Why we Wrote the AirGradient Manifesto

by Achim Haug

In case you haven’t read our Manifesto yet, please do so to better understand our thoughts below.

From the start AirGradient was different. We started as a volunteer project helping a school in Northern Thailand dealing with the massive health impact of the so-called “burning season”. We didn’t have time to write a business plan. Instead, we build air quality monitors and air purifiers with students.

Seeing the positive impact we can have, we decided to found AirGradient and go on a mission to bring affordable, open and accurate air quality monitoring to communities all around the world. You can read more about our origins here.

So from the start for us founders, it was the opposite of what Milton Friedman stated:“The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits” but to build a sustainable business that is good for the people and the planet.

The first few years of a startup are often about target market, defining and developing your products and services and is often characterized by experimentation. It is kind of try and error and see what works, what sticks and hopefully finding out what makes your startup successful. Often during that time, you closely watch your competitors and look at what makes them successful and use their success as a guiding path -obviously with setting your own accents.

We did the same.

We started developing our commercial (closed-source) indoor monitor (with pretty much the same features like everybody else), defining our target market (which was pretty much the same like everybody else), making our website and brochures (that looked pretty much like everybody else). In the end you could pretty much take our competitors monitor, website or brochures and just swap the logo, company and product name, and you would have an AirGradient monitor.

We actually did not really realize that we step by step moved away from our origins: Helping a school in Northern Thailand managing air quality and creating awareness among the community.

But something did not feel right.

We felt so much more happy helping an NGO with our simple open-source air quality kit than preparing a proposal for a building management company for thousands of dollars. At this time, we started to give away PCBs for free on Hacker News and got a really great response. So we decided to put up that open-source kit for sale on our website -just as a side project.

Then the community for this very simple open-hardware monitor just grew and grew and at the same time we started getting more exposure to citizen science projects and schools through the SAMHE project where we deliver 2000 air quality monitors to UK schools. What was interesting is that we put much more resources into the closed source monitor than our open-source one but the open-source one just showed a much stronger demand and growth.

At some point we just couldn’t ignore this anymore and started to do research on open-hardware companies like Arduino or Adafruit. Seeing that an open-hardware business model can actually be successful and also recognising that this is actually what we as founders really want to do, we decided to go fully open-hardware.

So in Summer 2022, we decided to go fully open-hardware and as a first step designed our new outdoor monitor Open Air as an open-hardware monitor. In parallel, we added a Pro indoor kit using the same enclosure like our old monitor also as an open-hardware monitor. Thereby transferring a lot of technical things we learned from our closed-source monitor to the open-source one and thereby de-facto making our ’trade-secrets’ open.

However, the closed-source indoor monitor was still running in parallel to the new Pro indoor kit because it had some additional features like a RGB Led bar and a better MCU. But we also recognized that it does not make sense to keep two different indoor monitors in parallel and thus designed a new version that merged both of these versions into a new indoor monitor that has all features of the old monitor but is also open-hardware. At the time of writing this, first prototypes of this new monitor have been produced and it will be released soon.

Now, I wrote a lot but did not really get to the actual topic of this article, why we wrote the AirGradient Manifesto.

As you can see from above, AirGradient was from the start not a typical company but really more focused on creating an impact rather than maximizing profits. A lot of the decisions we took were people and planet focused and it was great to see what tremendous support we are getting from the community -especially after we decided to go fully open-hardware and actively supporting environmental justice organizations.

Now that the team running AirGradient is growing as well as our community, we feel it is the right time to make our core beliefs more explicit. Instead of creating a sustainable statement that many companies do (often more as an add-on with various degrees of greenwashing), we felt that the state of our Planet deserved a much stronger message and have therefore decided to write it as a Manifesto.

A few things were thereby especially important for us to point out:

  • It was not only about the end result (the actual Manifesto) but also about the process. It helped us be very clear what we want to be (and what not to be). It also helped to discuss and communicate it within the company and rally everybody behind our cause.

  • We wanted to intentionally put the yardstick very high. We see it as a betrayal against all that support us if we break this Manifesto. The Manifesto can be seen like a Super CEO with a veto right.

  • We want to become a leader in our industry on these issues and show other companies that caring for people and the planet above profit can be successful.

I do hope the above explains the reasoning behind the creation of the AirGradient Manifesto and if you have any feedback or any comment, please reach out to us.

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