In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by Nirav Patel, CEO and Founder of Framework. This startup makes durable laptops that are 100% upgradable and repairable while remaining aesthetically on par with top-of-the-line laptops. A longer use life means lower production volumes and lower CO2 release from the manufacture and distribution of the laptops.
Nirav is a computer engineer and an innovator at heart. He has worked with leading tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook. He was the lead engineer at Oculus VR and was directly responsible for the hardware architecture of the VR headsets. Framework results from his creative passion and desire to be environmentally responsible.
- 07:15 – 08:35 – The impact of the consumer electronic industry on the environment – The consumer electronic industry is built around the philosophy of use and replace. Products are designed and manufactured to have shorter life cycles and a closed architecture that prevents repair and upgrades. As a result, the products need to be replaced every few years due to technology upgrades or because parts start wearing out. When it comes to laptops, even something simple like upgrading memory and storage is locked out. This causes an exponential rise in production volumes and higher levels of CO2 emissions from manufacturing and distribution.
- 14:43 – 15:12 – What prevents established brands from adopting sustainability? – Product design and development is about balancing an array of trade-offs like what’s mechanically possible to manage, EMI and ESD issues, and cost trade-offs. To deliver product longevity, sustainability needs to be the starting point. In contrast, for most brands in this space, sustainability is an afterthought and tagged onto the end of the development cycle. By then, most development decisions have been hard-coded; hence, the sustainability impact is minimal.
- 19:53 – 21:30 – The framework business model – The business model at Framework is counterintuitive. Since the brand philosophy pivots around the product’s longevity, the business model aims to reduce a $200 billion market to $100 billion because fewer laptops will be bought and manufactured. The model is self-sustaining and competition-proof since no established brand will take a hit on their revenue to compete with Framework.
- 29:38 – 31:15 – Turning product design and manufacturing on its head – Nirav’s brief to the company building the laptop was simple. It had to be the same size as a MacBook Pro, and every part had to be replaceable with a single screwdriver. The emphasis was on modularity and longevity. The brief cut across industrial design and firmware architecture to ensure modularity at a granular level. Nirav shares the challenges faced at the design and development stage and mentions that the simpler and more seamless a product looks, the tougher it is to design.
- 31:25 – 32:20 – Joint development manufacturing is key – Nirav teamed up with the second-largest laptop manufacturer to leverage their existing expertise in building laptops. The manufacturer and Framework’s internal design team collaborated to develop the product. Nirav mentions how a start-up with an innovative idea needs to find supply chain partners and investors who buy into the business philosophy. By committing to the idea, the manufacturer is agreeing to buy into it, knowing that they won’t make money for the first couple of years.
Dylan: Hello, and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m here with Nirav Patel, the CEO and founder of Framework. We’re going to talk about what Framework is doing to make the consumer electronics industry more sustainable. But before we get into that, I have a short and slightly embarrassing story to share. Nirav and I first recorded an interview together at the consumer electronics show CES in Vegas this past January. We did it in front of a live audience full of product design experts from Synapse and our clients and friends. It was so awesome to see how impressed everyone in the audience was by Nirav’s story. They were cheering and applauding. There were tons of questions after the interview. Nirav was even signing autographs afterwards. And the embarrassing and very sad part of the story is that we had hired a professional audio company to record the interview so we could put it up as a podcast afterwards. And somehow the audio quality turned out to be so poor that we couldn’t use it, which was just devastating. So Nirav has very generously offered to do it with me again today. I’m really thankful for that because I love what Nirav and Framework are doing. The reason we chose Nirav for a CES episode is that we can talk about how the consumer electronics industry is impacting the planet and how we can evolve it to be more sustainable. This is a really important piece of the climate change puzzle. I’ll share some stats to help quantify it. On average, a person born in 1980 will generate around 500kg electronic waste in their lifetime. Only about 17% of that e-waste is properly recycled from a greenhouse gas emission standpoint. If we just look at laptops and just manufacturing and shipping a typical laptop, which weighs one to 2 kg, that generates about 330kg of CO2 and every year we make somewhere around 300 million laptops. So that’s about 100 million tons of CO2 every year, just from manufacturing and shipping laptops, which is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of all cars in the state of California. So this is a big deal. By no means do I think we shouldn’t have consumer electronics at all. But our best lever to improve their impact on the planet is to reduce the number of them we used and make in the first place, which is where Nirav’s company, Framework, comes in. Their first product category is laptops, and they’ve designed laptops to have a longer, useful life. They’re designed to be easy for anyone at home to repair and upgrade, so the product doesn’t need to be replaced nearly as often. It’s a really impressive piece of hardware. Time magazine called it one of the best inventions of the year, and it gets rave reviews online. To introduce Nirav quickly. He has been on the inside of some of the most impactful consumer electronics companies of our time, including One Laptop Per Child, Apple, and then founded and led the hardware team at Oculus prior to the acquisition by Facebook. He’s a self described hacker and dreamer, and I’m really inspired by what he has built. He’s also the kind of guy who will re-record a podcast episode just because the host screwed up the recording the first time, which I think says a lot about his character. Nirav, it’s really an honor to be doing this with you. Thank you for joining the show again.
Nirav: Thanks Dylan.
Dylan: Appreciate it.
Nirav: I’m glad to be here. I feel like we’re old friends already at this point, but really it was a lot of fun doing the Q and A in front of a live audience. I think it was an amazing experience to have. Definitely happy to do it for a recorded audience as well.
