How to run an open source hardware startup – interview Codebender

Codebender is one of the fast growing Greek startups with an international product: a software / Internet of Things startup that makes on online development environment for the Arduino. We interviewed founder Vasilis Georgitzikis about his journey from idea to global startup, based in Greece.

Codebender background

When and why was codebender started?

We got the idea for Codebender during a train ride in February 2012. We were all active makers, using the Arduino computer on a chip for interesting hardware projects. The year before I had started the Patras Hackerspace, an open lab where anyone can learn about this new technology. At the Hackerspace we often give workshops where people learn to program the Arduino. One of our own ‘pains’ was the time needed to install all the software needed to start programming. It took half the workshop before everyone had the necessary editors and libraries installed on their laptop. In the train, returning from the Fosdem conference, we had this idea for an online development environment: just open a web browser and start developing.

What happened after the idea?

We decided to make a prototype. We started programming in spring 2012 and by June we had a working prototype. At this time we did not consider Codebender a company with a business model. At this stage it was just a project. To cover our running cost (hardware and hosting), we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. In a few weeks we raised 6000 euros, more than we asked for.

So why did you make Codebender as a company?

We were invited to participate in an accelerator program: the Mozilla Webfwd accelerator. This is a virtual accelerator program. When you are selected you can stay in your home city and skype with the various coaches and mentors. The accelerator program stimulates you to think about the various ways one can develop an idea further. At the end we went to San Francisco for the Demo day.

Have you accepted other funding after the crowdfunding?

Yes. After the accelerator program we found Bulgarian / US investors. We are a multinational company: we are founded as a Bulgarian company, with also a legal entity in the US. In april of this year we also registered a Greek entity.

You have a multi-room office here in Patras. How big is the team?

We have lost a few of the initial founders, but found a lot of early employees. We went from three founders in the train to five founders to two founders when we incorporated to only me as a founder now. It was initially not clear whether Codebender was a viable business, so many founders decide to pursue other careers. With the funding we were able to hire local talented developers, and now have a team of 10 people, myself included.

Users and product

How much users do you have? And do you know who they are?

We have 35000 registered users, of which 2000 are active users. We have three types of users: about 70% are hobbists and people new to the Arduino platform. For them, Codebender is the easiest way to get started. 15% of the user base is educational: students using Arduino in class. The final 15% consists of professional and advanced users.

One of the interesting things we learned from analysing our user base is that a large part of the educational market consists of Chromebook users. With a Chromebook you need an online development environment, as you cannot instal any of the software. We are thus solving a real problem for educational institutions where all students have Chromebooks.

Do you use the Lean startup method?

We know the method quite well, and are using the elements selectively. We do a lot of testing: every new feature is tested to see if it has the required effect.

Codebender is committed to open source. Why is that?

We believe in open source hardware: the ability to share designs openly so that others can reuse the designs and improve upon them. For many 3D-printers the designs are public, e.g. the RepRap. This have definitely helped them become popular. We also made our source open, since it seems the right thing to do. As long as we can, we will keep it open. However we also have to be practical: some parts are closed source and we have not accepted any outside contributions to our code base yet.

What is the biggest challenge for you?

Retention. We have many people trying us out, but also many people leaving within one week. Last month we hired a designer that will make our offering easier to use. We hope that this will make the learning curve smoother.

Startups in Greece

Do you know how similar startups are dealing with this issue?

We believe that we are comparable to other online development startups, such as sourcelair (Greece) or Cloud9 (The Netherlands). These startups are at the same level: they have a working product and market interest but not enough retention.

What is your advice for other Greek startups?

It is not easy, it is scary, but just do it. Starting a business is probably harder than you think it is, but it is important to follow your passions. The good thing is that you keep learning all the time. Being a founder gives you the most learning in the least amount of time.

Is it more challenging to start a company in Greece than anywhere else?

Especially in Greece there are not enough mentors. Running a business is a lot more work than participating in a competition or a startup weekend, and having a few good mentors that help you through the hard times is important. We are fortunate to have an internationally scalable product and international connections through the programs we participate in. This definitely helps.

Crowdfunding advice

Based on your experience, would you recommend crowdfunding to other startups?

Crowdfunding on Indiegogo is probably good for consumer product startups. It is a great way for initial market testing and funding. For more difficult hardware products, I recommend you to go to a conference like makercon and makerfaire. There are many hidden risks in making hardware that you need to know beforehand, so that you raise enough money.

For more information on the Greek startup scene and connections to the Netherlands, see our previous articles about Greek startups selected for startupbootcamp,  entrepreneurship and the Greek crisis, startups Made by, Creative, Oinovation, LIA Olive oil, Sponsorboat and reporting on Dutch-Athens incubator Orange Grove.