Riding the Saleae Roller Coaster 2.0
First Things First
A huge and heartfelt thank you to all of our customers who stepped in, believed in us, and pre-ordered their new Logics. We are truly grateful and humbled by your trust and support. Thank you!
I really think you’re going to love the new products when you get them.
We just finished our 30-day pre-order with 528 backers and $222,717 raised, which is fantastic. The majority of our customers are businesses who have little incentive to participate in a consumer-style pre-order, so we are quite happy with the results and really look forward to shipping these things as soon as humanly possible.
We started to seriously consider a pre-order when our good friend Colin did one with the Light Blue Bean here: https://launch.punchthrough.com. I was intrigued by how they did it outside of Kickstarter, and with a simple one-step pre-order form that didn’t even collect the shipping address — kind of a radical notion. Certainly this whole Kickstarter phenomenon has not been without its share of fraud and controversy, but we felt that we had a pretty good reputation and that people would probably not think it was all that strange, all things considered.
Kickstarter itself wasn’t a great option for us because they keep the money for at least for 30, if not 60 days (I forget at the moment), which is kind of a nasty cash flow gap for a company with real operating expenses. The first rule of sales is “sell what you have” and we would already be breaking that rule and cannibalizing sales of our existing products, so a large cash flow gap would have hurt to the point of it not being viable.
We launched the new website and the pre-order all at the same time, Sunday (April 6) night at 10 pm. The entire team was on site for the festivities. It was mainly a chance for everyone to watch as Mark and Chris freaked out as various things exploded, failed to work and what have you. I was busy putting together the email to go out to our existing customers that night and the next morning. It wasn’t long before each member of the software team — Chris, Aparna and Charles — had each written some sort of “launch tracker” software that played various songs and/or videos each time we had a sale. Here’s what we’ve been hearing blaring out of Chris’s computer for the last month:
The New Website
The new website was a long time in the making. Chris has been our official web developer as of late and that’s going awesomely, he is super up to speed on that stuff. Mark put in a lot of foundation much earlier but it was all behind the scenes. Now we’re running a truly modern site and we finally feel like we can make lots of front-end changes easily. (Perhaps I feel like making changes “is easy” because Chris will be the one doing it, haha)
We use ASP.NET MVC as the primary server-side technology. It’s hosted on AppHarbor, which is a service on top of Amazon EC2. Mark had a fun time optimizing the site before we launched, using New Relic and various load testing services that are now common and very good. On launch night we had a chance to actually load test the site in the real world for the launch which was fun for everyone. There’s still a ton of stuff we can do to make the site scale-able, but it’s fairly trimmed up. All static content is being hosted by the Amazon CloudFront CDN which helps a lot. Further optimizations were made by caching server-side generated content that rarely changed — in our case, content was generated with the Razor syntax. Very interesting and fun problems — one I kind of which we had the web traffic to push the limits on. The next step would be modifying the site so that it could be run in parallel, which apparently it’s pretty close to being able to do right now. It would take maybe a day to fully implement that, then we could spin up as many instances as needed. Right now we can’t scale past a single instance, so you can put it on a faster machine but you hit a hard limit pretty quickly.
*New Support System, Feature Voting System, and Review System *
We have integrated a full-featured ticket system that’s the best we could find and have fully switched to it. It’s been working really well so far! It is much more scale-able than what we were doing before. Now we can add articles that address common concerns and reduce both the sheer hours that support requires and at the same time as getting people to the information they need faster.
We’ve also added a new features voting platform which has been really popular: http://ideas.saleae.com. A lot of customers have great ideas for where the product and software could go, and now they have an outlet for all that creativity — and the outlet is public facing and helps us prioritize what we need to be working on next. As a side benefit I think it helps to show that we can’t do everything: we have to prioritize.
Chris built a full-featured review platform so people can leave reviewed for the products. We haven’t turned it on yet because we haven’t started to ship the new products yet. But once that’s working it will be very helpful for people I think.
For all the improvement the site has seen, it still badly needs help. It was really interesting seeing how people actually responded to the site, especially on forums where people sometimes speak their minds with a little less than the typical level of reserve — but once you get over the fact that your life’s work is being insulted, you can really get to the root cause why someone is saying something and realize that it’s a problem with how we’ve presented some information. The site is full of opportunities to fix things like this. Unfortunately I’m a little bogged down with making sure we ship on time, or as close to on time as humanly possible, but I look forward to really improving the site shortly. We’ll be doing lots of tests and experiments and I’m really excited to be able to work on that more soon.
Customer Survey : what we learned
About a month before we launched the pre-order I sent out a survey to all of our customers (that we have emails for!). The response was awesome and extremely interesting. A staggering 2,276 responded to the survey! Thank you so much, the data is super helpful.