Dylan: Awesome. It will live on in everyone’s memories. I got to say, I was a little jealous that I was not asked for my autograph after the show back in Vegas. Yeah. Was that at first?
Nirav: Yeah, that was the first request. At first I thought maybe somebody was like, suing us. I had to sign a release or something. But now it’s actually somebody who’s just excited about what we’re building.
Dylan: Yeah, no, I mean, the excitement in the room was really tangible. That’s one of the biggest bummers about losing that recording, is just to see how stoked people were about what you’ve been able to accomplish. But I’m glad we’ll get to tell the story here. So just your background a little bit. You did your undergrad at Carnegie Mellon in electrical and computer engineering. Then you spent some time working on the One Laptop Per Child project. And I just find that interesting and maybe a coincidence. You can tell me that it is another time in your career when you’ve worked on sort of this trend bucking laptop project. So I was wondering if you could share with people who aren’t familiar with what that project was all about.
Nirav: Yeah, sure. So the One Laptop Per Child project was actually really careful to emphasize not a laptop project, but an education project where the laptop was just the tool. But it was this $200 product that infamously was kind of originally pictured as being a $100 product but never going out there. That’s purpose built for being able to send into the developing world, deploy into classrooms of children who had never used a computer before and enable teachers and schools to be able to really level up their ability to provide access to tools and information that would just never otherwise have been possible. And my part of it is I joined what was called a Google Summer of Code, which actually Google is still running, but it’s a way for Google to basically fund open source and nonprofit organizations to hire college students to come in and work with them for basically a summer and create some interesting projects. And so I actually got funded by Google to go and work with one laptop or child and build software to enable the webcam that was built into this neat little laptop. And of course part of the relevancy there and kind of the thread going through to framework is just this interesting idea of resetting what a computer can do. And for one laptop or child that was really like let’s ignore the idea that computers need to be these big, serious, expensive machines that are designed for adults that can never reach a price point where you could send container loads of them into school system in a developing area and instead actually just think through them as a tool. What is this tool for? It’s for education. Let’s build it for that purpose. And that end result was really interesting. Charming little green portable machine that had little ears that flipped up for antennas. It was just a fun little computer and it kind of just brought about a level of enjoyment, basically like raw enjoyment in this experience. Not only for the children who got to use them, but also for even the people creating stuff for them.
Dylan: It had a little hand crank on it too, right? Or maybe that was an option?
Nirav: Originally. Yeah, originally it was another one of those weird like infamous things that stuck right from the beginning. $100 laptop that has a crank to power it up and it never quite reached $100 and never quite shipped with a crank.
Dylan: It never got the crank.
Nirav: It really captured people’s imagination.
Dylan: Okay, cool. So after that you worked at Apple for a few years and then you built the Oculus hardware team and the Oculus hardware through the acquisition in 2014 and then you stayed on at Facebook for another five years. So my question is whether you’ve spent some time inside these kinds of major consumer electronics companies. What did you learn from being inside those companies about the consumer electronics industry that motivated you to start framework?
Nirav: Yeah, sure. It’s kind of just like the malignant of evil where it’s like these companies are not filled with evil people who are conspiring to figure out how to make your products not last as long. It’s just like everyone’s incentives are aligned around specific things that oftentimes don’t align for what’s good for the environment or what’s good for the end customer. And in computing or really consumer electronics generally, this very core optimization is what maximizes the number of products that we’re selling, which sort of inherently goes against the idea of minimizing waste or for consumers maximizing the length of time that you can use the product. Because for that company they’re optimizing for, how can we sell as many units of this thing as we can? Not necessarily. How do we sell this thing to someone and let them use it for as long as they possibly can, which is the thing that would be aligned towards reducing waste, reducing environmental impact.
Dylan: I’m excited to talk more about how you get out of that kind of mindset. I think first I want to hit on what sort of thing from the perspective of climate change or the environment, the planet, what are the impacts of that way of thinking that the consumer electronics industry has had on the planet? And I shared some quick stats, but I’d love to hear kind of from your standpoint, what does that look like?
Nirav: Yeah, it’s really just broad inefficiency. It’s this kind of interesting thing where end to end, it’s an inefficient model to have to build products in a way that you’re not designed to last. Where if you’re, for example, building a laptop or you’re a laptop company that’s refreshing your product portfolio every year or every two years, you’re going through an entire R and D process. You’re building up all these units that are only for testing and prototyping and bringing up the production environment. You’re spinning up new tooling, you’re spinning up manufacturing lines. You’re doing this over and over again to build these effectively disposable products. And of course for consumers, you buy those products one off and you use them and you hope that they last. But then parts of it start to wear out and break and you set it in your drawer of shame of dead devices and you buy another one. And that whole process just at every point could be done better if instead we start from the assumption that this product should last as long as it possibly can. And that’s something that’s good for that consumer, good for the environment, but it’s also actually a model that can be better for the company making the product, and that you don’t have to reset that tooling and that R and D and that manufacturing environment every year, every two years, you just pick a design and keep it stable. And it works well for that consumer too, and that they buy that product knowing that this thing is going to continue to get support and continue to get repair parts and upgrade parts and customization parts, so that when you’re buying that product, you’re not just buying it once and hoping it lasts, you’re buying into the ecosystem knowing it last.
