Arduino: our real boss is the community

Photo Federico Musto / President and CEO, Arduino / October 28th, 2015

Open community and collective intelligence have become significant phenomena in all fields where organizations and institutions used to play a leading role. “We are moving away from the dominance of the depersonalized world of institutional production and are creating a new economy around social connections and social rewards,” said futurist Marina Gobis in her book The Nature of the Future. She named this process “socialstructing.” The driving force behind socialstructing is the new technologies that are inherently social and personal. “They help us create communities around interests, identities, and common personal challenges” and sometimes create “new products, services, and knowledge that no institution is able to provide,” Gobis explained. In the business field, where socialstructing has manifested its power the most, we‘ve witnessed the emergence and evolution of Linux, Android, and now the open-source hardware driven by the grand IoT revolution. As an open-source electronic prototyping platform and kit board provider, Arduino has from the very beginning tied itself closely with an expansive user community and developer ecosystem, and has been widely accepted as the global leader in this area.

SJTU ParisTech Review – Do you regard Arduino today as a big company or a small one?

Federico Musto – We are a small company. Basically, we have no difference today compared to what we were 10 years ago. The only thing is that we have been able to build a huge community very quickly. So we are a small company with an amazingly huge community behind us.

What exactly is the size of this Arduino community?

Well, it’s very difficult to gauge a number that’s so tremendous. To get an idea, you need only know that every single month, 100,000 more people join. In China, there are millions of makers using Arduino boards to build their projects, and the population is very diversified—from school kids that want to build themselves a coconut machine to engineers who would like to prototype an IoT product.

In China, a large part of the community is made of teachers, who have played a critical role in the whole ecosystem. They make documentations that can be used to teach our technology in schools. There is a huge movement in China on the way to educate and share knowledge and technology.

How do you organize and manage such a big community as this “small company”?

We don’t control the community; it grows by itself. As a company we would like to have some subsidiaries in major market countries so that we can approach the press and tradeshows. But what is even more important for us is to approach people face-to-face in real time, which can help us have better understanding of the communities.

Do you have any dedicated body within Arduino to be the company-community interface?

Yes, we have a team but it only includes four people. Their main responsibility is just talking to people and community leaders on social media.  But don’t forget, there are millions of people out there, which is so much larger than the company itself. Instead of us managing them, it is the community who gives us guidelines to follow.

The beauty of community is that it is bigger than the biggest company in the world, even Foxconn. So it is really interesting to see how the community is diversified by people from different backgrounds—students, engineers, professors, and startups. Usually, people come from companies that compete with each other, but in this open-source community, they don’t really care. There are no borders. It is really a worldwide organization.

Is there something related to the nature of your business that keeps moving the whole thing on track and forward? 

I think it is because of our direction. Instead of choosing an existing technology, we always like to work on something that is still under development. We would like to explain future technology in a very easy way, and make it doable for everyone. That’s the key point. We learn from the community and we’ve managed to grow in this way since the very start around 10 years ago.

I only joined Arduino last year, but the company named Red Hat that I worked at before also based its business model on an open-source software system—Linux—which has been a very successful method to integrate people. The other example is Android, with which everybody today can write source code for smart phones. Of course you have professional smart phone makers, but Android lets you build something they can’t provide. Ariduno is the same. I would say all of the 3D printers at the beginning used Arduino boards. Things like Linux, Android, and Arduino not only make technology interesting, but also help create new industries. Open-source and community create a language that everyone can speak.

We’ve noticed that, thanks to the community contribution, Arduino product upgrades and new releases have sped up greatly. Have you encountered any challenges from the community when you integrate these voluntary contributions into your products and monetize them?

So far the answer is no. But it is true that we’ve started thinking about ways to give back, and the answer is the Arduino Foundation. We use it not only to say thanks to the community that’s helped us, but also to help them—the engineers and teachers—continue with their hobbies, dreams, and careers. With that money, we can also invite people to join us, to make real contact, to ask questions and listen to their questions, to spread ideas, and finally, make the ecosystem bigger and bigger.

Reinvesting part of the profits to the ecosystem is also seen as a good way to protect our Arduino brand—the only intellectual property that is not free for use here. Consumers will know that if they buy an original product of Arduino, part of the money they pay to the company will go to the community, where thousands of teachers and developers are contributing to new technologies. If you choose to buy a fake one, it’s certain that all the money will go to one guy: the counterfeiter.

So ultimately, what does open source and open community mean to Arduino?

In a sense, the community is the real boss of Arduino. We once made a serious mistake in this regard. I’m sure you know that there was a split among the core founding team of Arduino, which led to a very bad consequence—one of the most important community leaders turned to our competitor. I was so disappointed.

Is that the dark side of open community—that people can chose to go whenever they like and take away all the things they acquire from the community, including strategically important property?

That is not about the community, the community did nothing wrong. It is because we made an absolutely wrong decision to start fighting within the core team. But the good thing is that this has also made us realize that splitting is bad and Arduino belongs not to any single company or single person.  We should stick together as a community, otherwise we will definitely fail. We healed the rift and regained the trust of one another. We are now seeing a big improvement in terms of sales numbers. Opening minds has just unbelievably rebooted business.

We also want to sustain that with the Arduino Foundation by removing the control from any single man, and putting it in an organization that is open and fully represents the community behind it. Each dollar going in and out will be visible to all on the foundation’s website. We, the management team of the company, would like to be ambassadors—to touch and communicate with different people globally to collect suggestions and requirements.

More and more chip manufacturers—big and small—are cutting into the kits board market. Will that be a big pressure for Arduino?

To get the product used by as many people as possible, you have to be open-source with no secrets and work with millions of common individuals across the world. I believe this is the right way to do R&D, to make breakthroughs in technology. But if you start from scratch, it will take years to build the community. Can IBM do that? Yes, but will they want to? I don’t know. Furthermore, do you think Intel is going to release all the hardware and software codes in every chip they manufacture? I don’t think so.

Again, with this new business model we are able to push R&D to the next level at a very high pace. It is all about the community. I will always believe that many people can think and do far better than any one person or organization.


Note from the editors. This article was originally published in our Chinese edition, developed with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, SJTU ParisTech Review.

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