Our customers are roughly 55% professional engineers, 35% hobbyists, and 10% students. Other than Saleae, people’s favorite test equipment brand was Tektronix (29%), followed by Fluke (20%), followed by Agilent (18%), followed by Rigol (11%). Ease of use ranked #1 for most desired attribute. We asked about oscilloscopes: 200MHz would meet the needs of about 60% of our customers. Only about 6% of our customers are looking for something faster than 1GHz. Overall people rated Logic 4.58/5 stars, and people most wanted to see specific features added to keep or improve their rating. 50% of people said our prices are “just right”, and 43% say they are “a little high.” Approximately 9% of people would be “very interested” in a referral program. When responding to the statement “We have been slow releasing new software features recently” 11% of people responded “I agree and this bothers me a lot” and 41% of people responded that “I didn’t notice / it doesn’t bother me.” 40% are bothered “a little.” I asked that because I had been fretting a lot about that and wanted to see how many people it was bothering.
856 people took the time to write us in response to “Anything else you’d like to tell us about.” Many of these were just over-the-top nice and supportive and encouraging, it was really a boost to read these. Tons of great ideas in there too.
Since we’re just about to release some amazing software features, I feel pretty good about how things are going with regards to this survey. I think that overall people really like our stuff, but want to see some more features – and that I’m happy to say that we have basically 2.5 people who are writing software full time for exactly that reason.
The New Software
The new software has been under development for quite some time. The biggest obvious change is that it has been re-skinned with new art. On the back end, a lot of stuff has been cleaned up to make adding more interactive features easier and more maintainable. A lot of work has gone into analog support. For example, how do you display 8GB of analog data on the screen at once, at 60 fps? Good question. And what if you want to show beautiful full-color histograms of that data too? Well that last part isn’t going to see launch, but it’s certainly our longer term goal. And there’s a lot of DSP math going on for down-sampling and up-sampling the data for various reasons, which all has to be super fast.
As the website indicates, we’ve added or shortly will be adding protocol search, protocol list view, trigger-on-protocol, measurement annotations, unlimited timing markers, bookmarks, text annotations, new triggers and upload to the cloud. After launch the first order of business is “real time view.”
The Software & Web Team
We have Aparna and Charles working full time on the software, and Mark is at least 50% dedicated to it, and Chris maybe 10%. Chris is on the website maybe 90% right now. Mark manages the team, and is in charge of software architecture, all HDL and most firmware, and customer support. These guys do scrum every day and are doing awesome.
The Assembly & Manufacturing Team
Jimmy, James and Colt are doing a great job with manufacturing. James is doing a lot of CAD and quoting in preparation for launch and Jimmy is keeping tabs on inventory, purchasing and shipping. The guys created and use a Kanban board to manage all assembly tasks, which is awesome. Colt has logged tens of thousands of crimps on the crimping machine. Those guys are crushing it back there. It also happens to be the cleanest and most organized part of the office.
Allison was hired as an office manager, but is closer to a chief operating officer these days. I recently put together a list of what she is personally responsible for. Here goes: Invoices, Quotes, Bookkeeping, Budget, Fulfillment, Taxes, Sales Tax, VAT, Payroll, Health Insurance, HSA, PTO, Calendar, Orders, Shipping, Packaging, Inventory, Purchasing, Accounting, Distributors, Distribution Strategy, HR, Paychecks, Time-sheets, W2s, 1099s, Trademarks, Company Trips, Supplies and Snacks, Wire Transfers, Loan Draw-downs, Financial Reports, Office Organization, Curating Agencies/Vendors, and Happy Customers.
How am I doing, you may ask. Well it depends on the day, and the time of day, and whether things are currently looking up, or looking down, and all that. But honestly not too bad as a general rule. I’ve been biking once a day for the past month and that’s been really beneficial I think. I’m currently in charge of our four new products working like a champ and shipping on time. A lot of that is under control. There’s still some risks that should be worked out in a few weeks. Three out of four boards are in some state of going to fab, and the fourth should be getting released early next week. We’re seven weeks out from the promised ship date.
So we’ve had a few Nerf guns floating around the office for months, but a few weeks ago I make an Amazon order to assure that everyone in the office has at least one gun. That escalated quickly. Everyone wanted more firepower. So now many of u,s including myself, are armed with the ultimate in Nerf tech. And actually Nerf makes some really impressive stuff I have to say — this is is good quality and impressively engineered.
We’re going to Maker Faire! We’ll be at booth 302. Come by and say hi! If we owe you a pre-order t-shirt you can pick it up there — or if you want to pre-order on the spot you can also get a shirt. Anyway, it would be great to meet you and show what we’ve been working on so hard. San Mateo Event Center May 16th and 17th. http://makerfaire.com/
New Product PCBs
The PCBs for the new products are by far the most advanced we’ve created. Logic and Logic16 used 4 layer boards, and at the time we thought that was a pretty cool step up from 2-layer boards. 4-layer boards are great! They’re amazingly cheap and super versatile. With Logic 8 and Logic Pro 8 however, we took about x3 as many parts as are on Logic16, and made it fit in a case not much bigger than original Logic case. For the first time we found ourselves picking out the smallest possible parts, including 0201 passives. Yes, they can be solder-pasted and re-worked by hand – but I don’t recommend it. 0402 is a joy to work with in comparison. Some of these new 4, 5, and 6 ball BGA parts are absurdly small. Still, as long as you don’t need to rework them you have a decent shot at doing them by hand. With a stencil, paste and oven I mean. That said, if you can afford it, have someone else do it. You can “build” circuits out of 0402 for rework. With 0201 you’re re-spinning the board.
