Lessons from an Evil Mad Scientist

Developing a hardware product is like running a marathon. It requires endless training, persistence, and the willingness to reach the finish line at all costs. Like a marathon, it also really helps to have guidance from experienced runners or trainers. But maybe you want to take a more unconventional approach.

In that case, I offer you lessons learned from Lenore Edman, an Evil Mad Scientist.

The Origin Story

Lenore and her partner, Windell Oskay, started Evil Mad Scientist by accident. As she recounts, “when we moved out here, our table broke in shipping, and we decided we had to make ourselves a new table--our dining table--and we decided that this time it was going to have LEDs in it! We ended up making ourselves an interactive LED dining table, which we took to the very first Maker Faire.”

The other attendees of Maker Faire were so interested in making their own interactive LED dining tables, that Lenore and Windell decided to make kits to empower other enthusiasts to make their own LED tables. Unlike the original LED dining table, which required 448 hand wired LEDs, these kits offered a streamlined design with fewer components.

From there, spawned more electronic kits with microcontrollers and LEDs aimed at hobbyists. As time went on, these electronic kits became more complex (as things do) and Evil Mad Scientist expanded their offerings to include retro-technological objects like pen plotters and a reproduction of the Digi-Comp II.

This might just be my hot take, but Evil Mad Scientist (which I’ll start abbreviating as EMSL) sets itself apart from other Silicon Valley tech companies with their consistent focus on craftsmanship. EMSL creates products for creativity’s sake and for the sake of spreading evil mad creativity to others. But creativity and the love of craftsmanship are not the only factors that have made EMSL a successful family-owned electronics business in a land of giants.

The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Keeping with the marathon analogy, I began by asking Lenore what she would consider to be the pre-marathon training for hardware developers.

Since EMSL’s first few products were special requests from the Maker community, Lenore admits, “we have sort of skipped the things most people would do, like market analysis or user inquiries.”

At the other end of the product design cycle, since EMSL products are educational or hobby related, a lot of the work that comes up as they’re reaching the finish line revolves around making sure users have a good learning experience. Lenore explains that, “documentation, all of the materials that you need to make it so that someone can use or make the thing that we’re putting out there, are the last steps. I know that they’re extremely crucial, and they tend to be the things you’re doing right at the end--just making sure that all the documentation is ready for the user, so when they get it they can use it.”

Given that EMSL has built a community around its products and offerings, their style of extensive product documentation and guides helps set them apart from other firms. Take for example, the fact that there’s a dedicated Evil Mad Scientist Wiki that serves as a platform for fellow users to teach each other and share resources. This is a distinguishing element from typical support sites, which are more formal or require a much larger user base to get to that level of community involvement. In lieu of rigorous market and user research, EMSL has an innate understanding of their audience. This is not a lesson from Lenore, herself, but I do believe that EMSL’ success demonstrates the power of truly being part of the community.

That said, it would be misleading I do not acknowledge the labor that Lenore and Windell put in to continually improve and innovate what they share with the maker community. Of course, this is not uncommon for any tech company. Standards and protocols are constantly changing as developers find new and (hopefully) better ways to meet the needs and wants of humanity. EMSL is no different in that regard.

When I asked Lenore about a difficult product to develop, she told me the struggle behind the first run of what would be their most popular product: AxiDraw.

“AxiDraw is a pen plotter, it’s an X-Y robotic platform that moves a pen to draw whatever’s in front of it. When we first launched it, we assembled them in house. . . we did not anticipate how popular it would be, and there were several things that we did not anticipate in the assembly. And so, when we first launched we essentially sold out immediately” and the product has about a 6 week lead time for most of a year as the EMSL team struggled to make the plotters as fast as they were being ordered.

During that year, Lenore and Windell scrapped the design of their original product to build something even better, and, more importantly, a lot easier to assemble. From that experience, Lenore advises hardware entrepreneurs and developers to, “to draw on the expertise of the people around you, especially your manufacturing partners. As you’re designing things, make sure that they’re in the loop and can give you advice on whatever it is. One of our problems was inconsistency between parts. We thought that this off the shelf part would have better consistency than it did. So we had to find ways around that and do things like binning parts. Well, it may be that your manufacturing partner is willing to bin parts for you or maybe they’ll have a design recommendation that means you won’t have to bin parts or either take the part out or design around it.”

Speaking from the perspective of someone who is on the ODM side of things (Blue Clover Devices has often played the role of contract manufacturer), I can attest that the expertise of experienced manufacturers cannot be overlooked. (If you’re interested in reading about maintaining good relationships with CMs you can read our CEOs thoughts on that). If you are developing a product with many moving pieces that needs to be replicated, it is important to think about the end journey beforehand. In EMSL’s case, their small batch model lets them redesign their products with every new batch to better fit demand. However, if you are a team working on a hardware product for the first time, it’s important to do research and spend time thinking about the end-case scenario. As with a marathon, it is necessary to start with the end in mind.

