Pinoccio is an open source, wireless hardware platform for makers. Started by Sally Carson and Eric Jennings as a side project, Pinoccio went on to raise over $100,000 on Indiegogo to be the complete ecosystem for building the Internet of Things. We sat down with Sally to talk about bringing her software background to hardware, choosing Indiegogo over Kickstarter and building an open source community for the Internet of Things.
I went to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia and I got a BFA in Communication Art and Design. The program is a mixed bag of graphic design and illustration. I graduated in 2000 and there weren’t really web degrees yet. Everything for me at that point was just self-taught. I was pirating software because I couldn’t afford it and just teaching myself HTML and CSS. Now I pay for software. As soon as I could afford it I started paying for it, but that’s how we learn.
As soon as I graduated I got a job at a startup in Charlottesville, Virginia called ExploreLearning. We were doing math and science simulations and I was an Illustrator for them, but they found out that I knew how to code so they upgraded me to “Multimedia Developer.” Six weeks after 9/11, I quit my job and moved to New York and was a bike messenger there for a year. Then I moved back to Richmond, Virginia and was a bike messenger for another year.
After that, I returned to the tech industry and I was a Web Designer — and later Senior Web Designer — for Crutchfield. I was with Crutchfield when they were transitioning from being a predominantly catalog-based business to a web-based e-commerce business, and I got to see how that changed the company.
Around that time, Make magazine had just begun. Prior to Make, I was reading 2600. 2600 is a hacker newsletter and for whatever reason Barnes and Noble carried it. In Charlottesville, I’d go to Barnes and Noble and just sit there for a couple of hours and read 2600. It was totally fascinating reading about people hacking phones. Some buddies of mine in High School had hacked a payphone, and the area in Colonial Williamsburg where all of us teenagers loitered, we could make unlimited local calls for free. I was always interested in mass communications, and in hacking a/v equipment like 4-track recorders. Anything that had to do with recording and hacking electronics in a very simple way. I wasn’t soldering, but I’d try to figure out if I could attach the audio line from my VCR to my 4-track and splice Nintendo sound effects onto the skate videos I was dubbing.
When Make magazine came out, I found out about it because I was a really big fan of O’Reilly and I was following whatever they put out. I got Make on day one. As soon as the issue became available I went out and got it. I was totally transfixed. They had found this community of people who were technical like me and maybe a lot of them worked online or worked on computers all day, but there was still a very strong tactile component to their work. They were kinetic sculptors and machinists and mechanical engineers — people who wrote code but also knew how to build things with their hands. That was incredibly appealing to me and prior to that I think I always felt professionally I had to be one or the other: I had to be on the computer all day and feel this lack of presence in my own body or I had to quit computers and be a starving artist. During school, I even spent a year in VCU’s Sculpture program. It was cool to see people who had found a mixed approach in their work and I was fascinated by that.
After Crutchfield, I moved to the West Coast to go work as an Interaction Designer for Yahoo Sports. After Yahoo, I moved up to San Francisco and I worked for a startup there for about six months. Then there was the October 2008 financial collapse and a third of our company got laid off and I decided to go freelance. From 2008 until a year ago, I was a freelance User Experience Designer. I worked with a ton of different companies. My final freelance client was Singly. Eric Jennings, my co-founder, was an employee at Singly at the time and they hired me to partner up with Eric and had the two of us to build a demo app using the Singly platform. They gave us free reign, they just said, “Build whatever you want, whatever you think is interesting. We want feedback on the API and on the documentation.”
We built this app called Ketchupp and the idea was that instead of checking Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram when you wake up, you get a daily digest from Ketchupp. It was a single page that shows you top news stories, top photos, and any gossip related to people that you know, like relationship and job changes. Ketchupp would tally up all of the activity from your various social networks and present you with a curated daily digest for catching up. It was awesome. I loved that app. I found I was saving time. I wasn’t going through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, over and over.
Through Eric and I working on that together, we found out that we were both really into the Maker movement. We were fascinated by objects that were intelligent and connected to the Web. He described this project he was working on at home to automate his sprinkler system. The system could check the soil moisture, and then check the Web and see if it’s going to rain in the next 24 hours. If rain is coming, wait and take another soil moisture reading the next day. If not, go ahead and water the garden.