Dylan: Right. So a big part of the problem ends up being because they’re designed this way, one thing on your laptop breaks or becomes obsolete, you need to upgrade the speed or the storage capacity or something and the whole thing gets tossed and replaced with something new.
Nirav: Yeah, exactly. And the interesting thing for notebooks especially is that it comes from this place in computing which historically has been this modular and upgradable category. And even today, with desktop computers, it’s one of the few places that as a consumer you can buy a product that you actually can continue to update and improve and customize over time to suit your needs. But notebooks, over the course of a couple of decades have really gone from that place where they have been relatively open, relatively modular to this place where they’re almost as locked down, or maybe just as locked down as a cell phone is where everything is soldered down, everything’s glued together. There are no upgrade opportunities; you have to just buy a whole new one and put the old one in the drawer.
Dylan: That’s true, actually remember my first laptop? I upgraded the RAM and it was really easy. I don’t even know if I could do that easily on a MacBook today, is that?
Nirav: Definitely not on a MacBook. There’s still some brands that do have replaceable memory but that is almost the limit of its memory in some cases memory and storage. But being able to upgrade a processor, for example, which is something you can still do on a desktop, is just totally out of the realm of possibility on notebooks until we brought in the framework laptop.
Dylan: If we think about kind of the lifecycle of a laptop, there’s the manufacturing, there’s the use of the product itself, and then kind of end of life and what happens to the materials and everything when it’s done. From the perspective of the planet, where do you think the biggest kind of opportunities for improvement are in those three stages?
Nirav: It’s really thinking about how that user uses that product and like you started off with lengthening the time that they can use that product is the thing that stretches out that impact across the entire range. Whether that’s the impact of manufacturing, the impact of transportation or the impact of end of life. Making that product last longer, stretches out basically amortizes the impact of that activity over a longer number of years and as you think about it, on a longer time scale means that fewer of those things need to be made and the environmental impact is smaller. And we also just generally think about it really end to end in how we develop our products. So we develop our products to be upgradable and repairable so that users can use them for longer. But we also think through things like material selection, maximizing the use of post consumer recycled plastic or aluminum, making sure that it’s easier to disassemble at end of life so that it can be reprocessed back into raw materials that can then be recycled into other products. And also even things like making sure that some of the most environmentally impactful parts of the product, like for example, the processors where there’s just a substantial amount of energy that goes into manufacturing something like a processor can continue to be used even outside of the laptop. So when you buy your framework laptop, and a few years down the line, you decide, I need more performance, I’m going to buy a new mainboard. You can do that and swap in that mainboard. Instead, you need to buy a whole new laptop. And now your laptop has got the latest and greatest technology, but that old mainboard is still perfectly functional. And so we do things like, we’ve created a 3D printable case that you can drop that mainboard into. And now you’ve got this second little PC that maybe helped offset some other purchase that you otherwise would need to make.
Dylan: Yeah, give it to the kids or something. Yeah. That’s so awesome. What was the term you used, the banality of evil?
Nirav: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s actually an appropriate use of that. That sounds like in the moment it made sense.
Dylan: Yeah. I love it. So I’ve been thinking about that because it strikes me that I know a lot of people who work developing products at Apple and Facebook, other companies like this, and individually, I think they want to do the right thing. They would be listening to you and nodding their heads vigorously saying, this is the right way to do it. So can you help me understand? You’ve been inside some of these companies. Like, what is it exactly about taking those people who want to do good things and putting them in that setting that makes it hard to make these kinds of things happen?
Nirav: Yeah. It’s really what you’re optimizing for as a business. When you’re building any product, any product at all, consumer electronics specifically, you’re just balancing just an enormous array of trade-offs. When you’re thinking about your industrial design or supply chain constraints to what’s mechanically possible, or what’s going to have EMI or ESD issues, what is going to cost too much, what’s going to weigh too much, what’s going to have challenges around material sourcing, and the list goes on and on and on. And so if you’re going to develop products from the start to be focused on longevity, that has to come right at the start. That has to philosophically be what you’re optimizing for as a company. If you tack it on at the end of like, okay, we’ve designed this product, we’ve balanced all these needs. We’re trying to achieve a certain product strategy on our roadmap, and then at the end say, like, okay, can we do anything to make it more environmentally friendly? It’s too late. At that point, you’ve already baked in all the decisions into the product. Unless you’re starting your design process with, we are building this product to last twice as long as the last one we built, it’s not going to happen.
Dylan: Yeah. So it’s probably never this kind of blatant or direct, but I wonder if there’s ever kind of a boardroom decision where it’s like, okay, we could make this component last longer, or we could make this replaceable, but that means people are less likely to buy a new laptop. So we’re not going to do that. Do you think it ever actually comes that blatant?
Nirav: It’s hard to say. I’d say in the context of companies that I’ve been to, I’ve never seen anything blatant like that. It often is instead things like, well, our product roadmap is heading in this direction. We think it’s important to be addressing these technologies. It doesn’t really matter if the battery is replaceable, we’re just going to sell them another one that has the new thing later. And just really thinking through it from the perspective of like, we’re trying to march down the specific path. We’ve got this release train that we think heads in this direction and we just can’t prioritize these things. But then as a consumer, they buy that product, they use it for a few years. The battery life turns to crap after a few hundred cycles of using the product. And that user is looking at this and thinking like, what is this? Why is this battery glued in? This is crazy. I want to use this product, but I just can’t do it. I don’t really want to pay another $500 for another one. But you’re forced to.
