The Raspberry Pi is pretty damn basic. It’s pretty much just a reasonably well-packaged PC board. But it’s probably one of the hottest pieces of hardware to hit the tech scene in years.
It’s made makers out of everyone from hardcore geeky hobbyists to small children. But what if you wanted to use it to build a startup? Is it possible? And how would you go about it?
Well, if Paul Furber of Thunk Media has anything to say about it, the answer to the first question is very much yes. The answer to the second question involves some clever hacks, an idea and very little sleep.
Thunk Media uses the Pi to do digital signage. It doesn’t sound all that exciting, until you realise just how important it’s becoming in both retail and corporate communications.
The trouble, says Furber, is that the market is completely insane at the moment.The established players, he says, are drastically overcharging and their systems are ridiculously complicated.
Thunk Media was able to undercut most of these players by using the Raspberry Pi. The great benefit of this massively popular little PC board, says Furber, is that it’s small and can do a lot with very little power.
As our sister site Gearburn has pointed, it’s also incredibly versatile.
What Thunk Media allows people to do is put their digital signage content on the Pi, boot it through an SD card. It can then be connected to the screen using HDMI and if you need a constant flow of new information, all you need is an internet connection.
While other players in the market have plenty of add-ons, Furber reckons they’re a waste of time.
Applying this logic to startups in general, he suggests that you don’t invest in trying to fix problems that have already been solved. “Ignore the stuff that’s going to waste you time,” he says and focus on what people actually need.
Compared with the established players, it’s a pretty cheap alternative, especially when you factor in the fact that Thunk doesn’t require its clients to actually buy the hardware, instead giving them a subscription option. Indeed, its biggest client Ericsson uses this option for the 50 plus digital signage units it has in various offices across South Africa and the wider continent.
According to Furber, this actually shows confidence in your own product. If people can choose to ditch or keep your product from month to month, you’d better have something that makes them want to stay.
The Pi is a vital cog in this equation because it’s reliable and tends to just work. There’s also a massive and very active community that will probably be prepared to help you out, no matter what you’re doing. But as with any startup, a lot comes down to what you put in.
Take Furber’s approach to coding for instance: “I’m a slow coder but the work that I do doesn’t crash,” he says. If he were even a little bit faster and a little less careful the business could easily have tanked in the early days.
Despite the obvious benefits of the Pi, Furber says his company has faced many of the same problems as every other startup.
For starters, the risk factor is always there. Furber has invested nearly all of his money in the business. “I recently had to tell the bank to Fuck off because I was late on my home loan,” he says
Financial investment isn’t the only stress. Like most entrepreneurs, Furber’s had to put a lot of time into the product, splitting his roles.
The former journalist/developer turned entrepreneur codes from 10PM to 4AM and mostly looks after clients during the day.
“Customer support is pretty brutal when you’re on your own,” he says.
And that’s something important to bear in mind: the technology can only get you so far.
Even when you’re not trying to flip your business, and build something sustainable like Furber is, the rules still apply.