We just geeked out really hard on that. He said, “If you have any time on the side I would love to have your eyeballs on this.” I had a personal project that I was working on, and we were bartering time working on one another’s projects. I think we probably only got two weeks into it before I said, “I like your idea better. I want to work on that with you.”
It’s crazy. I feel like working on Pinoccio is the culmination of all these seemingly disparate threads of my life that have finally coalesced into a single effort. To me, that’s incredibly gratifying.
My time at Crutchfield was incredibly instructive. There was this funny dichotomy at that time. On the one hand, we were trying to capture users’ attention with messages like “Save 15%” and “Free Shipping!” in big, red text. But the problem was, Crutchfield wasn’t actually known for being price-competitive. Anyone who’s shopped with Crutchfield knows that you come there to get the highest quality products, hand-selected by experts, and to get the best customer service. You might actually pay a little more for that. We were struggling internally to get away from this garish ‘bargain-basement’ visual language, while still converting new customers. We completely redesigned the site to communicate the message of high quality products, and excellent customer support from friendly experts.
Around 2005, Web 2.0 was happening. YouTube and Google Maps emerged around that time. I was getting really interested in this shift and it occurred to me that I needed to be on the West Coast. I really wanted to be working for a technology company. I got a job at Yahoo as an Interaction Designer. I started in 2006, left Crutchfield, moved out to Santa Monica and worked on the Yahoo Sports team for the next two years. We did a giant redesign of the entire site. It was a huge undertaking. The daily traffic of that site is through the roof, any little change that you make needs to be very well vetted before you go live. Both Crutchfield and Yahoo were using a lot of both qualitative and quantitative research. We used quantitative data to see what was happening on the site, but paired that with qualitative data like usability studies to understand why we’re seeing those numbers that we’re seeing. That was a foundation that I learned at Crutchfield but it was further bolstered at Yahoo.
Another great thing that Yahoo was doing at the time was something that was called RITE testing — Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation. We had completely redesigned the navigation for Yahoo Sports. We had this interesting tabbed breadcrumb system that was unusual — it wasn’t something that a user would have encountered before on the web, we were wondering if it was intuitive and if it was easy to use. The Yahoo Sports site is really broad but really deep, we wanted users to be able to easily jump from, say, a Hockey player page all the way to Basketball scores. That’s a pretty big taxonomic leap. We wanted users to be able to do that very quickly, very easily, with just one or two clicks. We came up with a system of navigation and we worked with this awesome guy named Tyson Gushiken. He’s an incredibly talented designer. We did a week’s worth of usability testing. We had about five people come into our usability testing lab on Monday to test one version of the nav. We figured out where people were confused, where they were stuck. Tyson iterated on the prototype quickly and Wednesday we presented the second iteration of the prototype to another five people. Then we iterated again and tested a third prototype on Friday. By Friday we had gone through three rounds of usability testing and three revisions of that design. By that time it was pretty rock solid. It was testing really well — it was intuitive.
We’re getting close to doing this stuff with Pinoccio. We’ve been very focused on hardware and it’s just been in the last couple of months that we’ve been able to turn our attention to the software side of things. We did do pseudo-usability testing with hardware. But without the software, the hardware is like a corpse. The software gives it a soul.
It was important to us to offer a mechanical switch to turn it on. It seems like such a piece of minutia but that was our first piece of UI on the hardware. I have a personal complaint about single-button operation for turning on and off electronics, especially if there’s no display. We don’t have an iPhone style screen where it can say, “Hey, I’m turning on.” We have LEDs so there’s this language of light and color we can use for indicators, but that doesn’t help if a battery is dead. I wanted a mechanical switch and I wanted you to be able to learn that if it’s left it’s On, if it’s right it’s Off. I have bicycle lights that are just single button operation and it drives me nuts because you have to hold down the button for so long to turn it off because a short press cycles through the different modes — flashing or solid — it just slows you down and it feels clunky. But we’re getting to a point where we’re a couple weeks away from being able to do usability testing and we’re definitely going to do a bunch of that. It’s going to be a combination of hardware and software. We’re going to hand someone a box just like they received it in the mail and we’re going to say, “Hey, you just got this in the mail. Show us what you would do next.” Just make it super open-ended. We want them to open the box, and see what they do with very little direction on our part. Just have them talk out loud about what they think they’re doing and how it’s supposed to work and see if the little moments of the delight that we built into it are working as they should.