Dylan: Yeah. Okay. So you at some point said the only way to do this then is to start a new company that has that mission from the get go.
Nirav: Yeah. And it was really seeing the magic in early Oculus of just how quickly we were able to iterate with a small team that was totally mission aligned around a specific purpose and actually going and getting it done. And of course, being acquired by Facebook brought about some incredible things, unlocked a lot of resources, let us hire anyone we wanted to hire, but it slowed us down immensely too. And it got us kind of bogged down into some bureaucracy of trying to think through and balance these different trade offs rather than being able to iterate quickly and solve for something important. And so with Framework, I knew I needed to get back to a small team to address this problem and to be able to address and iterate on it quickly.
Dylan: Just quickly on that point about Facebook bugging, I think last time we chatted you gave some numbers of sort of your first product iteration, pre-acquisition and post. Remind me what that looked like?
Nirav: Yeah, so we built the first Rift DK1. The Dev Kit 1 was like a six month program, which if you’re somebody who’s built hardware products before, you probably think six months.
Nirav: And even now, looking back on it, thinking back on it, it is not even clear how we were able to do that, but we actually did do. And really the actual reason is because we were focused on building a tool that served a specific interest. It wasn’t that we needed to build a polished consumer product. It was that we needed to prove it’s even possible to create VR content at all. And so the purpose of that is like, let’s create this thing that lets Developers and Tinkers start to play with this technology that’s like coming back in a way that it hasn’t been done before, and make sure that that tool is super accessible and we get it to them as quickly as we can. Because the important thing is to learn what’s possible, what’s being created in VR, what can be created, what sticks and what works and what doesn’t work, and then be able to use that information to go and iterate again quickly. We did it, and we iterated again quickly. And so the second Dev Kit was like a twelve month cycle and it was like a substantially more complex product, but we still did it in that short period of time. Then we got acquired by Facebook and of course started to build our first consumer version, the Rift, to the eventual consumer version of the Shift. And then that went from like a team of a handful of engineers building a product in twelve months to several hundred people building a product in three years, which is probably folks again, who have built consumer electronics for like sounds. Okay, yeah, that sounds familiar. But then again, in Framework, we started in January 2020, and 18 months later, in the middle of a pandemic, we shipped the Framework laptop, which is this polished, fairly complex product.
Dylan: Yeah, actually, I have to call out when you said that in front of the live audience at CES, I don’t know if people were actually like, standing up and applauding, but people were like, well, this laptop was like your first iteration was 18 months after you started the company. It was in the middle of the pandemic like that just to kind of show how unusual and impressive that is. It was pretty cool to see the crowd’s reaction to that.
Nirav: Yeah, that was fun. That was the moment when I knew, yeah, this is a crowd of engineers and products.
Dylan: Yeah. They know what you’re talking about. So the kind of core mission to make a product last longer makes sense for the environment. I think what’s really interesting is how do you make that make sense for your business? Because one way to look at that is your goal is to sell fewer products to each customer than your competitors do. How do you kind of balance those things and how do you make that into a good business?
Nirav: Right. Yeah. So I shared before that our business models that we go into 200 billion dollar categories and turn them into 100 billion dollar categories and actually make it work for us. Which is, you know, never something you’d ever like. No CEO is supposed to say we’re going to enter a category and we’re going to shrink this category. It’s going to be great. That is explicitly our business model. And really it works for us because we’re counter positioned against the incumbents in the space. It’s an incredibly mature category where these big players and their business model is that they make revenue on selling new products. And so for us to go in with zero market share to start with and say, well we’re also going to sell products but we’re going to make them last twice as long, it’s okay for us because we’re starting from zero and zero revenue initially and everything is positive from there. So we’re taking away market share and we’re turning it into market share that is monetized over this longer time period. Instead of focusing on the new product revenue and for the incumbents in the space, it’s just really hard for them to chase us down that same path because they would have to take their existing revenue, which is substantial, and look at that and say, we’re going to cut this in half. No board is going to go get, the CEO, goes to the board and say we’re going to cut the revenue in half on our five year plan. That board is going to boot that CEO out and get another one in. Right, but again, it works for us. Our business model is explicitly that we’re going to capture that market share and we’re going to treat it differently.
Dylan: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s sort of an inherent defense built into your business models. The competitors will never want to do what you’re doing.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s pretty interesting. And I guess, I mean, 1 may be validation. So you’ve raised $27 million including in total, including an 18 million Series A in 2022. So clearly some investors are kind of on board with this. Maybe, can you talk a little bit about sort of how that pitch is received and what’s motivating the investors?
Nirav: Yeah, sure. And again, going back to that turning $200 billion into $100 billion, even though it sounds crazy, that is actually the kind of thing that investors get excited by because building a startup really in any industry is about spotting major inefficiencies and building a team that can address them with a better sustainable business model. Sustainable in the economic sense, in our case, also in the environmental sense. And so for them, they see this idea of like, okay, there’s like this massive stagnant, mature industry. No one’s made a serious attempt at trying to actually go and attack it in a while. And seeing what we’re doing is something where it’s like, okay, the baselines are all there. Like the products are good, products are well reviewed, they’re well received, customers love them. But there’s this interesting business model behind them that actually is something that can disrupt this giant industry and not just in notebooks, but really across other parts of consumer electronics. That message has resonated and really appealed.
