Market Research

It has been awfully quiet on the public front here for sure, but I have been working on quite a bit of things behind the scenes here at Etherkit Galactic HQ. It’s been a challenging year since I last wrote about the personal things going on here, but things have been going reasonable well after a rough half-year immediately following that post. I’m just about ready to attempt to revamp Etherkit, however there are still a few challenging roadblocks to overcome, and I could use a bit of guidance.

The most difficult issue is trying to re-bootstrap the business financially. I’m currently only selling the Si5351A Breakout Board, which obviously isn’t enough to expand a business upon. The possibility of a capital infusion unfortunately broke down, and so the only practical way forward at this point is most likely another crowdfunding campaign.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, I have been working on various projects, and so I do have some candidates. Many of the projects that are in the works or only even in the planning stages require the use of a microcontroller, and so last year I decided to make my own Arduino-compatible microcontroller board family which I can then use as the heart of many of these products. I’ve taken a real liking to the Arduino Zero because of its speed and features, but the cost is fairly high and the standard Arduino form factor isn’t great for many purposes. Therefore, I have decided to make a new standalone board derived from the Zero which I call Empyrean, and you can see in the photo at the top of the post. It comes in two flavors: Alpha and Beta. The Alpha is based on the Atmel ATSAMD21G18A microcontroller, same as the Arduino Zero. The Beta uses a controller (ATSAMD21G16B) with a bit less flash and RAM than the Zero (but still more than an Arduino Uno), but is also priced similarly to the ATmega328 line of microcontrollers. Both come on a small board similar in size to the Nano and has nearly all of the same circuitry of the Arduino Zero except for the EDBG support.

It is true that there are a flood of Arduino clones out there and this makes entering the market with another one somewhat crazy. My value proposition for Empyrean is based on the confluence of breadboard-friendly form factor along with a wallet-friendly price. My target price point is around $15 for Alpha and $10 for Beta. While that is a fair bit more than your typical eBay Nano clone, Empyrean would also be quite a bit more powerful than a Nano, in both clock speed and available memory. So my question to you, dear reader, is whether you would be interested enough in this product to back a crowdfunding campaign in order to have it made? I do plan to make a serious push on a radio soon, but it would be nice to ramp up the business before that, while also solidifying the microcontroller platform that will be used in future products. Let me know what you think in the comments, or send me an email.

In the mean time, I thought I’d let you know that I’m working on a Rev D board spin of the Si5351A Breakout Board. You can see a prototype in beautiful OSHPark purple above. The most significant changes in this revision will be to change the coupling of the reference oscillator to the Si5351 XA input pin to meet datasheet specs and to panelize the board in preparation for future pick-and-place operations (they are currently hand-assembled!).

Perhaps even more interesting is that I also hope to be able to soon offer a frequency calibration report with every board sold. Thanks to LA3PNA, I am now in possession of a decent 10 MHz GPSDO to use as a lab reference, which will allow me to measure the frequency correction value accurately enough for hobbyist usage. I now have a small printer on hand, and so now what I need to do is add new code to my board test script to measure the correction value and print it for inclusion with each board sold. Stay tuned for notification when I’m ready to go live with this; hopefully soon.

Let me reiterate: I’d love to hear your thoughts about the above proposals. I’m interested in serving the needs of my customers. Thank you!

7 thoughts on “Market Research

  1. I’m in for an Alpha or two or three. I also feel like I need a Rev D Si5351 board for my collection (gotta collect them all!)

  2. Crowdfunding, of course.
    It seems that your following == radio builders ; it’s great you’re appealing to them.
    Arduino clone could prove risky in the long term, unless, perhaps, it’s also part of a platform of spin-off products aimed at the RF crew.
    Proper modules that build systems — and market science and modern digital innovation to appeal to digitally curious RF experimenters plus the old-dog analog crowd alike.
    For example, make an RF lab:
    A decent, modular, HF Signal generator, with potential options such as display, enclosure with proper RF shielding and switchable attenuators to allow some power output choices. I/Q output option? optional switched low-pass filters for 4 or 5 bands?
    Scaler network analyzer for sweeping stages
    RF Power meter to go with signal generator
    AF spectrum analyzer
    Frequency counter module
    Si5351A Breakout Board update welcome — what’s needed = a form factor that allows proper shielding of RF and DC

  3. Thank you all for the helpful advice, including the redditors from /r/amateurradio. Sounds like I may need to go back to the drawing board a bit to look for a better “springboard” product to launch.

  4. Hi Jason,

    Offering my thoughts here after seeing it on reddit.

    Some background – I am a new ham (1 year licenced) from VK and specifically pursued a licence that enabled me to build and operate my own gear (as the most junior licence in VK doesn’t allow homebrew operation).

    One thing that has frustrated me is the number of great (small) transceiver kits from the past that are no longer available or out of production. Overall I think this part of the market (small transceivers) is underserviced/overpriced and where it is serviced stock numbers are either very limited or prices are high (particularly once you factor in postage to VK – which appears extraordinarily high from the USA, much more reasonable from other parts of the globe, and in the past has meant that there are some things I do not buy). I realise the VK is market is small, so gripe over, (but with reminders below).

    One product that I think would do really well is a smd based DDS with mcu onboard with maybe an LCD of some sort either included or easily added. There are a couple of these floating around now. These seem to go around US$30 or so. I have no idea of the costings but I have a feeling that if you could offer this at the right price point on a bulk buy / kickstarter that would be a winner. This combination seems a useful module that lends itself to other projects given the success of some modular projects lately.

    The March 2016 QST modular CW rig (correct me on the date) takes advantage of the ecosystem of cheap chinese made products already out there (Arduino nano, mini360 buck converter, AD9850 breakout boards, all from ebay and usually with free postage!!). The team that put this out have an analyser board out now on a similar modular basis which looks promising (but I wish it provided reactances as well). The range of items from QRPLabs are also interesting to me as they seem easily incorporated into a modular project (as well as representing interesting projects in their own right). So maybe something that takes advantage of this ecosystem.

    The most interesting story in the kit/homebrew world of ham radio today is the BITX40 which is a different offering from most. I’m sure you are aware of it but I think of the BITX40 not so much as a product but as an learning experience, which for me as a new ham wanting to build my own gear, has been invaluable. Judging by the comments on the group many others share this view. Others with a product mindset have found only frustration, however, with some documentation gaps and different expectations causing issues. The price point for what you get out of this kit (noting that a certain mindset is required going in) is the standard bearer in my view (and postage is included!).

    I think the pricing competition from the chinese Arduino clones is too brutal to go anywhere near an MCU only unit.

    One last one idea is a customizable / user controlled DSP module.

    Good luck and 73.


  5. I’d like to see a digital radio (in the 1985 sense–before SDR) version of the Bitx40. I guess that would be a Soft Rock but without the need for an external computer. Maybe with a processor like ARM Cortex M4F (with HW floating point acceleration). And Arduino IDE.
    I don’t know but you should just plug a mic into the radio and get on the air on 40 meters. For $99. Assembled. In my dreams at least.

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