Interview with RasPi.TV

We’ve recently had an amazing opportunity to work with Alex Eames at RasPi.TV, it now only seems fair to share to the community what Alex has been up to in his latest kickstarter.

We’ve all heard about RasPi.TV in one way or another, and many of you may already have the RasPiO Portsplus to help us out in a time for identifying what pin on the Pi does what, so sit back, relax and find out what’s been going on behind the scenes.

Firstly could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

I think I had engineering in my blood from a very early age, but it wasn’t identified as such until a few years ago. When I was very young, about 6 or 7, I loved taking things to pieces – it was my hobby. I just wanted to see what was inside. I now know this is a bit of a “tell-tale” for engineers.

I also really “got on with” computers from quite an early age. I think it was ~1980 (aged 10) when I had my first hands-on experience with a borrowed Commodore Pet 8k. My dad worked in the Education Advisory Service and we got to borrow stuff from the Teachers’ Centre during the holidays. We had a BBC micro in the house as well (later) and I eventually saved up and worked hard to buy my own Spectrum 48k.

I liked Maths and Sciences at school and I ended up doing Chemistry with Analytical Science at Loughborough University. This included a module on “Basic Instrumentation Electronics” in year 1, which I quite enjoyed, and then did nothing with for many years.

I’ve always been a bit entrepreneurial as well. I started my first little business when I was 14. I learned a lot about customer service and the sorts of things you can only learn by experience.

I’m 45 now and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But I’ve decided to get round that by not growing up. You don’t have to do the same thing all your life. I’ve “reinvented” myself at least 3 times in the last 20 years, each time making use of existing skills (often developed from hobbies) and new technologies.

What attracted you to a career in tech?

I just think it was always meant to be. I was always destined to do my own thing and tech changes often enough to hold my interest.

When work is what you choose to be doing – because you enjoy it – while “normal people” are watching TV, you know you’ve found your niche in life. If it pays the bills as well, you’ve arrived!

I have to force myself to take time off. And I’m not very good at that. I need to get the whole work/life balance thing sorted out a bit better.

Where did your love for tech/engineering come from?

I think it was always there, hiding in plain view. I’ve always loved making and experimenting and not accepting that “it has to be this way because…”

The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t do it or it can’t be done. That is like a big red rag to a bull. I guess I like a challenge. If it doesn’t exist, make your own!

What has been your proudest achievement?

Everyone will expect me to say the HDMIPi KickStarter campaign, which raised £261,250 and had 2,520 backers. That was definitely a highlight.

But I think I’m more pleased with the way that RasPi.TV has taken off. I think it’s helped rather a lot of people. It’s a pity that hardware development and marketing takes up so much time. I’d really like to do more hacking, blogging and videos on RasPi.TV.

What has been your most difficult project to date?

HDMIPi without a doubt. Just getting the driver board designed and made how we wanted it and to an acceptable standard with a brand new Chinese supplier was an absolute nightmare. And all the while knowing that you’ve taken a quarter of a million off the public and given it to someone else to fulfil, but you’re the one who’s “on the hook” for it. That was a horrifically stressful year and nearly broke me. Many lessons learned from that project. There’s probably a book in it some day.

What skills have proven most valuable to get you where you are today?

I love experimenting and learning new things. I think the willingness to “have a go” is tremendously important. Modern education and culture seems to be so “risk-averse” that people are losing this vitally important trait. You can’t make anything worthwhile without making mistakes along the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to fail and we also need perseverance when we don’t get it right first time.

I also can’t stand seeing things done badly or even mediocrely. Do it well or don’t do it! You will make mistakes along the way, but the final “thing” you unleash on the world should be well done. Most of your mistakes will not need to be shared with the world. (Think of the photographer who shoots 200 photos, but only publishes the best one, where it all came together.)

What’s next for you and your company? What projects do you have up your sleeve?

I’ve got a few prototypes in various stages of development. I always have far more ideas than I’ve got time to implement though. And not all ideas “make the cut” either.

I think, now that there are lots of 40-pin Raspberry Pis out there, I might do a HAT? We’ll see. You know how it is in tech? Nobody will tell you exactly what’s coming next. That’s partly to avoid someone else pinching the idea and partly because things can change so quickly. I have several possible directions to go in, but haven’t decided which way yet.

Who has been your biggest inspiration and why?

Nobody in particular really. Most of the hugely successful people out there seem to have taken advantage of or abused other people on their way up. I don’t like that. The trouble is, if you’re too nice, you can get stitched up yourself. So you have to try and strike a balance, which is a challenge.

I think Steve Wozniak is probably a good role model for budding techies. But even he got stitched up a few times along the way. I think if you can be true to yourself and do good things, good results should flow naturally out of that.

