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20 years since we shipped the first Pololu product

Posted by Jan on 9 April 2021

Today marks 20 years since we first shipped a Pololu product, on April 9, 2001! Join me for some reminiscing on where we were twenty years ago and for an update on how we are doing now, more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic.

I think I started Pololu in 2000. Probably in the fall, though I know for sure I was working on firmware for a servo controller (this one) over the summer of 2000. I had worked on other product ideas before that, too, but by November 2000 I had made the first board layout that had the name “Pololu” on it:

IR Beacon PCB showing “Pololu” name and copyright 2000; picture date 12 November 2000.

Here are a couple more pictures of the first prototypes, apparently taken on November 12, 2000. That “v1.2” was the version that became Pololu’s first product. I have seen the picture on that product page over the years, but I had forgotten that we still had to do microcontroller development with special windowed ceramic packages back then, with a separate UV eraser device you stuck the chip in for about ten minutes to erase it. (Production parts would then get made with microcontrollers in cheaper plastic packages that were only programmable once.)

The picture on the right shows Paul’s and my initials on the back side of that PCB design, and Paul registered the pololu.com domain on November 18, 2000. Here is a reconstruction, based on the Internet Archive, of how the Pololu web site probably looked in February 2001:

Reconstruction of how pololu.com looked in February 2001.

Candice, Paul, and I formally incorporated Pololu in early 2001, while Paul and I were still undergraduates living in dorm rooms (Candice had graduated a year earlier and was working at The MathWorks). Here are some pictures in the dorm in that time frame (how do we not have any better pictures?):

And then we get to April 9, 2001, for which we have the first recorded order. This is what pops up when we open System 2, our system for running most of the company:

All-time sales chart showing first order on 9 April 2001.

When we started making that system in 2007, we imported the old data, including the fifteen orders we processed in 2001. Order number one was actually just a free sample to Mr. Hughes, my high school science teacher; we would get our first real sale to a paying customer on May 2.

Most of our time was devoted to school, though we did keep working on products we thought we would eventually release, especially when we could incorporate it into our classwork. This first prototype of our Orangutan robot controller (flash programmable microcontroller with a serial bootloader, plus integrated motor drivers) was also part of our final project for our 6.836: Embodied Intelligence class:

Original Orangutan robot controller prototypes, 21 April 2001.

Paul and I were class of 2001, so we were close to done with our undergraduate degrees, and I was effectively a grad student that last semester of my fourth year. I skipped the graduation ceremony, but the lab I was working at was right next to the site anyway, and Paul spotted me one of his diplomas so I could feel a little more festive.

MIT class of 2001 graduation, 8 June 2001.

This was all still before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which we experienced quite intensely because of the two flights originating from Boston. Paul had moved out of Massachusetts by then, and I had moved out of the dorms to an apartment in Watertown. Paul visited Candice and me there in February 2002, where we at least remembered to take a picture of our board of directors meeting:

Pololu directors meeting in Watertown, Massachusetts, 3 February 2002.

I ended up skipping my second chance to be in the graduation ceremony and moved out of Massachusetts after wrapping up my master’s degree requirements by the end of May. You can see pictures from the next ten years of Pololu in my Ten years in Las Vegas update almost nine years ago.

Besides just focusing on Candice, Paul, and myself, I think it would be fun to look at where some of our other key people were twenty years ago, in 2001. There are fifteen of us still at Pololu who have been here at least ten years, which also means we have been working together since before we were at our current building. Unfortunately, not everyone has ready access to good pictures from 2001!

Ben had these two physical pictures that he scanned for me:

That second one is actually four years older, probably from May 1997, close to our high school graduation. I seem to be holding an RC transmitter and part of a robot arm.

Fang, meanwhile, was in college in China, and it would still be many years before she would even meet Paul:

The only available picture of Fang circa 2001.

Fang’s picture from a diploma in early 2002.

David was also there for Paul’s graduation, so that must be when I first met him.

He would still go through most of high school and four years of college before moving out to join us in 2008. If you have used any of our USB products, you have benefited from his great work.