Dylan: I’m not an expert in this space, but my impression is that there are not many consumer hardware companies successfully raising money these days and especially in a space like laptops which is so kind of dominated by these big incumbent companies. Is that true?
Nirav: No, it’s true and I’d say there’s a few factors. Part of it is that a lot of times people do try to compete just on a product basis, that they’re trying to build a better product, trying to get it in front of consumers and trying to make it work as a business. Again in mature categories. It’s extremely difficult because you’re trying to compete on basically even ground against these giant incumbents that could just massively, massively outspend you and have existing traction, have existing supplier relationships, have existing brands that have credibility. And for investors to look at that and say like, well, is that startup just going to get crushed like a bug? Or back them for long enough for them to get over the hump where they can become a big player. It’s just a hard equation, especially in an environment where advertising doesn’t work as well as it did in the past, targeted advertising especially. And so for us being able to go out there and again going back to the counter position, the business model is in a place where it is hard for the incumbents to compete with us on even ground. We have this place where we’re kind of on this higher ground from the business model looking down on them, knowing that they can’t run up that hill and chase us and that helps a lot.
Dylan: You shared one thing I think we talked about this last time we talked that I think kind of exemplifies a bit of your ethos as a company and it was your approach to Black Friday and just selling in general. Can you share with me?
Nirav: Yeah, definitely. So we explicitly don’t run time-based promotions, we don’t run Black Friday promotions, we don’t run holiday sales. And we do that because we don’t want to encourage or sort of almost force people to buy products when they happen to be on sale rather than when they actually need them. Because that really just goes against the entire philosophy of being able to buy a product when you need it and use it for as long as you need to. So for us, we keep our pricing stable and when we introduce a new version of product we discount the older version or enable refurbished versions or other things to allow access at a lower price point. But we want to keep that pricing stable and predictable so you never have to sort of time your purchasing and either buy a product when you don’t need it or need a product that spot that it’s not on sale at that time and have to suffer with a broken product until the next sale comes around. It just feels like a crazy misaligned thing to do rather than just doing what we’re. Doing?
Dylan: No, I love that. Thinking about your kind of growth a little bit, I imagine, and maybe audience sequencing. I imagine your first customers are going to be people who feel comfortable buying a laptop that they know they’ll be able to kind of get under the hood and replace things and stuff. As you grow to kind of shrink that total industry at the scale we’re talking about. I mean, it’s a huge industry. How do you see your customer base evolving to include people like my parents who have never been inside a computer before or just sort of mainstream audiences? What do you think that looks like?
Nirav: Yeah, definitely. One interesting thing that we’re finding is that the smaller number of folks who don’t come from this tinker maker engineering background that are still buying a product because they heard about it from someone or they saw a YouTube Video and they’d appealed to them. We’re finding that actually, it’s really mostly a mental barrier of being able to look at a product and think of it as something that you can open up, that you can replace the part on. And we get folks writing into us all the time saying, I’ve never been inside of an electronics project or computer before. I followed your guide. I replaced or added a stick of RAM inside, and it was great, and it worked. And I learned something new, and I found out that actually, you can do this. It’s just incredible to see that. It just gives us a lot of encouragement when we look at that and know that that means that we’ve designed a product in a way that is totally accessible and approachable. Like, it’s not hard for someone to pick up a very simple tool, follow a relatively short guide, and do something to their product. And so then it’s more of just a matter of getting the awareness out there and giving people these opportunities to open something for the first time and unlock that part of their mind where they get to now start to see these types of products as being things that are mutable, that you can get into and modify.
Dylan: I have a little story about this. You know this story, but I’ll share it for everybody else. I will forever be an evangelist of how easy it is to open up framework laptop and replace parts. Because I ordered a laptop. I ordered one of your laptops back in December. I showed up at my door, and I kid you not, like, literally within 15 minutes of us pulling that box in the house, my four-year-old daughter had opened the box. And by the way, the packaging is, like, really nice and really great packaging. But she had opened the box and taken that one tool. You ship every laptop with one tool, a screwdriver. That’s the only thing you need to replace or repair your Laptop. She had taken that and with very little guidance from me, in 15 minutes, she had the thing opened up and was able to take parts out. And we were looking at and talking about what different parts of the computer do. And this is a four-year-old kid and I think she’s pretty advanced, but still a four-year-old kid had this laptop taken apart by herself in ten minutes. And I just think that really shows what an amazing job you’ve done at making this accessible and intuitive for anybody.
Nirav: Yeah, I really love that story, and I also love it because I worry about the alternative world where that type of product doesn’t exist. For a kid to be able to look at and open up and see like, oh, yeah, we should be able to think of things as products or things you can modify or things you can repair or things that can last longer. If the alternative was she had like an iPad or something like that thing is locked down and glued up and it’s just a slab. That is what it is. And for us to live in a world where that’s the norm is pretty sad, actually.