Why are we obsessed with packing so much awesomeness into a tiny package? Because it’s so cool! We moved to two sided boards, which generally I like to avoid. This has one glaring disadvantage that I didn’t fully appreciate until a ways into the project: When both sides of the PCB are densely packed with parts – it’s tough finding places were vias can fit. Especially as the layer count starts going up. In our experience you have to go to blind vias right away. That’s where the via doesn’t go all the way though the board, it just goes through some of the layers. For example, on Logic 8 we have blind vias from L1-L4 and from L5-L8. It has the normal“through all” vias too of course. Anyway when you do this you’re basically creating two boards in one, and one board only communicates with the other board through the full length vias. This is kind of cool if you happen to want to isolate the back of the board from the front of the board, which as it would turn out, we do. We have all the analog stuff on the back of the board, and all the digital stuff on the top of the board. And they are fairly isolated – with their own power and ground planes for example. But it gets pretty nasty of you need to route high speed from one side of the board to the other. The moral of the story is that blind vias are cool, but try to stick to single sided if you can afford to, it makes everything easier (and cheaper!).
By the way, you can get cheap and fast 6-layer boards no problem. At the moment, you CANNOT get cheap OR fast 8-layer prototype boards, especially with blind vias. Going to 8 layer means you’ll be spending much, much more on prototypes. Probably the cheapest I’ve seen is maybe $1000 for a straight-forward 8–layer board. Logic Pro 8 costs a tad over $3000 and 12 days just for the PCB. Ouch, that stings! It is a complicated board to make I’ll admit. And a lot of back and forth over the stackup and impedances and that sort of thing seems to be the norm.
We use Altium, which I personally think is the way to go. Could it be way better? Yes. But it’s not too bad or too expensive for us, although it is too expensive for hobbyists. They need to have some sort of non-commercial option I think. I’ll tell you want they need: they need to have a monthly subscription. Hell, a weekly subscription. That would make it a lot easier to get started with. Adobe is having great results with that with their Creative Suite and I am THRILLED to pay like $19/seat/month for Photoshop. Makes it a no-brainer. I really wish we could sell logic analyzers on a monthly subscription; I’ve actually thought about it but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Also we need a weekly or monthly subscription to HyperLynx and/or Agilent ADS. Although that could be like making a house payment.
New Product Tech
So the new products are pretty cool, a big step up from Logic16 tech. We’re doing BGAs now – which isn’t really all that impressive but it does make it considerably less desirable to assemble the board yourself. We have the Xilinx Spartan 6, the Cypress USB 2 (or 3) chip, a 50MS/s 8-channel ADC which is fully differential all around, and the analog front end circuitry that has 3 ADI op-amps in each path and a 7th order passive filter. The analog has been really tough for me. Everything else was fairly straightforward. The analog is hard to get right. I mean obviously you can get it to show a sine wave on the screen. But then you actually sample a pure sine wave, and take the FFT – after getting the frequency perfectly tuned so you get rid of the side lobes (something called synchronous sampling) and what do you know, there’s massive harmonic distortion. Or the noise floor has all these RF sources all over the place. Good times! Oh, the input capacitance of the op-amp is actually highly non-linear. Good to know! Oh, the kickback from the ADC isn’t getting filtered by the capacitor across it because it’s a common-mode disturbance not a differential one. Anyway we sure learned a lot. In the process we’ve found some great mentors too and at this point we can more or less say we know what we’re doing. My brother Mark will be knocking on wood when he reads that for sure.
I have been listing to the 500 Startups and This Week in Startups podcasts non-stop for months. Can’t get enough of that stuff. Obviously some episodes are better than others. But the great ones are truly fantastic and inspirational. Highly recommended.
The New Aluminum Cases
The new machined aluminum cases are really nice! The anodize quality is really good now, and we’ve got a beautiful new red color. The entire structure is machined aluminum now, including the bottom of the case. All the new products have RGB leds and we have a cool UI in the software to choose your favorite color. I love the logo on the top of the case; it’s made out of textured aluminum in a stamping process. The tooling for that wasn’t cheap. But they did a really nice job. We have two versions, one for the black cases and one for the red cases.
Good question. There are a few things we’re doing for sure: shipping the new products, improving the software, and improving the website/marketing. Obviously we have to ship and of course we want to make the software better. With regards to marketing I want to see how much sales we growth we can get with these new products. For every developer we would want to hire, we need to move the sales needle by a big chunk to afford that.
Beyond that, what should we do next? There’s lots of exciting options. We’re going to keep our options open for at least the next few months and do some research.
It really has been a eventful and sometimes crazy past 18 months getting ready for this launch. And we’re just around the corner from shipping and that’s super exciting. Thank you to everyone who participated in the pre-order, I can’t wait to ship you your brand new Logics!
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