Eben Upton, inventor of micro computer sensation Raspberry Pi, reveals how the cult British product became an international success.
The dream of leading an acclaimed international business is shared by entrepreneurs the world over. But motivations differ. Some want to be a leading CEO. Others hope to bring employment to their communities. Many just want to secure their families’ futures. Eben Upton’s dream was different. He wanted to teach a new generation how to code.
In 2005, Eben, then a 27-year-old Cambridge University director of computer science studies, noticed a drop in both the quality and quantity of incoming computer engineers.
He struck on an idea to develop a computer that would allow children to program rather than just consume content.
And seven years later the world was given a taste of Raspberry Pi — a micro computer the size of a deck of cards that by the start of December 2013 had been sold to an incredible 2.2million users.
The Pi, effectively a naked circuit board, has become a cult object for hacking enthusiasts and youngsters wanting to learn to program. But it hasn’t made Eben and the company’s three fellow founders rich. All profits go to the Raspberry Pi Charitable Foundation.
Eben, who works for US chip giant Broadcom, runs the Cambridge company in his spare time. But he believes his drive matches that of any full-time, for-profit entrepreneur.
“I would say it makes us even more ambitious,” he tells team Think Bigger. “We are motivated by the original mission of the project — to introduce children to coding.”
Eben believes strategic decision-making can also be more effective within a charity. “We can focus on long-term values and aims rather than what you do in this quarter — or when you are going to get to a personal exit, which can distort thinking.”
When morals pay
In fact Raspberry Pi’s success is largely due to the company’s status as a charity, according to Eben. He tells how in the early days he would push suppliers to drop prices for the greater good. “If we hadn’t done that, we would have struggled for pricing at the start, then we would have struggled to get volume.”
Pi’s has enjoyed an explosive international expansion. The US accounts for almost a third of sales, continental Europe the same, Britain between 10 and 20 per cent. The company is also becoming “strong” in Japan, according to Eben. He is now anxious to target children and countries in the most need of coding skills.
“We want to do better in Africa and South America. Our attention is focused on those two areas.”
But Eben is reluctant to pass on advice to other tech companies or entrepreneurs. “I feel we were lucky to be doing this in the UK, where there is this great history of hobby computing and coding.
“And I think we launched at the right time — when a lot of people started to realise we have a real problem around education.
“Pi is a category-defining product. When you do something new, you step into an unoccupied space. We just got lucky.”