this sort of use.  

Arduino’s best feature is the flexibility: it can works with standard electronic components and sensors (both analog, and digital, if you can hook it up correctly), which are mostly pretty inexpensive.

It is also well supported by a good selection of accessories designed specifically for the platform, which can add a whole range of capabilities. For example, for an advanced robot you could add a “motor shield” to add more motors, with better control. You can add a “WIFI” shield to create a device which connects to a wireless network.

I want to stress: Arduino is not confined to amateur robotics, it can provide the basis for all sorts of design-build projects. One good example is a version of the Arduino called the Lilypad, which is designed to drive wearable electronics and e-textiles.

A few final pragmatic benefits: Arduinos are easily, affordably, and locally available.

Conveniently, there are a good selection of decent “Arduino starter kits” available which include enough electronic components to complete some basic training and simple projects.

They usually start at around €40 - €80 per kit, including an Arduino board. These kits are probably a long way from all that would be needed for proper projects. You would almost always be better off buying bulk components and creating your own “kits”. But that gives you some idea of the modest startup cost of the learning the Arduino platform, and an easy way to get started.

It should be mentioned that there are other similar tools in this vein, notably the Raspberry Pi, that would likely work as well. Arduino, by far, comes with the most well-established community. I wouldn't be against students exploring other platforms, but Arduino would be a great stepping-stone in any event.

So, Arduino will be “brains” of my robot, and form the foundation of the affordable prototyping platform I am designing. The next step will be to choose the “bones” - some sort of flexible structure that can support (quite literally) a wide variety of student projects.

Next time: Introducing Makerbeam