An interview with Sam Wurzel, co-founder of electronics part search engine Octopart.
I originally made a note to blog about Octopart in October of 2007 and again in April of 2008 as I used them to research part information for various client projects. The interface has evolved over the years but the site offers a very clean and information rich way to search for parts and part information, aggregating content from a number of sites into a single coherent view. The company was founded by Sam Wurzel, Andres Morey, and Harish Agarwal in 2006. All three had a common background in physics and they have brought a level of rigor along with a hacker perspective to part selection that has created a useful and innovative part selection site.
When they announced in January that DigiKey was allowing them to include their catalog in the Octopart parametric search results I realized I needed to do an interview with them. I was able to talk to Sam Wurzel, what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation with hyperlinks added for context. I have included more on the founders' backgrounds after the main interview to give readers who are interested a window into their diverse backgrounds and low key humor.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background
All of us have a background in physics, and physics is what brought us together. Andres and I became friends while studying physics in college and Harish and Andres became friends while studying physics in grad school. Our areas of research were all different; I was working on plasma physics, Andres was working on experimental cosmology and Harish was working on biophysics.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?
In 2005 I read Paul Graham's essay "How to Start a Startup" and it really changed my perspective that I could start a technology company. I was in graduate school in Boulder but it was becoming clear that the academic path was not the right one for me and I had been looking for alternatives.
Soon after that I sent Andres the link, and we started throwing around ideas for startup companies. In the spring of 2006 I got a phone call from Andres. He was having trouble finding a low temperature capacitor for his experiment and suggested that we build a database of electronic parts and make it easily searchable on the web.
Q: Are there any entrepreneurs in your family or who you interacted with when you were growing up?
Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs in their own way: one owned a pharmacy and the other owned a car dealership.
Q: So both ran businesses that had complex inventory management issues?
It's funny, I hadn't really thought about it before, but now that you ask I remember working in the parts department of my grandfather's car dealership. Maybe that gave me some insight into the problems that Octopart solves for engineers and electronics hobbyists.
Q: How did you get started?
In mid 2006, we started writing code and learning about web technologies in the little spare time we had. After working in the lab all day, we would come home and write code on a Linux server that I bought at a yard sale for $50. We would often work until 3 or 4 in the morning. By that fall we had a working prototype and applied to Y Combinator. We got some seed funding from them and incorporated the company at the end of 2006. We launched the site in March of 2007.
Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?
Today we've grown to serve over 440,000 unique visitors per month who are searching for electronic parts. We list the inventories of over 50 distributors, including some of the largest distributors in the industry.
We also have a relationship with Cadence: our aggregated part information is published in the OrCad Component information system.
Q: Octopart is a powerful search tool: what's the business model? Are you profitable?
Our business model is connecting part buyers with distributors, and the distributors pay for that traffic. We also do display advertising targeted to the electronics industry. We are profitable.
Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?
From a technical standpoint, we're very proud of the back-end system we've built to handle the incoming data feeds and the front end system to serve up fast responses to user queries. From a product standpoint, we're proud that our users find Octopart useful. Getting emails from users who love the site is great.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?
When we started Octopart, we were sure that within 6 months, we would have all the major distributors signed up and we would be overwhelmed with users. In fact everything takes longer than we expect it to. That includes building technology, building relationships and getting users. On the surface, it seems like the problems involved in part search are straigtforward: get the data, build a system to keep track of it, and build an intuitive frontend interface. But each of those problems have subproblems, and each subproblem needs to be iterated on quite a bit.
Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?
Surprisingly, the business model and the design of the site today has not changed that much since we first conceived it. The biggest difference between the original vision and where we are today is the time it took us to get here. We still focus on two critical challenges: getting good data from many sources and correlating it into an integrated view of a part, and offering our users an intuitive and powerful interface for finding the parts that they are looking for. Both are hard problems and although we have made a lot of progress I wouldn't consider either of them to be fully solved.
Q: You must be doing something right if almost half a million people visit every month looking for part information. Thanks for your time
I have included biographical information supplied by Octopart on the founders as I found it very interesting reading.
Sam graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors degree in physics and engineering. He went to graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder where left the PhD program with a Masters degree to work on Octopart.
Sam likes to build things. While a student, he spent alternate summers working in experimental physics labs as research assistant and in bicycle shops as a mechanic. In grad school at CU Boulder Sam joined a newly formed lab testing the design of a fusion plasma confinement scheme which one day might be useful in a commercial fusion reactor. Although Sam liked the lab work, he realized academia was not a good fit for him. So, he started working on Octopart, and eventually left his PhD program to move to Berkeley to pursue Octopart full time.
At Octopart Sam manages relationships with distributors, writes code to handle their data feeds, and works on techniques to normalize the data arriving from many different sources.
When Sam is not working on Octopart, he enjoys running and reading while on public transportation.
Andres received his Bachelors degree in physics from Brown University in Providence, RI and attended UC Berkeley for graduate school, leaving the PhD program with a Masters degree in physics to work on Octopart. As a grad student, Andres worked on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory – an experiment that uses neutrino interactions in the ice at the South Pole to map cosmic neutrino sources.
While working on various hardware projects for his experiment, Andres spent a lot of time searching for electronic components. Frustrated with the online search options, he called up his friend and fellow grad student, Sam Wurzel, and suggested that they build an electronic parts search engine. After spending several months working on a prototype they decided to leave grad school to work on the project fulltime and in November 2006 they incorporated as Octopart, Inc.
Since leaving grad school, Andres has been working on Octopart fulltime. Andres is responsible for most of Octopart’s consumer-facing features including client-side code and all graphical and UI elements. In the course of working on Octopart Andres discovered that he loves working at a tech startup because it is a platform for solving a series of never ending problems from managing human relationships to squashing obscure Internet Explorer bugs. Andres discovered that he loves coding because of the feeling he gets when he finds an elegant solution to a coding puzzle.
Currently, Andres spends his free time thinking about Octopart.
Harish received his undergrad degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Engineering Physics and a Masters degree from Cambridge University in Semiconductor Physics. Harish left his physics PhD program at U.C. Berkeley with a Masters degree to join Octopart.
Harish enjoys understanding systems and developing projects that work on top of them. As a graduate student in Jan Liphardt's biophysics lab at U.C. Berkeley, Harish was tasked with studying nuclear transport in eukaryotic cells. Having come from a physics undergraduate education, this involved hitting the books and pestering kind colleagues for advice and gems of wisdom. This crash course preceded many long days at the bench developing biological protocols and a microscopy system to track nanometer scale cargo transit through the nuclear pore on millisecond timescales.
Harish left academia in the spring of 2007 to join two friends in developing Octopart, a search engine for electronic parts. Having come from a biophysics lab to work on an already launched website without knowing exactly what MySQL stood for, this involved a lot of intense on the job learning. In the past three years, Harish has had the opportunity to work on many nooks and crannies of Octopart, from developing front end user features, to hacking search capabilities into open source search engines.
Sean Murphy is CEO of SKMurphy, Inc, a consulting firm that offers customer development services for entrepreneurs with a focus on early customers and early revenue.