Dylan: Right. No, I love that that’s one of her first experiences with a computer is that it’s something that and seeing how all the different pieces go together and stuff. The other story I have, and this keeps happening as I tell people about framework because I keep talking about you to my friends and many of them are in the hardware development industry, veterans of hardware development. I describe it’s a laptop anybody can repair at home. All the components are socketed, which means they’re not soldered down. You can kind of plug them in, in and out. And the universal reaction is, oh, well, it must be really big and bulky. That’s cool, but it’s got to be really big and bulky and not look very good. And I guess my question to you is I feel like Apple has convinced us that the only way to make a well designed, sleek looking laptop is because your laptop looks super high, fit and finish. It’s the same size as a MacBook. How has Apple convinced us that the only way to do that is by soldering everything down to the board and using adhesive to put everything together, right?
Nirav: Yeah, it is this interesting, like, almost cargo cult mentality in consumer electronics where people see that Apple has picked a specific design philosophy, therefore we all have to pick that design philosophy because they were successful at it. And of course, most other electronics companies that are trying to follow Apple down that path from a design perspective don’t do as good of a job, but they still keep the same downsides, products being totally glued together and soldered down. And so for us, like, we knew from the outset, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to make this successful. We have to correct and even overcorrect that perception by starting with the constraint that this has to be a seamless, simple to use, clean looking product that is familiar to people. If we make it look crazy, if we make it thick, if we make the repairability and upgradability become a trade-off for things that people otherwise think about when they’re buying a product, they’re not going to buy that product. They’re going to pick the one that they’re familiar with and our experiment will fail. And so we started with it to be the same size, the same weight, the same thickness as a MacBook Pro or another premium laptop that person would buy. And then within those constraints, we’re going to make it as easy to repair and upgrade as we possibly can. And like you noted, we were able to pull that off. The product is almost exactly the same thickness as a 13 inch MacBook Pro and it’s actually a little bit lighter.
Dylan: What are some things that you had to change about the way, the kind of mentality of how a laptop is made? What are some things you’ve designed differently to achieve that?
Nirav: Yeah, sure. You know, it’s shocking, like, just how little has to change to make a product. It really goes back to the innovation that we’re doing at Framework is actually less in the product design and more in the business model. There’s no magic secret sauce technology that we’ve invented where it’s like, okay, we solved modularity. No one else could solve it. It’s actually just that we built our business to focus on modularity. Like, we want the longevity to be baked into the product. That’s the secret. And so for the product itself, it was actually just like going and working with the top manufacturing partners with Compel, which we publicly stated, they’re, I think, probably the second biggest by volume notebook maker in the world. They build products for a bunch of other notebook brands and so they’ve got tons of expertise. And so for them, when we go to them and build a product with them, it’s leveraging all of their existing expertise in notebooks. And then for us coming in with our industrial design and our electrical architecture and our firmware architecture that enables modularity at a deep level and building this great product at the end. And actually, even for Compel, the first time we went to them and I pitched them on like, okay, we’re going to build this notebook. It’s going to be the same size and weight as a MacBook Pro, but every part of it is going to be replaced with a single screwdriver. They said, no, you can’t do that. And of course, after a few months of actually testing each point of like, here’s the thing we don’t think is going to work for the manufacturing partners of other folks and just working with them and thinking through like, okay, let’s test the assumption. Let’s really actually develop through this and engineer it out. We’re able to solve each of the problems and ship the thing that we initially intended to.
Dylan: Yeah. I think despite it’s probably not the most innovative part of what you’ve done, but I think there are some very clever ways when you open this up, there are some very clever designs that you’ve executed to make this happen. The thing that stands out to me is one thing at least, is the whole display is assembled with screws rather than being glued into the lid of the laptop, which, again, is one of those things I’ve always assumed. The only reason this is all glued together is there’s just no way to do it without kind of impacting the Z height. But you pop your bezel off, it’s magnetic on the framework laptop, it exposes these screws. You can just kind of undo the screws and pop the display out.
Nirav: No, you’re right. Yeah. And I don’t want to undersell you. Right. There actually is quite a lot of clever design and engineering work that we’ve done. We’ve got, like, a really pillar industrial design and engineering team in framework. And again, as I think folks often note, the simpler and more seamless product looks, actually the more complicated it was to make it that seamless and simple. And so even the display replacement, the fun thing that we did there is, like, think through, okay, how do we make sure we don’t have to glue and display? And so we designed a system with brackets where the brackets are fastened into the top cover of the laptop. And then instead of gluing that whole stack together on top with a bezel or cover glass, we actually just designed the bezel to be magnet attached, which opened up this other interesting possibility of color customization. And so you can actually unstick the bezel, which is actually a fun thing to fidget with sometimes, and swap it for different colors if you want to personalize your laptop more deeply.
Dylan: So it sounds like this relationship with Compel is a really key part of your development strategy. I’ve been thinking about this since we first met, and working with ODMs, and I guess you would call this a JDM relationship, where it’s a joint development manufacturer. So you’re working with them to develop the product and they’re manufacturing the product. I think that’s a pretty common strategy used in hardware development. It sounds like you’ve used it to great effect. My question is what my understanding is, especially somebody like them who builds laptops and super high volumes, I would guess, how do you get somebody like that interested and motivated to work with a company like Framework when you’re just getting off the ground?
Nirav: Right. That is a real challenge. We’ve been able to do it. We have a great supply chain team as well. Part of it is just finding companies that find your strategy interesting. And that applies for any type of partnership, whether that’s a supplier or a different type of partner. It’s that when you’re a start up, you have to find people who believe in your strategy much in the way that you have to find investors who believe in your strategy, because they know that in the first year or even the first couple of years of working with you, they’re not going to make any money. They might, in fact, lose money on having worked with you. It’s going to be an opportunity cost, if nothing else.
