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Mitch Altman on Living From your Passion

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.

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Mitch Altman. Photo: Markus ›fin‹ Hametner CC By 2.0

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.

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Inside TV B-Gone

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.

Media are more important than advertising. More than advertising, getting articles in the press can drive a tremendous amount of result. First people to hear about the TV B-Gone were Mitch’s closest network: friends from Noisebridge, friends from the non-profit he was part of. A friend of him from a bike safety awareness coop he was involved with knew a young journalism student who was looking for an interesting project to write about. He put him and Mitch in touch and the journalist wrote an awesome piece about the TV B-Gone after touring San Francisco and turning off TVs all around town.

The journalist proposed his paper to multiple magazines… and got picked by Wired! Mitch knew he only had a few days before Wired came out. He actually knew the exact date and time. He worked day and night to get the website ready for potential buyers. He was ready by 5am, and the TV B-Gone frenzy started! From the 500,000 devices he sold since he started the project, almost half of it happened the first year.

The Wired article kickstarted the interest for his device, that then got featured in hundreds of articles all over the world. Giant word of mouth.

Don’t underestimate your costs. Mitch didn’t make a penny on the first 20,000 TV B-Gone he sold ! The reason is that he didn’t get the price right. For his first batch, cost of production was about $3, shipping about .30 cts per item. Logically, he decided to put the price at $15 (more exactly $14.99) and thought it would make it affordable and give him a reasonable margin.

Nope.

Because he had so many orders coming in, he had to hire friends to help him with packaging and shipping. With all extra costs included, a $15 retail price ended up being a break-even price, but not a profitable one. He didn’t loose money, as it happens often in this kind of situation, but all this work didn’t bring him any revenues.

He recalculated and decided on a price at $19.99. This change allowed him to make enough profit and live off his revenues selling the TV B-Gone. This $19.99 price point has been the same ever since.

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Hackerspaces are a great way to develop your project and meet friends. Recent years have seen more and more great (and truly original) hardware projects coming out of hackerspaces. They are ideal for working on your project and get direct feedback and casual advice from experienced members. They are also a great way to meet friends and not be alone facing big challenges. Nothing like an interesting discussion and new points of view to put you back on track.

Mitch spends half the year traveling and supporting the opening of hackerspaces all over the world. When I talked to him this week, he was just coming back from a Hacker Trip to China (check the pics here). Along with 10 hackers actively part of Noisebridge, the team traveled in multiple cities to visit hackerspaces and manufacturers and help setup hackerspaces.

Be yourself. What I like with Mitch Altman is how he was able to create a life that he truly loves. He created a device that goes against the establishment in a fun and cheerful manner. He sells it without using any of the annoying marketing practices out there (he tried advertising but it didn’t really work). He focuses on meeting people, making friends and being opened to opportunities.

Mitch Altman is a real person. He is both strong and emotional. He lets his crazy side show off but also knows how to make things happen in the world.

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Photo: Ophelia Noor. CC BY NC-ND

It’s inspiring on many levels. Number one take away for me is to understand that good things happen when you’re not trying to fit in.  It works on an individual level but also on a business strategy level.

With the recent crowdfunding craze, hardware startups are more and more falling in the trap of sounding all the same. Fake personal stories on campaign videos, copies of copies of still another “smart” bulb or wearable. Hardware companies don’t really benefit from looking all the same.

Open hardware gives access to such a large library of projects that there is no need to follow the mainstream anymore. There is now room for hardware companies outside the box. Go for it!

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