SparkFun Free Day Fallout.

Well, I tried, and everybody I know tried. None of us made it. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think any of us are going to die. If you haven’t heard about SparkFun Electronics’ Free Day, it may be that you just don’t care. If you didn’t care, it seemed to me for a moment that you were the only one.

See, back in November SparkFun Electronics, a hobby electronics store, decided that they wanted to do something special. They decided to have a “Free Day” where they would give every customer up to $100 of product on their site. This spread like wildfire on the tubes, and when the day finally arrived there was far more traffic than Sparkfun could handle. I want to say that there was far more traffic than *anyone* could handle. The result could be categorized as a disaster. Many people could not load the page at all, many couldn’t log in, and even if they were at the logged in point, checking out was just as bad.

Lots of people are angry. They put in a lot of effort and ended up with about 2 hours of not getting free stuff. I’m not too tolerant of people who are whining because they feel entitled to the SFE free stuff. My expectation is that many people who got things will be reselling them at worst, or at best the items will end up in a drawer waiting for a project that will never happen. I’ve heard rumors and whispers (okay, comment posts) that FreeDay was going way farther than expected, ending up on frugal shopping and coupon websites. The result (I imagine) is that there were a lot of people looking to get free stuff, not understanding what SparkFun Electronics was, or what they sold. By the time they got to the site, they were just compounding the problem.

So now, on ebay there will be a few dozen more Arduinos up for sale. I think this is a good thing…”What?!?!” you say? Well, economics is an interesting thing, even on eBay. See, if you have a dozen Arduinos suddenly hit eBay, the supply has suddenly increased. Market forces work their magic and for a bit, Arduinos on eBay will be cheaper. Maybe $15 instead of $30. A quick glance at eBay shows that Arduinos are already selling cheaper there than from SparkFun, or anyone else.I think the thing that really gets me is the number of people who feel that they should have gotten something, but didn’t. I’m sure I’ve felt a sense of entitlement where it didn’t belong, but I also like to think that I’ve grown out of that. Many people have not.

Am I thrilled about Free Day? I’m thrilled about the idea. That a company would say “Hey, we’ve had a great year, let’s give back to our customers, and have some fun with it.” was brilliant. I think it’s that kind of thinking that will allow businesses to function exceptionally well in the 21st century. Do I think it went well? Obviously not for me, but I’m not relying on free items to forward my projects. When I have the funds, I’ll buy the things I need. I hope next time they’ll do it a bit differently so the traffic isn’t as bad, and I get a chance at something. It went well for a lot of people, and it generated some press for SparkFun (though it may not all be good press.)

In the end I think that maybe the lesson to be learned here is that there’s still no such thing as free. Many people ‘paid’ the price of waiting online for two or three hours only to get nothing. I don’t think SparkFun could have anticipated the traffic they’d get. Initially I didn’t even predict the kind of hailstorm that “Free” brings on the internet. I hope SparkFun finds the future to be just as bright. I don’t think this will turn out to be more negative than positive. I hope if they do anything like this again, it’ll work out to be a little smoother, offering something for everyone.

  1. I was right there with you. Even had my cart all filled up the night before (which was slow going – the site was getting hammered for *days* before the full onslaught). Wanted to get an Arduino kit and some tools (which I fully intended to use). In the end, I didn’t get some free stuff. I’m not going to whine. And it will be interesting to see what the ripple effects of this are. It certainly made a lot more people aware that SparkFun existed, and when those people need an electronic component, I bet they’re going to go back to SFE.

    I also think it would have been interesting if they had done it with little to no advance warning. I first read about it when they first announced it, and marked my calendar. This gave all the deal sites, and people who want anything, as long as it’s free, plenty of time to get ready. Maybe next time they should just spring it on us, in a venue or medium where we electronics nerds will be the first to pick up on it, and take advantage of it. An IRC channel? Encoded in a page of Make? Hmm. 🙂

    • Yeah. You, me, and probably about 5000 other people 🙂

      I’m interested to know the final impact as well. The thing that gets me about it is, SparkFun doesn’t really sell things that are of interest to the common person. Most people won’t ever need a capacitor. The positive side of people becoming aware of SFE, is that people who weren’t interested in electronics before might very well become so just out of exposure to the site. One of the big breakthroughs to my interest in hobby electronics was realizing that most companies that make devices get their components from common manufacturers. I opened up an old BlackBerry and found a the mainboard contained a dozen chips that I can easily find a datasheet for. Desolder the chip and I’ve got something to use. In this case I’ve got both a USB connector, and a USB IC that does all the work!

      Free Day initially came out to places where nerds do frequent, but with so much lead time that it ended up every where else too. I think a heavy discount on the-day-of would be the best. Either that or a unique puzzle for each purchaser. I don’t know how they’d generate them or distribute them fairly, but it would certainly weed out a lot of freeloaders. (I guess on Free day, we’re all kind of freeloaders.)

      As a side note for local people, you should check out Surplus Gizmos( . They have a lot of cool stuff on their website, but what they don’t list there is the incredible amount of cool stuff in their store. They have ancient computers, leftover electronics, abandoned models from last year and last decade. Some of it no doubt is junk, but a lot of it has a second life in hobby projects. I highly recommend them.

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