Our Investment in Particle

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Photo Credit: ParticleGuy on Instructables

When Spark is exploring opportunities to partner with entrepreneurs who are building businesses focused on the enterprise market, we get excited when the product experience lights up our pattern recognition we have built up from our consumer investing experience. In consumer tech the product needs to be able to stand alone. The product must be a compelling experience, able to sell itself through dead simple onboarding and a lightning quick path to the “a-ha!” moment where the value proposition of the product clicks into place.

This is the magic of Particle. The company takes a complex problem, building and deploying IoT products in enterprise environments, and solves it with a well-polished comsumer-like product execution. Getting a quick prototype up and running with Particle is delightfully simple. They handle the messiness of hardware hacking and making devices talk over the internet by really owning every part of the problem up and down the stack. So often when building a product, it’s too easy as a designer to dismiss the rough edges where the product interacts with other layers of abstraction as “not my problem.” Particle takes the opposite approach. To smooth out the full experience of getting an IoT project live, Particle implemented well-designed, first-party defaults that just work, and built these defaults in modular, loosely coupled ways that allow you to swap in alternatives as desired. For example:

  • Particle’s Electron product comes with its own SIM card and MVNO specifically optimized for IoT use cases, such that you don’t have to worry about cellular setup messiness. But, if you prefer to use a third-party SIM and network, no problem.
  • Particle devices default to connecting to Particle’s cloud platform, so you have a well-organized soft landing place to stream data for your IoT projects from the get-go. But, if you prefer to write to your own S3 buckets, then fire away.
  • Particle forked the Atom IDE, so developers can get up-and-running with a tightly integrated dev environment right away, without worrying about the mess of provisioning a new dev environment with plug-ins (and their dependencies) in an existing IDE. But, of course Particle works just fine with whatever IDE flavor you prefer.
  • Particle provides first-party development kits and hardware modules to developers that are easily provisioned in the Particle cloud platform by default. But, developers can easily connect other popular solutions like the Raspberry Pi to the Particle cloud.

Each of these examples could have easily been dismissed by a product manager as “not my problem,” but Particle maniacal focus in stringing together these various layers of the stack seamlessly by default makes all the difference. The sum of this work is an IoT cloud platform with the “it works” feature, which is shockingly lacking from most IoT implementations. The “it works” feature might seem trivial or table stakes on the surface, yet, this has been a persistent problem in IoT for decades. In a survey by Cisco, 74% of corporate IoT initiatives fail, and most of them fail in the prototyping phase. “It works” matters.

Having a delightful, consumer-like product with an enterprise sales and business model gives Particle and unusual edge in distribution that we at Spark love to see. It means that engineers at R&D labs inside large enterprises are messing around with Particle in their spare time at home on side projects. So, when an internal corporate initiative to explore a new IoT project forms and a search begins for solutions, Particle is already top of mind for the engineers tasked with implementing these projects. Easy prototyping, at home or in the office, is a wonderfully organic source of new leads for enterprise sales, and it maps nicely on to Spark’s pattern recognition of successfully distributing inside large corporate customers bottoms-up with our investments in companies such as Slack and Trello. And, this isn’t just a handful of engineers; it’s a development community of 120,000 engineers, eagerly helping each other and sharing resources.

When describing Spark’s investment in Particle, I want to touch on Zach Supalla’s arc in building the company. Zach is a recovering McKinsey consultant with an MBA from Kellogg; a pedigree which cultivated and validates his ability for strategic thinking but is not a common background as CEO in Spark’s portfolio. His perseverance in realizing his vision for Particle led him to teach himself to code (at painful, low levels of the stack given his IoT hardware ambitions) and build his first prototype in order recruit his cofounder and CTO. Furthermore, in 2013 he and his co-founding team picked up their lives and moved to Shenzhen for the HAX incubator in order to give their company a strong headstart. The time in Shenzhen allowed Particle to build a strong local network for talent and suppliers that enabled them to succeed in offshore manufacturing where the vast majority of US-based hardware startups stumble. Zach has a remarkable blend of skills that are amplified by his grit, and I feel incredibly lucky that Spark has the opportunity to partner with him and the rest of the Particle team as they realize their vision.

If you’re interested in learning more, Zach has a great post describing what he has built and where he’s heading next.

“Seeing ourselves clearly is the project of a lifetime.” -The Nix

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