Tindie, the Etsy for hardware hobbyists, thinks it is time to look past Kickstarter

By James Robinson , written on May 6, 2014

From The News Desk

In the rush to hype the transformations taking place in the hardware market, people cut straight from talking up the new access to machinery with rapidly falling costs of CNC mills and 3D printers, to evangelizing about more open access to funding on Kickstarter. In this sales pitch for the new maker revolution, what is generally glossed over is that there’s a large spectrum of people that fall in between pure hobbyists and people looking to deliver a fully formed idea to a big audience.

Which is where Palo Alto-based Tindie comes in, setting itself up as a marketplace for independent hardware makers; a clearinghouse for small run circuit boards, tools, sensors, amplifiers and the like. Optical laser sensors? Check. Arduino shields? Yup. The site launched in June 2012. It isn’t stacked with household items, but it has opened a niche that people appear more than pleased to play in. Within its first seven months Tindie had 1,000 orders; seven months after that it hit 10,000.

Tindie CEO and founder Emile Petrone thinks that the straight to Kickstarter mindset involves a leap in process that can be destructive for budding manufacturers. People pop up on Tindie with a small amount of product to sell. Usually less than 100 units, according to Petrone. They see if it sells out, see what works with the product, iterate and repeat the process. “It’s growing your business the old fashioned way,” he says.

People look at Tindie, at the circuit boards and raw product for sale and feel confused, Petrone says. But that is kind of the point. The people selling are makers who are learning and working up to something, not people who had a good idea, and then got roped into making 10,000 pieces through a crowdfunding campaign.

“People look at what we sell and say what is it used for?,"  Petrone says. "But look at the Apple I. It wasn’t a fully assembled computer. It was hand-soldered in Steve Jobs’ garage.”

Of course, this is how things used to work. And not that much has changed, really. If you're not ready, crowdfunding can be dangerous.

“You launch on Kickstarter and you’re saddled with the curse of success, producing a product just as it was in the video, stuck in this one thing for over a year," Petrone says. "Your price points are inevitably wrong, your sales projections are inevitably wrong, you realize the amount of money you raised doesn’t cover the costs.”

Petrone says that the people who are on Tindie are generally design and manufacturing hobbyists. Part of the original idea was simply to allow these people to sell off excess parts that they had to buy themselves while making at home. “As word got out it has really broadened,” he says.

Small specialty manufacturers have come on board, while simultaneously the people buying on Tindie have diversified hugely. It started out with just makers and hobbyists, the same people who were selling, but the marketplace has spread out to involve drone enthusiasts, 3D printers, electronics manufacturers, robotics hobbyists, DJs, and audiophiles.

“These are all people with very hardcore niche patterns – the sorts who are living in forums,” Petrone says.

Tindie was a small idea that has shown surprising growth. The site is set to benefit from the maker momentum, Petrone says. But he admits that he doesn't know how big it can get and has told his investors as much (Andreessen Horowitz* invested $1.2 million in a seed funding round).

Petrone never expected to get it to even this point. He worked in sales for Yelp, at one point, before he taught himself how to code. He was working for Urban Airship in Portland when he started the site. When it doubled in size in each of the first three months, he decided, tentatively, to make it his full time job.

Petrone thinks that the market will reach a tipping point, but he doesn’t know when. The challenge for his company is to simply stick around and try and survive until that happens. Tindie consists of four people today, and Petrone is trying to keep it as lean as possible.

“Tindie has the most momentum in the space," he says. "We’ve basically got the lead. The opportunity is clear. But the timing is not.”

To that point, Etsy recently bought Grand St., an independent electronics company, moving it closer to Tindie’s turf. Petrone says that the two won’t clash too much, however, because Tindie isn’t consumer focused like Etsy. Rather it's focused on prosumers and small business owners.

Thanks to the much vaunted series of revolutions happening inside hardware culture there is a path to market now available to the casual hobbyist with an idea. Essentially, Tindie has moved the market closer to new manufacturers.

Petrone is aware of the challenges his company still faces. The hardware revolution will go on for decades more and there's a chance Tindie might not be around when the getting is really good. But expect Petrone to keep swinging.

[Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andrreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are investors in Pando.]