I just had a long discussion with the awesome Mitch Altman, inventor of the TV B-Gone, the open source hardware remote control that turns TVs off. He is also the co-founder of Noisebridge, first hackerspace in San Francisco (and reason why I traveled to San Francisco in 2011 and started MakingSociety).
For the last 10 years, Mitch has been able to live from the sales of the TV B-Gone. He lives simply, and spends about half the year traveling the world to help build hackerspaces and support hackers trying to live a life they really love.
Mitch inspired me to keep going with MakingSociety. I still have to make a living out of it, but at least I’m doing what I love!
I was interested to ask him how he was able to live from his invention since 2003 and what it takes to make it happen. Each story is of course different, but there is a lot to learn from his. From our discussion, here are the main ideas I got:
Your past experiences can come in handy. Mitch had more than 15 years of experience in developing micro controllers. He worked as a consultant for multiple companies, helping develop micro controllers, from prototyping to production. He already knew how to design for manufacturing and had experience first hand with the requirements to create a product that can be built. When time came to produce TV B-Gone, he contacted his professional network to get recommendations of Chinese suppliers to work with.
He ended up with a list of 5 factories to visit. He bought a flight ticket and took a tour at each of them, paying close attention to how they were treating their workers. People working in the factory are your team members. They are essential to creating your product, and as such you need to make sure to respect your collaborators.
Mitch was looking for a factory that was reliable and quality-oriented while respecting workers. His advice: pay attention to sub-conversation on face to face. Do you have a good contact with the person you will be working with? When back home, do you feel like you’ll be able to solve problems and trust each others? Meeting people in real life is a big bonus.
Success comes from passion. TV B-Gone has been an incredible over night success. Since 2003, Mitch sold half a million of TV B-Gones. He’s been able to live solely from this project for the last 10 years. It’s hard to predict what makes a success or not, but works of passion have more chance to succeed. Mitch made the TV B-Gone without thinking of selling it. He had the project in mind for 10 years and finally found the time and peace of mind to make it. As many of us, he likes to work on multiple projects. But TV B-Gone was such a passion and fun product to develop for him that he finished it.
Instead of thinking about revenues only, think about the product first. Are you excited to build? Is it something that you truly love and want to see in the world? Chances are if you’re excited about it enough to make it happen, others will.
His friends told their friends, who told their friends, and pretty quickly he had a long list of people interested in getting one. At the time, Mitch was taking a year off of consulting work to spend his time exclusively on things he loved to do.
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