David’s college friend RyanTM also moved here from Illinois to join us later that year. These pictures from late 2000 were the closest he could find to 20 years ago:

Ryan gradually became involved in almost all aspects of Pololu, including our facilities and production; since the pandemic started, he has been working mostly remotely and has been able to focus more on our IT needs.

David’s and RyanTM’s college friend Kevin worked at Intel for two years before coming out to join us in 2010.

Kevin and RyanTM were in the same grade at the same high school, but they wouldn’t meet until their sophomore year in the fall of 2001.

Linnea has been with Pololu the longest out of people who were not my friends from school. She also finished college in 2001, at the University of Wisconsin, and moved to Las Vegas that year. She would join us six years later after responding to an ad for an office assistant/shipping clerk.

We had already filled the position she applied for, but we hired her as a laser cutting quoter; she then moved through various roles at Pololu and has now been our HR manager for many years.

Arthur, our operations manager, has also been with us since 2007. Here is his school picture from 20 years ago, when he was a seventh grader in California!

He recalls, “I moved to Vegas without any reason or real plan other than to get away, and when I got here I was totally NOT looking for a job right away. I really only applied here because ‘laser operator’ sounded so cool.”

You might recognize Emily from our videos; she has also had many roles in Pololu, from pick and place machine operator to product designer. She grew up in Vegas and was starting high school in 2000/2001. Here is one of her videos!

That last picture on the right is at the same climbing gym where Ben, Candice, Fang, Paul, and I eventually met her in 2008 when she was finishing up her physics degree at UNLV; she joined us in 2009.

Jennifer joined us in 2008 and effectively was the shipping department. She became the shipping manager as we grew, but she also became more and more involved in the non-technical customer service side. She has been dominating our Halloween costume contests for years, so it’s fitting that the only pictures she could find from 2001 were from Halloween.

Jennifer, Halloween 2001.

Jennifer, Halloween 2018.

We were already moving toward her working exclusively in customer service, and once the pandemic hit, that accelerated the transition; she has been working mostly remotely for the past year, with occasional visits in person just to make sure she can still help out in shipping if we need it.

RyanB is our current shipping manager, and he has been with us since early 2010. Here he is back in Minnesota in the summer of 2001:

You might recognize him on the forklift from some of my new equipment arrival posts like this one.

Damian is the youngest among those who have been at Pololu over ten years; here he is back in late 2001, “probably in fourth grade”:

He joined us in 2010 a year after finishing high school and is now in charge of our electronics production equipment and processes.

Rocky is the fifteenth person who has been with us since 2010 or earlier, and he started on the same day as Damian.

Rocky’s “picture from 2001 I hope”.

Rocky was working on his mechanical engineering degree at UNLV for his first many years at Pololu, and there were stretches where he was here part time, but he’s been here full time since he graduated in 2018, working on things like quality control and characterization of our gearmotors.

Pololu Valley – As I was looking through old pictures, I was hoping to find one of Candice and me at Pololu Valley in Hawaii. We were there in 2001, and it turns out that’s the last time Candice was in Hawaii (and I only went back once after that, due to a family emergency in 2008). Apparently I took all the pictures and selfies were not so much a thing yet.

The extra data in the picture files indicates this was the day after Christmas in 2001. I don’t remember if we were already thinking of moving to Las Vegas at that point, but I am sure I was not thinking that would be the last time we were there for the next twenty years; otherwise, I definitely would have taken better pictures!

Pandemic recovery

We hit this twenty-year milestone soon after we passed the one-year anniversary of Nevada businesses getting shut down in response to the coronavirus, which happened on March 18. That makes reflecting on the past 20 years especially strange, with the world as it was just thirteen months ago seeming so foreign now. Life has its ups and downs, and we are not where I perhaps naively dreamed we would be by now, but I am also extremely grateful that we are still functioning at all. When I wrote that first blog post the weekend after the shutdowns started, I really thought we might not make it. I was telling everyone, even these long-term employees I just wrote about above, to go file for unemployment insurance because we wouldn’t be able to pay them.