Nirav: So they have to believe in the vision. They have to believe in the business model. They have to believe in the team. And it is something that they can help grow with. And it works. And they’ve seen it work in the past. Just about any manufacturer out there has had relationships before where even when that manufacturer themselves was smaller, they found the right customer that was getting started, and they ended up growing together in some new category. And it’s a model that tends to work. And so even with these big, mature manufacturers, they still have the mindset of, like, let’s find the next promising customer, work with who we know has this potential to grow and help them grow and be the ones to help them grow.
Dylan: So they’re bought into the vision of your model?
Nirav: Yeah, definitely.
Dylan: Similarly, I have heard that working in that model, it can be hard for somebody to build a ton of different laptops in their time. And to your point, they said, this isn’t possible. I’m curious how you help to get the engineers on the Compel team over the hump that this isn’t possible. How do you convince them to push the envelope and try things in a new way? What does that process look like?
Nirav: Yeah, really, it’s like any other type of product development. You get in front of a whiteboard engineer to engineer ID person to ID person and just work through a problem and whiteboard it and see like, okay, where is the actual constraint? Is there anything else we can do to get around that constraint? Can we make a trade off somewhere else in the system to make some other parameters work better? And you just do that in parallel across 100 different things to make a product converge.
Dylan: And during the pandemic, are you doing this over Zoom? Did you have people on site with compels or how did that work?
Nirav: Yeah, it was kind of a combination. So our lead industrial designer, Nick Chen, who’s a really great designer, is actually based in Taiwan. I’d worked with him in the past when I was at Oculus and he was actually at Lenovo. We did this co-branded VR headset across the two companies. And so actually, I think it was March or I guess it would have been February 2020. We brought him on to the team, and we were actually doing something like a workshop on site at the compound when stuff started to hit the fan. And we actually couldn’t get into Compel headquarters anymore by that point. So they booked a cafe next door where it’s like we’re secretly meeting the engineering team and then we got one of the last flights out before they closed the border.
Dylan: It’s crazy. This is a question from the Q and A after we did this in Vegas that I liked. So Google has famously tried to do this with what they called Project Ara modular smartphone. Similar idea, at least is my understanding. But for a smartphone, in your mind, what do you think that went wrong? Because that never got off the ground.
Nirav: Yeah, and it was conceptually a super interesting product. So it was the smartphone that came out of this project called Phoneblocks, and it also came out of certain internal project in Motorola ATAP, which became Google ATAP, where it’s a phone that has these basically magnetically and I think they eventually use like a memory wire based thing as well. Attachable blocks that attach to the back of the phone, change the functionality, add capabilities, add performance, and then result, again, was just this very conceptually interesting product, but it didn’t really work as a product. It goes back to your earlier point that the default assumption is modularity is going to result in being this thick, crazy, weird product. And in the case of Ara, that is actually what happened. It was this pretty thick, pretty expensive, actually quite fragile product that even though it was conceptually interesting, really didn’t stack up well to the iPhones and Galaxy and other phones of the world at the time. We’re getting to this place where they’re very sleek and minimal and pocketable and pretty robust, actually, even though they were very slim. And so for us, we looked at it and said that’s a very clear lesson in what not to do when building a modular product. When you’re building a modular product, make sure you’re satisfying the core use cases of what a product needs to be, which in the case of a phone is better be robust and reliable, it better have good power consumption, it better be thin and pocketable and so on. And for us, for a laptop, we looked at it and looked at the same things like, well, when we’re building a laptop, it has to be as easy to put into your bag and walk away with as is for a normal laptop. We can’t make modularity mean it’s thick and heavy or fragile or other things.
Dylan: Yeah, you’ve done a really good job of setting those core fundamental priorities of your product that everything else has to work around. I’m sure you’ve thought about this. Do you think it’s possible to do this with a phone?
Nirav: I think we’re seeing some interesting examples. Like even Fairphone in Europe has the smartphone that is easier to repair, it’s easier to place the battery. It’s much easier to access some of the internal components than it is for something like an iPhone or a Galaxy Phone or another high-end phone. And yet it is just a good usable smartphone and day to day use. The proof is there that it is possible to do this. And of course, we look at that category and we see interesting things that we think we could do there. We obviously are a small team. We’re not going to go and try to build a smartphone right now. It would just be a colossal program to attempt to do. But it is something that we look at in general as one of the many categories in consumer electronics that has a huge amount of waste and inefficiency baked into the normal operating mode where we see opportunities to go and address it.
Dylan: So I guess, yeah, thinking about the future of Framework, we’ve talked about some pretty big scale of number of products. Even if you shrink the industry, we’re still talking about tens of millions of products or something. Thinking long term, what’s the path for Framework having kind of a significant impact on that? How does the company have to evolve? What does that look like?
