Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Something needs to change

In Musings on Feb 27, 2011 at 00:01

The previous post was about explaining which walls I have been hitting. Many thanks for your comments on that!

The task ahead is to move on! This must not become a blog about my ability to function (or not) in the context of JeeLabs. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and talking to people around here.

There’s a pattern. It goes as follows: I start on a big new challenge. Push really hard, get totally in the flow, and get lots of things done. This can last for days, or in the case of JeeLabs: several years. Until, gradually, other mechanisms start taking over, governed by obligations and expectations, essentially.

The reason this has worked so well with JeeLabs, is that the weblog was simply a report of what was happening anyway. A diary. Easy to do, and useful for me as well, to go back and review what I did. The shop just gave it more direction: making stuff happen was already a given, so making stuff which others can use as well was really just “low hanging fruit”. Easy to include, and very helpful to stay focused.

I think that over these past two years, I’ve unconsciously moved deeper and deeper into this pipeline. From doing it all as challenge and exploration, came the desire to describe it all more and more on the weblog. And from there it all evolved into making sure an increasing portion of this would end up as products in the shop.

It’s not quite the Peter Principle, but in a way, I’ve gradually drifted away from what this was all about: exploration, learning, and yes, also sharing. That’s why I started JeeLabs, and that’s what I want to continue doing with JeeLabs as much as ever.

I came across some interesting articles these past few days. Seth Godin talks about business needing to be of the right size. In my case, that means: sustainable. No more. No less. I’m confident that I can figure this one out.

Paul Graham talks about Maker’s vs. Manager’s schedules. Real life has a way of interfering with makers. Tinkering requires concentration, for all but the most trivial and obvious projects. This would explain exactly what happened here – as I kept ahead of the curve with weblog posts and shop items, all was well. I was in the flow and tinkering all day in the fascinating and endless world of physical computing. The emphasis was on the right stuff, and the rest followed effortlessly. Really. The weblog was oodles of fun, even with a daily post, and so was the shop, which is filled with interesting and new experiences about the world of atoms, production, and fulfillment.

I don’t want to list the projects here which I have already started up or new ones I would love to go into. It’s all fun, except that even just thinking about listing them drives home the fact that they are all out of reach for me!

Got to track inventories, order stuff, find second sources, juggle the cash flow, get stuff assembled and tested, deal with back-orders and new orders, handle sales / tech support emails, and more. Welcome to doing business, eh?

I’ll share a secret with you: I liked so much doing the daily weblog when it went well, that I’ve been pondering for the last week about how to resume this weblog on a daily basis. Conclusion, alas: it can’t be done. I need to be on a maker’s schedule again, to use Paul Graham’s terms. And both the weblog and the shop make that impossible.

Something needs to change.

No more daily weblog. Maybe after the summer, if I can get ahead of the curve again. Instead, I’d like to do a couple of regular columns – such as the Easy Electrons series, which I really want to keep going. Maybe a second series, but no promises yet. And posts on an irregular basis, when there is something substantial to report. I’m not going to water down the posts and write about trivialities. Nor am I going to just report about what others do elsewhere. You’ve got the same access to internet as I do. The JeeLabs weblog will remain about original content. For noise and fluff, I’m sure you have plenty of choices elsewhere.

The webshop is currently not in optimal shape. Too many out-of stock cases popping up all the time. I’m solving this by scaling up. Getting components by the thousands where needed, and getting products assembled by the hundreds where possible. I’m also going to do something painful: raise prices. I’m serious about JeeLabs. It is going to stay, and it needs to be run in a serious, sustainable manner. I can pour in my time and energy. But the figures have to add up, in a way which matches the scale at which JeeLabs operates. There are some economies of scale, but obviously not in the way DigiKey or Apple can operate :)

The shortages won’t go away overnight. I ordered 500 relays in January. Expected a first batch end of that month, only to be told a week ago that it was “pushed back” to the end of April. I came across a second source, so hopefully mid March I can provide relays anyway. ATmega shortages are over. Same for several other important items. I’ve got outstanding orders and agreements for hundreds of units for just about all items. I understand the risks and I’m learning the ropes. I just need to get better at it so it won’t take so much of my time in the long run.

