Raspberry Pi Foundation: Eben Upton
The innovator of a ground-breaking microcomputer for children, on finding funding – and ensuring his product costs no more than a textbook
Name: Eben Upton, Pete Lomas, Jack Lang, Rob Mullins, David Braben, Alan Mycroft
Age: 33 (Eben Upton)
Company: Raspberry Pi Foundation
Staff numbers: Eight
Company description: Microcomputer designers – for kids
Tell us what your business does:
We design small, affordable, microcomputers for children, and license the design to manufacturers. The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard.
It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
In 2006, a group of us at the University of Cambridge noticed a steady decline in the number of applications to read computer science. We wanted to develop a platform that children could use to learn to program, in the same way that my colleagues and I used Spectrums and BBC Micros in the 1980s.
We are a registered charity. The foundation itself is a private company limited by guarantee, with the memorandum and articles of association prohibiting the guarantors from extracting profits, which is then registered with the charities commission.
How did you know there was a market for it?
We didn’t – or, at least, not on any serious scale. It’s an experiment to see if, by massively reducing the cost of computing hardware, you can change children’s behaviour.
We differentiate ourselves purely on the basis of cost.
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What were you doing before starting up?
I was a PhD student and director of studies at the University of Cambridge, then a technical director at Broadcom Europe.
I’m still there. This is something I do in my evenings and weekends.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
I’ve always run start-ups, since I was 20. In fact, Broadcom is my first “proper” job.
I enjoy the freedom of being able to set my own goals and pursue opportunities that come up quickly, without needing to ‘check up the tree’.
What planning did you do before you started up?
We did very little planning. However, we have some very experienced businesspeople on our board of trustees, so there’s always been advice available when we need it.
How did you raise the money?
In the end, our trustees each chipped in a few tens of thousands of pounds capital, until we had about £100,000 to get us off the ground.
We did try applying for various sources of government-matching grants and guaranteed loans, but were rejected for a variety of reasons.
How did you find suppliers?
We found our component suppliers through personal relationships (Broadcom is a great example).
The device is manufactured in China – a contract which has been extremely difficult to manage effectively.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Marketing and PR has been a key challenge. I’m very lucky that my wife, a freelance journalist, agreed to dedicate a year to working, unpaid, on building our brand and community.
Where is your business based?
We’re based in an office at the computer laboratory in Cambridge University.
How have you promoted your business?
My wife has been promoting our business largely through social media.
She’s done a great job, to a point where our website is the third highest hit on Google for the word “raspberry” (not “raspberry pi”, just “raspberry”).
How much do you charge?
We charge $25 (£15) for a basic machine, and $35 (£22) for a more fully featured one. The price was selected to be roughly equal to that of a school textbook.
The price is in dollars because the components we buy are in dollars. Because currency markets are so volatile at the moment, we price the final board in dollars too so we don’t have to keep changing the price.
What about staff – how many do you have?
We have just hired our first full-time employee. None of the founders work full-time for the Foundation. This is strictly an evenings and weekends thing for us.
My wife should be counted as unpaid full-time staff, so I guess we’ve now gone from one staff member to two. The six co-founders are on top of that.
What has your growth been like?
The device is just in the process of launching, so we have no turnover figures as yet.
We’ve probably lost about £20,000 over the course of the project (not counting all the time the trustees have put in).
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
Personally, it’s been great. It’s the first time my wife and I have worked on a project together.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
Getting people to believe we can do it!
What was your first big breakthrough?
Having an early version of the product featured on Rory Cellan-Jones’ blog, at the BBC.
What would you do differently?
Maybe I’d keep my eye more closely on schedule, as we’ve ended up slipping a quarter from when we first said we’d launch.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Don’t sit around thinking about business ideas all day until you find the perfect one. It’s like thinking up a name for your band; it can consume an arbitrary amount of your time, and feels productive, but you’re not learning anything.
Go and start a business, even if it’s just selling stuff on eBay. See what turns up.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Do you have an exit plan?
We’re a not-for-profit, so we don’t really need an exit plan. In five years’ time, we’d like to be able to look back and say we made a difference to the way children interact with computers.