Adafruit got into the parts/kit business with its detailed tutorials that include step-by-step instructions and photographs to lead newbies through the basics of Ohm’s Law and soldering, and on to programming the open-source hardware Arduino platform. Unlike traditional electronic distributors that rely on application engineers, the site effectively crowdsources its application engineering support through its forums and FAQ pages on the kits and parts. This reliance on the knowledge of the site’s fans is part of a well-thought-out business plan: Adafruit’s founder, Limor Fried, detailed the company philosophy in, “15 steps to starting your own electronic-kit business.”
Individual parts offered by Adafruit benefit from its excellent documentation and tutorials. Speaking from personal experience, a couple of years ago I bought a TLS2561 light-to-digital converter from TAOS Semiconductor (now part of austriamicrosystems.) It seemed like a handy component to have in getting a quick, objective measurement of LEDs. However, although documentation existed for the part, its outputs were hard to interpret and it was not easy to hook it up to a computer for datalogging. I quickly gave up and forgot about it.
Then, last summer Adafruit introduced the a new product, aTLS2561 premounted on a small pc board with a couple of chip resistors and some headers, with a tutorial as well as a software library for the open-source Arduino platform. As theAdafruit tutorial says, “To use this sensor and calculate Lux, there’s a lot of very hairy and unpleasant math. You can check out the math in the datasheet but really, it’s not intuitive or educational – it’s just how the sensor works. So we took care of all the math and wrapped it up into a nice Arduino library.”
My sentiments exactly – I just wanted to start using the sensor. It worked great. (See photo, which shows a boarduino, a slimmed-down version of the arduino.) Adafruit was able to take a part that sells competitively for about $2 each, add a couple of passive components, and a well thought-out online tutorial, and sell it for $12. And it was worth every penny of it to me.
Digi-Key had a similar start back in 1972, selling its “Digi-Keyer Kit” to ham radio enthusiasts and today it’s a $1B company. History could repeat itself with a whole new generation of parts and kits providers.