“I always felt professionally I had to be one or the other: I had to be on the computer all day and feel this lack of presence in my own body or I had to quit computers and be a starving artist.”
Pinoccio is a complete hardware plus software ecosystem for building the Internet of Things. We’re very much inspired by the early days of the Web and the early PC days, where it was hackers and it was the people who were writing code that were shaping the future of these technologies. We think it’s really important to offer an extensible platform for creation where individuals can come and create their own meaningful projects. That’s a big part of our hypothesis, as opposed to just producing a product for consumption.
Early on, we were thinking it was going to be a sprinkler product but eventually we zoomed way out. Maybe someone will build a sprinkler with it, but we decided we should just build this very flexible, very approachable platform for creation and just see what people want to build with it and then cultivate that community — try to provide support for them and then of course evolve the product based on what they’re telling us they need and based on their usage.
That’s a big part of it. What I expect to see is something akin to the ‘long tail’ of the Internet of Things. As our community starts to create projects, there are going to be really popular uses like home automation and that’s the left side—the tall side of the long tail—and then on the tail end—the right side—who knows? We get a surprising number of kegerator projects. There are a lot of people who want to monitor their homebrewing projects. We’re on the cusp of getting this out into peoples’ hands and I just can’t wait to see what people build with it.
Personally, I really want to see Pinoccio used by biologists, by scientists in the field. Because it’s got mesh networking baked into it, it’s perfect for deploying remote sensor networks really easily. My husband is a biologist and he does a lot of research in the field. Two or three months out of the year he’s in the tropics somewhere. We spent a couple months in Brazil last winter while he was researching frogs there. I think having an inexpensive, easy-to-deploy remote sensor network would be incredibly powerful for scientists.
I’m also really hoping to see it used for city-scale mesh networks for what I would call ‘civic hacking’ or ‘urban prototyping’ — deploying stuff like environmental sensors to get a measure of air quality and noise pollution. I would love to see cities set up mesh networks, and then open up that data to the citizens so that they can build web apps on top of it, and get insights into what’s happening in their city. Hopefully that could inform city planning decisions from the bottom-up. I’m really inspired by the Safecast project that happened in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I really hope people use Pinoccio for projects like that — to empower citizens with accurate, real-time data about the world they live in.
We’ve been exhibiting at Maker Faires, doing interviews, and talks at conferences. But, a lot of the interest is generated by word-of-mouth online right now. We’ve got an email sign up list where people can sign up to get notified when pre-orders are ready and we just continue to get interest pouring in that way. A big part of our strategy is building a platform where the community can share the projects that they’re building with one another and also share those projects out to the web, hopefully creating a viral loop that will bring more people in.
Part of the whole idea with the long tail of the Internet of Things is that there are plenty of people that are geeked out on the Internet of Things and those will be our early adopters, but then there are other people who don’t know what Internet of Things means, they’re just super into beekeeping, for example. They just want to be able to put a temperature sensor inside their beehive and get a text message if the hive gets too hot. If one of our early adopters is a developer and a beekeeper, that person’s going to create their own temperature alert project for their beehive and share that project with the community. Then hopefully it will get visibility amongst beekeepers and pull that niche onto our site. Pinoccio will start with the geeks who are interested in building web-enabled projects, but then later the thematic areas of interest will bring in a broader audience.
“I feel like working on Pinoccio is the culmination of all these seemingly disparate threads of my life that have finally coalesced into a single effort. To me, that's incredibly gratifying.”
We were starting to plan our campaign last fall, that was right at the same time that Kickstarter put out the Kickstarter is not a store blog post. It was in September where they said, “If it’s a hardware product, you can no longer offer multiple quantities of the same item as a reward.” That alone was a deal breaker for us, because Pinoccio becomes way more interesting if you get multiples. That lead us to Indiegogo, and our experience with them was great. They were super responsive, they provided great support. They helped us build our campaign, and bring in more traffic. They were very accessible. If we had any questions, they got back to us the same day. We were nervous about the choice, but once we were working with them, we were really happy with it.