Because in the end, JeeLabs is all about exploring and inventing. And, once those are back in the picture, sharing.


  1. Hello!

    I guess that you have investigated outsourcing the routine tasks like assembly. Is it the increased cost that makes this impossible? Is it not possible for you to hire some student in need of ‘pocket money’ to help you with picking items and packing the orders after school hours e.g two times a week?

    • I’m already doing most of what you mention, thanks. Assembly, packaging, and shipping are covered, basically. Shipping delays have been brought back considerably recently (but at a cost…). The main remaining issues are inventory planning and “managing the supply chain”. I’ve been doing quite a bit behind the scenes to improve those. But at the end of the day, I still need to decide on how far ahead of time to get stuff and how much of it. Too little, and the stock runs out – too much, and the money runs out :)

  2. Hi JC,

    Sounds like you did some good thinking. Just wanted to say that I think it all adds up. You need to be happy with what you do, and that can only be the case if stuff doesn’t become a drag on your energy levels. As with any business, its great if you do what you like doing, but you need to eat and pay the mortgage as well.

    Now, I don’t like high prices any more than the next guy, but it would be a shame if JeeLabs would should come to a halt due to sustainability issues.


  3. Hi JC,

    just a few days ago I found your website, shop and blog, and started reading some of your articles. I am very impressed and reading the “Easy Electrons” filled some old gaps in my knowledge :-)

    I am somewhat sad, that you decided to take some kind of break from writing the blog, but I can really understand it.

    Please go ahead and find “your” way back to “maker’s schedule” – I, and I think all others, will keep following your blog, reading your articles and order things from the shop.

    Good luck,


  4. Why don’t you licence your products to other companies and get them to do the source / manufacture / billing / distribution and you get mailed cheques instead ?.

    • That’s what I do with Modern Device in the US. I’ve had several inquiries from distributors in Europe, but I’d prefer to keep in touch with people and keep things close to home… maybe that’ll change one day.

  5. You have to choose whether to on as a high-tech blogger, just sharing with others your interests (I like very much) or to transform your hobby into a real commercial activity. This latter, you understand better than me, is a very seriuous thing. Take into account taxes and TIME. you will raise your costs (both in time and in money) and not necessarily the returns. Just look aroud: there is a strong, MASSIVE production of electronic stuff, lots of microcontroller universal-boards that at the end essentially do the same things. Seems like everyone wants to make commerce, the next Sparkfun ! Instead of re-inventing the wheel, why not to use what is already on the market ??? You jee-node is thruly very fine indeed (and was really illuminating for me to make my own PIC nodes), but why not using an Arduino board with an attached RFM12 ??? You did it many months ago ! Arduino is VERY cheap, mature, you find it ready-made, in lots of flavours, shapes, colours. Myself, I thought many times if it is worth to go into the commerce: I think it’s not possible for normal people – that work to live and gets home late in the afternoon – run another job seriously. Customers can’t wait weeks or months, or they’ll just buy elsewhere. Unless you’re Superman. In my opinion, if you’ll raise the prices I’m sure you’ll lose many “customers”. There are way strong competitors around, just see on Ebay. I didn’t meant to discourage you (I am not in the commerce), just invite you to think. I liked you much as a very interesting blogger, but I think we lost you. Cheers, Ben

  6. Hi JCW,

    Via this comment I want to give you a thumbs up for your decision to do this, really think through how you can keep enjoying what you love doing, pay the rent (or mortgage) and keep your users/clients happy as well.

    I have only recently started in electronics and physical computers and you Easy Electrons series has helped me a lot in getting started, understanding principles, etc. I have ordered some Arduino’s and have started to get my feet wet. And there are loads of notes on next projects using JeeNode hardware, so I hope they will remain available with or without backorders ;-)

    Keep up the great work, but on a pace you are happy with!

    Kind regards from Meppel, Arno

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