It took me about five years to get over Dez dying, in the sense that it wasn’t on my mind all the time and that I could feel joyful and think about celebrating successes without flinching at the thought of some disaster blindsiding me. This feeling last March was not as bad, but it still really sucked. I mention these things because I do not want to seem indifferent to the pain and suffering for the millions around the world for whom this pandemic has been that life-shattering event. I also want to write down, before I forget it, how awful and terrifying my situation felt in March 2020, and to help convey the depth of the gratitude I feel toward those who helped Pololu make it this far.

I was already cautiously optimistic in my last update from late February, and since then there has been a very unexpectedly positive development: we started getting vaccinated at the beginning of March! Literally the day after I wrote in my internal company blog that it might still be a few months before we get our vaccines, Nevada opened up eligibility to manufacturing and other sectors applicable to Pololu. On March 3, I got my first shot!

Jan and Paul got their first COVID vaccines on 3 March 2021 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

And, two weeks ago, I got my second one! We have also been informally tracking how many of us have gotten the vaccines, and watching these counts go up has been a huge morale boost.

The chart is a lower bound since it only includes people who have shared more specific details for the purposes of generating the chart; I think the actual count of people who have gotten at least one shot is already past 40. There are just over fifty of us now, so that’s around 80%! And over half of us already have the second shot or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

With the vaccination numbers similarly going up around the country and around the world, and with growing evidence that they work, it’s easy to be optimistic that the worst really is behind us this time. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we have a great team to do it. Thank you so very much to all the customers, suppliers, collaborators, and Pololu employees, past and present, who have kept us in business for 20 years, including this last very difficult year.

And thank you Ben, Fang, Paul, and Candice for doing this with me. I’ve gotten to work with my best friends for two decades, and practically speaking, for my whole life. Thank you for making it awesome!

11 comments

Thanks for the interesting retrospective!
Hello!

A very brief and unique sentence: Happy Anniversary!

JMD.
Warmest congratulations to the whole Pololu team + family; it's been an incredible journey, and I'm optimistic the best days remain ahead!
Hello Everyone...

It's been fun reading through this history, especially since I knew nothing about any of you before this moment. Congratulations on your 20th anniversary. The blood, sweat and tears that have gotten you this far are quite evident. Best wishes for another 20 years and more.

Thank you for making fine products. I'm using a collection of your motor drivers and step down voltage regulators in my effort to convert my collection of O scale model trains to radio control (Adafruit M0 Feathers with RFM69 packet radios), battery power (Pololu components mentioned). All items --in particular Pololu's-- are working flawlessly and as expected, which is why I keep coming back, and telling others about your products (e.g. https://ogrforum.ogaugerr.com/topic/diy-very-affordable-radio-controlled-engine-control).

Best,
Paul
Congratulations, Happy 20th. Fine products and inspirational story.
Hey wonderful People at Pololu

What a trip down memory lane. Thanks for sharing

Happy 20th Birthday !

From all the people at Micro Robotics, South Africa
What a cool story and so awesome that you've survived Covid 19, not only as a company but people as well. I had no idea that you were struggling so much because of the pandemic, but am so glad you did. I ordered a few small things during the pandemic and you still shipped quickly! Best wishes for continued success in the future!
I truly enjoyed reading through your history especially having had opportunity to tour your facilities some time back. I really appreciate your company and what you guys do. You by far have the best supporting documentation of anyone I have seen handling mircocontroller equipment and the most wonderful staff anytime I have dealt with you. We are always proud to show your products in our store.

Sincerely,

Chris
Electronic Parts Outlet - Houston
I can't believe it's been 20 years! Congratulations! I was on Candice's team at MathWorks. She was wonderful to work with. She had us all trying to ride a unicycle down the hallways at work. And I still make controllers for Zumo for examples of MATLAB to C code generation.
I'm happy you are now almost out from pandemic effects.

I really appreciate your work and the company you manage.

The story of the company you show from its beginning is very moving and interesting and your efforts are truly apprciable.

I'm sure you wil definitively get out of the pandemic effects.

Many Congratulations on your work
Happy 20th, I love using your products, especially the Mini Maestro 24 in various projects.

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