Q&A with Ron Justin: On Empowering Electronics Users to Join or Launch Group Buys

May 22, 2018 | 19:55
Q&A with Ron Justin: On Empowering Electronics Users to Join or Launch Group Buys
Q&A with Ron Justin: On Empowering Electronics Users to Join or Launch Group Buys
Back in 2013, bothered by impossibly high minimum order quantities for bleeding-edge parts, Ron Justin convinced a friend to help launch GroupGets. Today, the company is facilitating group buys for electronics engineers, innovators, and manufacturers around the globe.

C. J. Abate (Elektor Business): You are an electrical engineer and inventor. Tell us more.

Ron Justin: I’m an EE whose career has ranged from high-end R&D to low-cost consumer devices. Having some involvement with TrackR, Inc. when it first started gave me the confidence to start and bootstrap GroupGets.

C. J.: What is GroupGets?

Ron: GroupGets is a two-sided group buying platform. Anyone is free to initiate group buys for existing products. Businesses are free to sell products to group buyers. Since our core team consists of product developers and hardware enthusiasts, it was inevitably built in our image and those are the type of users that it attracts.

C. J.: What was the impetus for launching the company?

Ron: I wanted to buy some ASICs that were only sold by the wafer back in 2013. Since I couldn’t afford a full wafer, which was over $100,000, I wanted to crowdfund it, but couldn’t find an existing platform to let me do it. It was frustrating because there were many platforms that would let you crowdfund a new product idea, but not for anything already on the shelf. So, our base use case is to crowdfund access to things with really high minimum order quantities like bleeding-edge ICs. Now people use it to fund production runs of boards and in other ways we never foreseen.

C. J.: Tell us about your current team. Are you hiring?

Ron: We are lean and mean and still in the single digits. We are planning a small hiring round soon though. We have a network of US-based contractors that we’ve worked with in our other jobs for over a decade, so we rotate them in when a surge is needed. GroupGets is mostly just a network of friends making things happen.

C. J.: What differentiates GroupGets from competitors?

Ron: We’re not just another KickStarter clone. We insist that products in our campaigns exist, and we vet them and the manufacturer. We create custom products in-house when we see opportunities to lower technology gaps for campaign products for our backers. We also help some of our campaign initiators get their PCB produced more efficiently by leveraging our components buying volume to get their parts cheaper. We also introduce them to our contract manufacturing network if desired.

C. J.: What’s your revenue model?

Ron: We charge a fee for campaigns that successfully close, we produce and sell electronics to larger distributors, we license some technologies that we’ve developed, and we have a great distribution deal with FLIR Systems for some of their thermal cameras such as Lepton and Boson. We add value to their products and ecosystem with custom hardware/software and support, which is why they’ve been good to us.

C. J.: Back in 2015, GroupGets brought in $250,000 in revenue in four months. That’s an amazing start. What sort of numbers are you doing these days?

Ron: The initial luck did surprise us and gave us the market validation needed to keep it going and bootstrapped. I like to keep the financial numbers close-hold for now, but revenue is definitely stronger today than it was in 2015, and we do it all without selling ads or doing anything creepy with user data.

C. J.: Tell us about GroupGets’s maker community. Can you share some of the demographics?

Ron: Our community is surprisingly very international and ranges from pro-maker to CTO and from late teens to retirement age. We ship to over 60 countries on a regular basis.

C. J.: How are you building the community? What marketing strategies are you implementing?

Ron: We rely on organic content and strategic partnerships to build our user base. None of the paid marketing stuff works for us because we’re so niche. We post projects on sites like Hackster, guest blogs, post open code to our github, enhance a partner’s product with a custom accessory, and hit up our opt-in mailing list on a monthly basis.

C. J.: How do you run a campaign on GroupGets? Walk us through the process of starting a campaign.

Ron: It’s really easy. Just create an account on our site, hit the big green “Start Campaign” button on the homepage. An online form will ask you for the details that we need to start vetting the product before we can approve it. We usually require samples, unless it’s a well-known product that’s been on the market for a long time like a mature IC or sensor.

C. J.: What about backing a group buy campaign? How does a customer join?

Ron: That’s even easier, after creating an account, just hit the “Join this Buy” button on the campaign. While we require payment details at that time, we do not charge anyone anything until the campaign hits its target goal. We encourage our backers to be active and share details about the campaign, so we have a lot of social media share buttons built in to the UI.

C. J.: GetLab is your in-house design team. Can you tell us about what the team is currently working on?
 
PureThermal 2
Ron: They’re all-in right now on our latest hackable thermal webcam board for the FLIR Lepton, the PureThermal 2. It was never our intent to have so much involvement with thermal imaging and FLIR, but if something is working, why change it? This is another differentiation point about our company and platform, we’re able to form deep technical bonds with the right high-tech partners like FLIR. We can greatly enhance their product ecosystem with our technical, marketing, and distribution capabilities.

C. J.: What have been the biggest challenges associated with growing GroupGets?

Ron: Ha, where do I start? Our CTO Kurt and I went from being bench engineers to suddenly running a successful company (on top of our day jobs), so there are many challenges associated with that. I’d have to say that most everything was learnable on the fly, but growing a user base is definitely an art. You have to have some thick skin too. A lot of our design work is blatantly copied by larger companies, and you have to innovate. Whining about it won’t get you anywhere. One of my favorite expressions ever is from Steve Ballmer about “riding the bear.” Until you’re a small company forging partnerships with larger ones, you really have no idea what that really means, but it’s a very concise description once you’re in the middle of it.

C. J.: What is GetSparked? Describe your partnership with SparkFun.

Ron: GetSparked is a direct product pipeline from GroupGets to SparkFun’s catalog after successful market validation on GroupGets. It’s something that I’ve wanted to see happen for years, and it took a lot of patience, persistence, and dumb luck to make happen (like running into their founder at DEFCON in 2017). We have no intention of becoming a large electronics distribution platform since there are so many great ones already. At the same time, we want some of our campaign initiators who are producing interesting electronics to have an integrated pathway to a larger distribution platform after GroupGets. Since we attract a pretty eclectic mix of developers, not all of their products are a fit for a mainstream distributor or big box store. SparkFun’s wavelength and community is more aligned with what we are, so they’re an ideal partner. We’ve got the red boxes on our benches to prove it too.

C. J.: What’s next? Where do you see GroupGets in 12 months?

Ron: Hopefully we’re going to facilitate a lot of cool new electronic products from side-hustlers to startups to go from our platform to SparkFun. And hopefully we’re going to be stoking more and more innovation by enabling access to bleeding-edge tech that has prohibitively high minimum order quantities for smaller product developers with big ideas. We’re still pretty under the radar, and all of our use-cases are not immediately obvious from the homepage, so I’m really grateful that Elektor is taking the time to put a spotlight on what we do. Use GroupGets to hack minimum order quantities with crowdfunding, fund production runs for vetted betas and mature products, market a product with a limited promotional discount or bundle, and even liquidate inventory.

 
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