Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Musings on online selling of electronic kits

    Earlier this year I started Language Spy while fresh from years in a permie job, to bring the fruits of computational linguistics to the masses. The first product  - political trend analysis for UK and US politics - made its debut soon afterwards.
    Since then a lot of work has gone in to creating and refining the next product, a corpus engine. The hope is to distill this down to app size, bringing the joy of being told something you didn't know about your language to anyone with a phone or tablet. It's been a slow business, creating a map of all that links every word in many gigabytes of text was always going to take a while.
    Alongside all that I found myself returning to my past, my training as an electronic engineer. I reclaimed my amateur radio licence and rediscovered the joy of making electronics. One thing led to another and a little add-on board for the Raspberry Pi became the focus of a Kickstarter campaign. OK, the Kickstarter didn't succeed, but it did well enough to demonstrate a market for radio kits on the Pi. And because any small startup needs revenue streams the next step was to investigate selling that board and others on my own account.
    As a web developer I bear the scars of many online retail experiences. In short: setting up your own web shop is a huge amount of work, worry, and risk. Been there, done that, and I wasn't going to do it again. I decided to go for a hosted solution, a software-as-a-service shop. I picked Shopify, which for about twenty quid a month gives you about as good a shop as you could hope for. The only thing it didn't do out of the box was print to integrated label stationery, but since Shopify's order printer uses HTML/CSS templates it was the work of about half an hour to make it happen. You only really find out how good an online service is when it goes wrong, but so far I'm pretty chuffed with Shopify.
    So the Language Spy shop was born, with the Pi RF breakout board, a direct conversion receiver, and a breakout board for using an Ethernet transformer for small-signal RF work. It's early days yet, but orders have come in and customers have their products.
    Of course, there are other ways to sell electronic kits online. And it does no harm to have more than one sales channel. So perhaps it was time to take a look at Tindie. This is an online marketplace for makers, something similar to the service Etsy provides for artists. It's a good idea that seems to have attracted a lot of attention and quite a few kits are available through it.
    Logging into Tindie and going through the product set-up process was straightforward. They take 5% of the total price including shipping, which could be better but then again you pay no other fees. I set up the RF breakout board as a product and added shipping zones, but then I found myself wondering whether it was such a good idea.

EDIT, April 2016. When I wrote this piece I raised a concern about Tindie hanging onto your cash for 30 days. Since then I've learned this only applies when you are a very new customer, to ensure you're legit. So there's a whole section removed from my original.

    PayPal payments are a minor annoyance. The problem with PayPal is that they're not a bank but an escrow service. A third party who says "Sure, I'll take that money from him and give it to you", without the cast-iron guarantees of banking law holding them to it. PayPal horror stories for small businesses abound, and while I'll use it to buy stuff personally I thus have an aversion to using it for my business. If they could make direct payments I'd be a lot more interested.
    The US-centric nature of Tindie is more of a concern. Dollars only and no VAT handling. I need something more friendly to a British accountant and a British taxman.
     I really hope Tindie make a success of their venture and I really hope they improve both their payment situation and their handling of international trade. But for now the breakout board on Tindie is in draft mode and I think I'll hold off making it live for a while.