Hardware is still hard, but it’s getting easier. After high-profile success stories like Pebble and the Oculus Rift, independent hardware is getting new attention from consumers and, more importantly, new ways to navigate the treacherous path from prototype to market. Today, the indie hardware site Grand St. is launching the latest upgrade, an open community platform that will follow projects all the way from preorder to retail launch.

An app store for hardware

Grand St. deals in small scale, independent electronics — basically anything with a circuit board that isn’t a phone or a television. Since the site launched in late 2012, it has featured everything from programmable light bulbs to more conventional goods like battery packs and speakers. Now it has launched a new project, called the Grand St. Marketplace, that wants to do for those gadgets what Apple’s App Store did for mobile software or, more modestly, what Steam did for computer games. Instead of selling preorders on Kickstarter, soliciting feedback over email and then selling the final product on a standalone site, Grand St. Marketplace lets it all happen in the same place. If it works, it will mean an easier path to market and, more importantly, a lot more cool hardware coming through the pipes.

One device raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter before deciding to move to Grand St.

As of launch, roughly 150 projects are already signed on — or even more. The team was working late to get as many through the approval process as possible. "Maybe we can blow through another 50 tonight?" CEO Amanda Peyton told me yesterday. "Say 150 to be safe." Roughly half of those are fully completed projects, with a little more than 50 in preorder and the rest in beta. They range from high-end speakers to a sketchpad that 3D prints whatever you draw. One device called Lightpack raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter before deciding to move to Grand St. when it was time to open up a store.

Breaking down the barriers between prototype and retail product

The surprising thing is how seamlessly products can move from one category to another. In Grand St.’s perfect world, a product would raise money from preorders, hone its craft by selling beta versions and soliciting feedback, and then scale up to a polished product without leaving the site. Grand St. even waives its fees on preorders when every dollar counts, figuring it will make the money back in commission on sales. It’s a start-to-finish retail ecosystem, breaking down the traditional barriers between prototype and retail product that similar projects like Kickstarter have struggled to maintain.

"You aren't launching into a void."

According to Peyton, Grand St. had been planning some kind of next-generation marketplace from the beginning, but the project only became possible recently, after the site had cleared 200,000 users. "Building marketplaces in the purest sense is hard because you have to have buyers and sellers," she says. "But building a marketplace now, with hundreds of thousands of users, is much easier because you aren’t launching into a void."

The products themselves are likely to be the same offbeat devices that Grand St. features in its emails. Breakouts like Pebble are rare. More common are niche gadgets like a sou vide circulator or programmable Christmas lights. But for Peyton, the small scale isn’t a handicap. "I am a huge believer in the long tail of hardware," she says. "It doesn’t have to be appealing to everyone to be successful."