It’s certainly the approach they seem to take over at the Raspberry Pi Foundation. I’m always amazed, every time I visit, at what a great bunch of people they are. Adafruit seem pretty awesome too, although I don’t know them personally yet.

Congratulations on your recent success on Kickstarter with RasPiO® GPIO Ruler. Why Kickstarter again over other funding methods?

Thank you. Kickstarter is kind of addictive. It’s fun and it’s not just a fundraising platform. It’s a great place to find out if the world actually wants your idea to exist. It’s also a pretty good way to get the word out about an idea. So it’s fundraising, market-research and marketing all rolled into one. A lot of people don’t realise that.

With the ruler, everything told me that it should be a hit. But I can be wrong. I knew I wanted this product for my own use. But did other people want it too? I really wasn’t sure, so I thought I’d “ask the audience”. It seems they said “Yes”.

No matter how big or how popular you are, if an idea really sucks, people won’t back it. I’ve learned in the past that when you show people an idea, they will often say they like it, but there can be a big difference between “saying that you like it” and “buying one”. KickStarter helps to bridge that uncertainty gap by allowing people to vote with their wallets. You can’t get any more accurate market research than that!

What are three top tips that you could give to anyone thinking of doing a Kickstarter?

  1. (This one is particularly important if it’s a large funding goal, but it’s a good idea anyway) Before you go to Kickstarter, build a following and get well known in the community as a helpful person who gives. Make sizeable deposits into the community before you try to make a withdrawal. You can’t fake this. It needs to be real and freely given.
  2. Come up with a great idea or a new slant on an existing idea. Something that the market clearly needs, wants and hasn’t been done yet is ideal.
  3. Don’t expect KickStarter to do (all) your marketing for you. Unless you have a killer project that everyone wants and needs, you’ll have to put in some hard work trying to reach everyone who might be interested. You’ll have to work to make a success of it.
  4. I know you said 3, but here’s a free bonus. Give free samples to high profile bloggers. Unless the product is horribly expensive this is the single best investment you can make.

Both Alex Eames and RasPi.TV are well known names through the maker and professional community. How did you start out?

I’ve always loved making things, buying and collecting tools and equipment. I can list restoring old cars, metalwork sculpture, photography, computers, woodwork, RC planes and DIY as hobbies I’ve gone “in-depth” on at various times of life.

Somehow I discovered I could write and started an ePublishing business in 1999 – the early days of the web. It was new, open, wild, exciting, and a bit of a free-for-all. I built up a large following (30,000 newsletter subscribers) by providing great free content. This then encouraged people to give my eBooks a try. But my interest in that field only lasted a few years and by the time the Raspberry Pi came along it was already coasting and I was thoroughly bored of it. I needed something new. The Pi was it. Something new to play with and write about.

The Pi was another level playing-field, like the web was 13 years earlier. It was clear that Pi was going to be huge and I knew that getting in early would be key. So I started learning Python while I was waiting for my Pis to arrive. That was a lot of fun and I really liked it. I’d done most of my web back-end work with PERL in the past but I liked Python a lot more.

When the Pi arrived, fortunately I was in the position that I could just go for it and start creating good content without worrying about trying to monetise. I knew there would be a way eventually if I could just make something really good. But I don’t like advertising, so that was out (it cheapens your site and doesn’t generate much income anyway unless you get millions of views a month).

When I got my first Pi, I was frustrated with the lack of good documentation (with examples) in Linux. I basically had to google around to find out how to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. Usually I’d find guides that were incomplete or obsolete, or omitted vital steps. My goal with every RasPi.TV tutorial is to write instructions that a brand new user can follow and get a satisfying result the very first time. They need to be complete, exhaustive and with lots of diagrams, examples and details. It takes a very long time, which is why not many other people do it. But readers seem to like this approach. In July 2015 we’re about to hit 4.4 Million views on the blog and we just passed 1 Million views on the YouTube channel with the equivalent of 5 person-years (24/7) of viewing time.

By late 2012 I realised that, in the world of Open Source, people don’t like paying for software or information. So, to monetise, I needed to get into hardware. I’d already been thoroughly bitten by the GPIO bug since Pi came out and particularly through the Gertboard (for which I wrote the Python versions of the demo programs).

The idea of being able to control things from anywhere in the world using a Pi and some electronics is extremely cool. So I carried on having fun, learning as much as I could, blogging whatever I was doing at the time, and making videos. I also started learning how to design and lay out PCBs. I also did some freelance work (I still get offers through the blog, but don’t usually have time to accept them now).

Fast forward a couple of years and I now have the RasPiO® range of PCB products for Raspberry Pi. These have now been brought entirely back in-house.

The current KickStarter project, the RasPiO® GPIO Ruler is the seventh product in the range.

There’s still 18 days to go and the project is already funded, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get your very own. Head on over to the kickstarter and order yours today!

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