But unlike a marathon, often times the finish lines you set for yourself as a hardware developer or entrepreneur are adjustable. When I asked Lenore if she had any advice for someone new to the hardware scene, she responded very honestly, saying, “it’s okay to delay launching until the product’s ready. Many times people nail themselves to a deadline. Deadlines can be useful tools, but they’re sometimes counter productive and sometimes a product needs to wait until it’s actually complete or that thing has been fixed. That bug or piece of software is polished enough for it to actually be usable and users aren’t going to be frustrated by it. So sometimes it’s okay to push the finish line back a little bit.”

Of course, it’s hard to hear this if you are the stereotypical Type A personality whose rigorous and steadfast approach is what makes you so damn good at your job. But, it’s better to make something you’ll be proud of rather than something that no one loves! As has been the case with quite a few tech companies lately, a poor product is difficult to recover from and can ruin a reputation that takes years to build.

However, if you are working on a more straightforward product that’s well within your range of product offerings, then sometimes things go pretty smoothly and there will be less unfamiliar bumps in the road. This was the case with the Diavolino, an arduino compatible board kit creatively named to fit both the Arduino’s Italian heritage and EMSL’s company branding.

According to Lenore they “designed the board, it was a simple enough board that I don’t think we even sent it out for prototypes. I think we just got it in an initial batch of several hundred, then we would batch kits out . . . pack them up and do all the photography, do all the step by step assembly guides, that means the photography of the build process, blog post, store page, for [certain products] retail packaging. So design the package inserts . . . and then it’s a matter of sales. In spite of the fact that we’ve been making it for so long, people still use it in the classroom and for their own projects. Which is kind of remarkable for a microcontroller project, that the hardware has been stable for so long. And I think that it speaks to the community around arduino.”

Again, community is important! Business-oriented companies use marketing and branding to tell great stories and understand their customers. However, community extends beyond that and can build powerful cult followings. Along with the Diavolino, another product that EMSL has offered for a while is an LED menorah.

I mention this menorah because it’s the perfect soldering kit for when the nights get colder and you need something bright and twinkly to offer mood lighting. On a more serious note, I think this product expresses the whimsical, yet smart, style that defines how Evil Mad Scientist does things. Afterall, why be an evil mad scientist if you can’t have fun?

Happily Ever After

Something I appreciate about being based in San Francisco is getting to see the tech community. There are the giants whose leaders develop cult followings across the world and become role models for young tech entrepreneurs everywhere, but there are also small companies with big impact like Evil Mad Scientist. Even after being in business for over 10 years now, Lenore and Windell still embrace their beginning as hardware hackers making things for the love of crafting and making. Along the way they have added new and interesting offerings to their selection of goods as well as the lessons they learned. The latter of which Lenore was kind enough to impart to me.

Since this blog post is titled “Lessons from an Evil Mad Scientist” I’ll list a recap of the lessons learned:

  • Community is powerful and inspiring; EMSL got its start from community feedback and continues to be a pillar in the hardware community
  • Sometimes finishing strong means pushing back the product deadline, so you can create something you’re proud to release to the world
  • If you are a hardware company that outsources some of its fabrication, it’s important to communicate with your contract manufacturer and take advantage of their skills!
  • It’s good to start with an end in mind, meaning if you’re making a product that needs to be reproduced, it’s important to design for manufacturing (DFM)
  • Having fun and staying true to yourself is what separates hardware developers who enjoy the process from those who make themselves miserable

Beyond entrepreneurship, Lenore is an active part of the Bay Area’s local hardware community. In addition to running Evil Mad Scientist, she also spends some of her time volunteering with local robotics teams. Afterall, how else are you supposed to help inspire a diabolical love of science in the coming generations?

Lenore and the team at Evil Mad Science work to provide a curated selection of hobby electronic kits, drawing machines, and retro-technological objects. Their products are designed to support art, education, and accessibility. If you are interested in doing some holiday shopping, you can visit their online shop or their IRL shop in Sunnyvale, CA.

Thank you Lenore, for not only responding to my email, but also for taking the time to share with me your dastardly plans for spreading science and engineering to the world!

I also want to give a small thanks to Jasmine (from Tindie) for letting me know about Evil Mad Scientist and the impact they’ve had on the Bay Area hardware community.Have questions, comments, concerns, or want to be featured on our blog? Fill out this form!

Small note: on the same day as my publishing this blog post, the team at EMSL unveiled the AxiDraw MiniKit! You can check it out here: https://shop.evilmadscientist.com/productsmenu/924

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