Entrepreneurial Lessons from Raspberry Pi's Eben Upton

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In 2006, Eben Upton conceptualized the Raspberry Pi as a $25 computer. In a world full of expensive computers and game consoles, he didn’t think making a low-cost computer was possible.
 
Egged on by his wife, he persevered. He created the first model in 2010, and released the first model in 2012. Since then the Pi has been a runaway success, with 21 million units shipped.
 
The popular board revived the maker movement, spawning innovation in robots, drones, automation tools and other whimsical devices. It has also served its original purpose of being an education tool for STEM.
 
Jumping out the classroom, taking an innovative idea and turning into a real physical product can be a rewarding experience, Upton said. Engineering can be creative, but suffers from an “image” problem, and it can be infused with enjoyment and imagination.
 
“The reputation problem is simply that engineering is sometimes viewed as an uncreative, low-status profession, like an engineer being the person who fixes your boiler. By emphasizing the creative, entrepreneurial aspects of engineering practice, ‘making’ may help to address this,” Upton said.
 
Taking on hot new technologies like artificial intelligence can help engineers do more than ever before. Unexpected uses for the Raspberry Pi have excited Upton, like a drone with an attached camera and infrared photography identifying in an agricultural field plants that need irrigation. “That’s a much more efficient use of water and human time,” Upton said.
 
Having fun making a drone or robot is one thing, and turning an idea into a commercial product is a whole different ballgame. There are many things to take into account, like pinpoint design, cost determination, testing, quality assurance and manufacturing, Upton said.
 
“There are no prizes for shipping a defective product,” he said.
 
From the start, Raspberry Pi was a cost-engineered product. Originally, Upton had a $25 sale price in mind and was designed backwards from that price. He squeezed whatever components he could within that cost. 
 
“A lot of products are designed forward from a feature set to a price, or maybe you have a vague idea of the price and feature set and try to make it reach in the middle. For us, it had to be a computer, and we had this idea of what can you do with $25,” Upton said. 
 
The bill of materials was dominated by a small number of components: the processor, memory, PCB and substrate, which accounted for 75 percent and 60 percent of the overall end product. With knowledge of what components they could use, Upton decided on the functionality of the product.
 
There were challenges too, one being unforeseen costs.
 
“We got comfortable with the macro-costs involved, then there’s the micro-optimization.  We were nearly killed by the micro-costs, you forget the ‘ten-cent’ prices,” Upton said.
 
For the final product, he couldn’t find a manufacturer in the home country of U.K., but noted he was lucky to get introduced to the Chinese manufacturer.
 
“He took a chance on us, gave us a 2,000-unit minimum order at a decent cost to a U.K. manufacturer. He did millions in volumes for us over the next two years,” Upton said.
 
Ultimately, Upton re-shored the manufacturing to the U.K. without taking on additional cost. The original $25 Raspberry Pi had 200 components, the new $35 model 3 has 300 components, but is also faster and can do more.
 
In the process, Upton took away lessons as an engineer and an entrepreneur. He recommends engineers get started with ideas without seeking anyone’s permission, and to be surrounded by the right people.
 
“Surround yourself with people who help you persist in your professional and personal life. I kept doing Raspberry Pi because my wife felt it was a good idea. For a time, I thought it wasn’t a good idea,” he said.
 
Agam Shah is an associate editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.
 
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