Nirav: Right. Yeah, we really think about it in terms of installed base. Installed base on any product category that we go and enter, where when we build an installed base of a few tons of thousands of customers, it’s an installed base where we as framework, have to be the ones to go and keep that ecosystem healthy and operating and moving forward. We have to build every part, every module to make sure that that customer can continue to update their product and repair and replace parts as they need to. But as we start to get into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of users all in one cross compatible ecosystem, that becomes this install base that’s large and healthy enough that third parties can actually come in and see a business case for building compatible parts for that ecosystem. And so actually, the long term vision for us is that we want to get each category we enter to an installed base that’s big enough that we as framework actually don’t even need to build new modules for that category. We would anyway because we will find good business opportunities there as well. But it’s big enough that third parties can entirely serve that installed base to have that work. It’s almost in some ways like the App Store or game console type ecosystem where when you’re starting that thing off, you better have a lot of great first party content. But by the time you’re a few years in and you have this really great healthy installed base, all these developers and publishers come in and create content to serve that installed base and the customers and the creators both end up well served in that model.
Dylan: Do you think also that your competitors or the incumbents in these spaces will see what you’re doing and start to I mean, we’ve talked about how hard it is for them to come in this direction, but do you think that will start to happen or that even like regulators will see you’re proving that it’s possible so regulation will force more of this to happen or anything like that.
Nirav: Yeah, there’s a few factors here. I do think that we’re starting to see regulations come into play around rate repair. There was a bill that was passed just at the end of last year in New York that’s going to start to enforce some aspects of making parts available and documentation available. It was watered down a bit at the end through some lobbying from the tech industry. But actually there’s still parts of it that are going to be effective. So that will start to change things a little bit in some categories. And consumer electronics, I think we’ll also see some of our competitors start to experiment not necessarily with product longevity, but with at least messaging some aspect of designing a product to be easier to repair in part because they’re forced to. So might as well turn into a marketing story if you can. And then finally, eventually as we continue to capture more market share, it will become inevitable that eventually they have to just swallow the poisoning of the bitter pill and go and change their business model. We hope to see that even though obviously it means that we would finally have direct competition. It’s something that’s better for consumers and also of course, better for the environment. So it’s something we’d love to see.
Dylan: How will you select which categories to tackle next? And I’m guessing you can’t tell me what you’re going to do next.
Nirav: Yeah, sure.
Dylan: Correct me if I’m wrong, but what do you think about in terms of selecting what’s next?
Nirav: No, that’s right. Again we look across consumer electronics. We just see almost any category has some opportunity to enable longevity or modularity or customization, but we really try to sequence it in terms of what we think is most achievable for a small team and will generate the best return on investment. So as we looked at notebooks, we saw a very obvious category where there’s a clear customer base that wants to be able to upgrade and tinker and modify their machine, people who come from the PC space. But the industry has moved away from what those customers actually wanted, and so we saw a clear opportunity to go in and just build the thing they want anyway and build it in this business model that ends up working out. And so when we look at other categories, we look for categories especially that there is just an enormous mature, in some cases stable or stagnant category, where there’s a segment of that category that is a bit of an enthusiast base or a tinkerer base, where we can start with them, where they understand immediately, even from, like, a single picture or a few lines of text about what we’re doing, what that product is, why it’s important and why they want it, and then be able to grow the install base off that kind of initial kernel.
Dylan: Makes sense. Well, I’m excited to hear what you choose next.
Dylan: Okay, last few closing questions. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of our planet and why?
Nirav: Sure, I’m an optimist by nature. You kind of have to be if you’re starting a company, maybe even especially in the hardware space. Otherwise you just wouldn’t do it. But I am optimistic, especially looking at folks in younger generations who are looking down the line at their life and seeing a planet that’s not in a great state and not heading in a great direction and actually taking action against that. It’s the action that makes me optimistic and seeing a real number of startups in different industries going and taking on the incumbents head on with models that are better for consumers and better for the environment. And I think history has shown that when you build the things that people want, you tend to be able to gain traction and market share and incumbents either evolve or they die.
Dylan: I love that. Who is one other company or person doing work in this space today that you want to call out?
Nirav: Yeah, I kind of called them out already. But I actually really do like what Fairfone is doing. Phones are an even harder category I’d say, than notebooks. And so for them to go in there and actually deliver a lot of success and start capturing market share in that really competitive market is just very impressive and they’ve done a lot. In addition to the repairability just around ethics and tech like labor standards, fair trade materials and so on.
Dylan: What advice do you have for somebody who’s in the consumer electronics business today? Maybe working at one of these incumbents that we talked about but they want to do the right thing, they want to help move the industry in the right direction. What advice do you have for them?
Nirav: My advice is to leave and start a new company. I’m not just saying this because it’s what I did, but I actually really do believe that. And I’m sure like people who are in that place right now in their lives are experiencing this day to day that it is hard to make change in big companies. It’s very rare to be able to make substantial, especially business transforming change from within a company. It’s easier to go out, prove that it’s possible to do it differently and influence bigger companies that way once they realize that they’re at risk from someone from the outside. Actually today, even though the tech industry is in a challenging spot right now, broadly it’s a better time than ever to start a company, especially going in at the early stage and using this opportunity where almost everything is in excess, especially in the hardware space. There’s manufacturing capacity and materials and components. Even to some extent, it’s easier to hire engineers because of the challenges in the tech industry. It is actually a really incredibly good time to start a company, especially in the hardware space right now.
Dylan: Thanks for saying that, because I think it probably is a little scary, but that perspective makes a lot of sense, and I appreciate that and that you’re setting a good example of that yourself. I love that. Nirav. That’s it. I really appreciate you doing this again with me. It was really fun. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing, and I’m excited to keep an eye on your progress.
Nirav: Thanks again, Dylan. It was great chatting with you.