Interview with MAKE: The End of chumby, New Adventures

Last week, the Internet discovered the end of chumby as you have known it. My exit from the company five months ago was deliberately discreet. It was a good run, but it was also time for me to move on. Upon hearing the news, my good friend Phil Torrone reached out to do an interview, and I was happy to oblige. The interview encapsulates some of my experiences that may be applicable to others excited to get into the hardware business. Here’s some of the questions that I answer for Phil:

  • Can you talk about making a device from start to finish, from idea to factory to retail shelves?
  • What were the challenges with retail sales?
  • Did you get any patents? How do they work within the world of open-source?
  • Do you have any advice for a maker who is considering taking VC funding? Anything different if they’re doing open-source hardware?
  • What are your thoughts on Kickstarter for funding?
  • When you advise companies what do you most often suggest to the founders?
  • If you could do it over, how would you change the hardware of the Chumby? The software? The way Chumby was made?
  • Now that you’ve been part of a full cycle of a VC funded company that makes hardware, what suggestions do you have for company structure, from the people to the location, to the overall organization?
  • What’s next for bunnie, what are most excited about to do next?

    If you’re interested, have a read at the jump!

  • 19 Responses to “Interview with MAKE: The End of chumby, New Adventures”

    1. Jon Smirl says:

      What’s your take on the 40-60% markup retail wants? Does retail do enough to earn it? It’s even more than that because of late pays and returns. How do they spend that margin?

      • squalyl says:

        in marketing?
        in bare profits?

      • bunnie says:

        The 40-60% number is for boutique-style retailers, found in chain malls and airports but not big-box. These retailers don’t have the turnover and volume of the big boxes so they need a lot more margin to survive — they have higher marketing costs, need to rent premium real estate to get customer traffic, and they have a number of products that tank every year on their shelves. Furthermore, they rely heavily upon ‘standard discounts’ to grab customers, i.e., 30% store-wide sales or focused discounts on end caps to get foot traffic.

        Big-boxes are more efficient, especially the bulk warehouse style retailers. They can get to around 15% or so, iirc. Also, deals can be cut. There are loss-leaders like game consoles and TVs where margin can be in the single digits, but there has to be a strong tie-in to margin-generating items like game software and accessories.

        The percentage also varies heavily by the class of product. Accessory margin can be upwards of 90% (that $30 HDMI cable you bought is just $3). Also, the amount of margin you can offer will determine your position in the store. If you can offer a merchant more margin they will be more likely to stick you at eye level, maybe even an end cap (although often times those you have to pay dearly for, I’ve heard in some chains a powered endcap can cost you 7 figures). If you offer crap margins they’ll stick you at floor level, and nobody will ever find your product.

        • Jon Smirl says:

          We’re still grappling with channel conflict. For example I’m willing to sell an item to anyone for $60 with some discounts for volume. But then the retailer wants 40% margins and lists the price at $100. Part of signing them on is that we will set our web price at the same $100. Then they promptly turn around and discount to $80. A counter to that is to put coupons out everywhere offering 30% off from the web price. Of course that makes the retailer unhappy. There really isn’t a good solution. Chumby probably had lots of problems like this.

          I wish retailers would more readily accept reality. I can buy a paper back for $8 in Barnes and Noble and have it immediately. I can buy the same book from Amazon for $6 and have it in 10 days. I buy books in both places and don’t really see a conflict. Just admit that the extra $2 is for convenience and stop trying to hide it.

    2. Adam says:

      Fascinating interview! If you are still looking for a bio lab in Singapore to host you, please consider contacting us.

    3. yair says:

      Im in the process of contacting manufactures for a 0.99$ gadget/toy. while i know we are in a different ballpark, i feel this interview tackles most of the problems i will face,
      thank you bonnie and phil for this great interview. i’ve learned so much.

    4. Robotblog says:

      As always, a great read, thanks.

      With the death of chumby on the way, I accept that this may mean existing devices stop working. Will there be a final firmware update released to ensure the devices aren’t reliant on servers?


      • ERock says:

        Considering Sony cloned the server architecture, I’d really like to know what’s involved with that. Perhaps an effort could be coordinated to open-source the server side of things so we could all keep the lights on.

      • xaios says:

        I too would be interested in what it would take to keep my chumby working after the death of I love my little device. That is unless someone else has another viable alternative?

    5. Roger says:

      I’m just posting to encurage you to go into biology/genetics. With your alternative background I think you can really contribute to this field.

      Along with energy, I think biology/genetics are the most important areas to do research. Solve those two, and all/most other problems goes away :)

      Best wishes for the future

      • Corwin says:

        There is actually quite a bit of hardware hacking going on in genomics/proteomics these days. I almost took a job at 454 life sciences several years ago and there was quite a lot of hardware involved in getting good high resolution nanoscale images for genome sequencing / signal processing to kill noise and so on. Another area I worked on which involved quite a bit of hardware was robotically spotted arrays to asses protein concentration / expression in cells. If you are interested in biology there is actually quite a bit of novel hardware being made for various interesting and sophisticated devices. Look around and you may well find something that merges both of your interests.

    6. Klaus says:


      you are so great.
      keep on hacking.
      I already learned a lot form you.


    7. none says:

      hi bunnie,
      your directory has been deleted off the chumby servers. could you please put your web directory linked to this blog or something with all your chumby hacks ?

      also FYI offline firmware is available for ALL chumbies :

    8. bobsz says:

      August 25th marks Chumby’s 6th Birthday. I’ve put up a “Happy Birthday” topic on the Chumby forum, and I’m hoping some folks like you can stop back by and say hello, or sign the imaginary guestbook. (Fake names are ok.) Thanks, Bob

      Topic is at:

    9. Steve says:

      I miss my Chumby! It just died…must have know the company was going under and gave out. I did manage to get a snappy brown shirt with Chumby octopus on the front. RIP CHUM!