It’s interesting because a lot of products that you would think should be FCC certified, if they’re marketed towards hobbyists for personal usage at home, you’ll find that they are not typically FCC certified. We’re using the funds to FCC certify something called the Pinoccio Mini. We’ve talked to our backers about this, but we haven’t made any announcements about it yet. The decision was based on feedback that we got from the backers. They said, “Pinoccio is awesome and I can’t wait to start building stuff with it, but when I’m done prototyping, I want a super tiny version of it that doesn’t have all this extra stuff that you only need when you’re prototyping.” As a result, Eric developed the Pinoccio Mini which is the size of a quarter. It has the same Atmel chip as the Pinoccio Scout, but it doesn’t have any extra stuff like the rechargeable battery or RGB LED. The idea is that you can prototype on the Pinoccio Scout and once your code is dialed in, you transfer that code over the Pinoccio Mini. You can run the Mini off a coin cell battery, or attach a tiny solar cell, or run it off an existing power source. You could plop a Mini inside the light switches in your house for home automation projects, for example. We’re getting the Mini FCC modular certified so that folks can use it as the brains of their own commercial products and our certification will carry forward to them.
I think before you even start working on your crowdfunding campaign, you need to work on the design of the hardware, figure out your Bill of Materials and then figure out which components have the longest lead-time. When do I need to order these components? What’s the longest lead-time and how many do I need to order in order to have products available to sell to customers without any gaps? What you don’t want is for people to go to your product page online and have it say that you’re sold out. You want them to be able to ‘add it to cart’ and send it to them right away. That’s part of what we’re wrestling with right now. I think that has probably been our greatest challenge and I don’t have an answer, but that’s the flag I would wave for people getting into this as to what they need to be thinking about. Lead-times on components and then once they begin manufacturing, thinking about how to provide a gap-free stream of inventory.
“Without the software, the hardware is like a corpse. The software gives it a soul.”
Focus and have fun. You have to be brutally focused every single day on what you’re trying to accomplish. Doing hardware is such a complex undertaking, especially for folks like me and Eric. We’ve been doing web apps our whole career and this is our first foray into physical goods. Folks out there who are experienced supply chain managers, they’ll probably laugh if they hear me talking about making make sure there’s no gaps in your inventory. But, it’s such a complex undertaking that you have to say no to a lot of stuff and it’s easy to say no to things that are unimportant or unappealing. Where this advice becomes meaningful is when you have opportunities that are actually really exciting and having to say no to some of them. If you’re doing reasonably well, people are going to reach out to you and there’s going to be awesome opportunities that are cool and you’re flattered and you’re excited. It’s tough saying no to things that are interesting and exciting, but are not what you need to be working on at that moment.
What’s your current state of mind?
New York (Nas, not Billy Joel)
What is your idea of misery?
Apathy and stagnation. Pinched nerves and fluorescent lights.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I'm more stoked when I find free stuff on the ground. Most of my house is furnished by someone else's garbage. Deals! Deals! Deals!
When and where were you happiest?
My wedding day. When else will I see my brother and my mother-in-law dancing to Michael Jackson?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Awesome. Dude. Dude — awesome.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Clean, consistent kickflips.
Which living person do you most admire?
Aung San Suu Kyi
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Two girl friends and I rode our bicycles from Maine to Miami in 3 weeks, raising over $10,000 for Hospice and American Cancer Society. We rode 100 miles a day, every day. The ride was a tribute to my Mom, who I lost to Cancer when I was 14.
What’s your favourite quote?
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anais Nin
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given?
Focus and have fun.
We’re a design-led organization, so every decision that we make is informed by our understanding of our customers’ needs, motivations, and goals. This requires on-going conversations with customers, and ethnographic research. On a related note, I just finished reading The Connected Company by Dave Gray and Thomas Vander Wal, and it’s so good. It’s a must-read for founders, in my opinion.
What question would you pose to our next interviewee?
Any tips for executing a perfect high-five?