We talked to Mitch Altman of Cornfield Electronics about TV-B-Gone, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mitch Altman: I’m lucky enough to truthfully say that I’m doing great! I’ve got plenty of cool things to keep me busy and focused. Working on cool projects, talking with friends, cooking and eating great food, going for long walks, giving online talks and workshops, supporting others, playing with my kitten, . . .
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Cornfield Electronics.
Mitch Altman: After 15 years of being a consultant helping small companies solve problems with their microcontroller projects, in 2003 I quit doing that to explore what would be more enjoyable and meaningful for me. As someone who tried to escape my hellish childhood by consuming myself with TV watching, I eventually quit TV, and I got rid of the things from my apartment. But when TVs started popping up everywhere in public places, I knew I needed to make a keychain that turns off TVs in restaurants, bars, airports, waiting rooms, and oddly enough, that’s what I devoted 2003 to work on. I call it TV-B-Gone universal remote control. I didn’t think I’d sell that many, but when it came time to manufacture the first batch I had just received enough money from a startup that I co-founded (3ware — we made RAID controller cards) to manufacture 20,000 TV-B-Gones. So, that’s how many I made. Wired.com found out about my project and did a nice story on it which can be found here, and within 3 weeks I had sold all 20,000. I hired all of my friends to help me, and that’s how Cornfield Electronics started.
Like everything I do, TV-B-Gone is open source. All of the plans to make them are online.
How does Cornfield Electronics innovate?
Mitch Altman: TV-B-Gone made me internet famous, and got me invited to give talks on all sorts of topics (electronics, media, entrepreneurship, education). That put me in touch with Maker Faires and hacker conferences. Oddly enough, no one was making anything at these events, so I decided to give workshops on how to solder (which I love doing!). I started making kits to make it fun to learn. If a project was fun for me, I made it into a kit for my workshops. Many became popular enough to sell on my website. My workshops became popular, and since 2007 (till the pandemic) I have been traveling the world giving talks and workshops, and teaching everyone how to solder and how to make cool things with electronics.
All of my products, starting with TV-B-Gone, are projects that I thought were way cool and meaningful (for me!). And if other people were excited about them and found them meaningful, I made enough to provide them to others.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business and how are you coping?
Mitch Altman: My business has two main parts: traveling all over the world giving talks and workshops, and online sales of electronic soldering kits. (In 2015 I transferred the TV-B-Gone keychain production and sales to my best customer, who now does all of the work, and I just collect royalties.) Obviously, travelling isn’t happening during the pandemic, so I’ve been doing all of my talks and workshops online. Although that is still enjoyable, it limits the number of people who I meet, and limits the number of workshops I give, and limits the number of people who find out about my kits. Sales of kits at workshops are way less as a result. And online kits sales have also dropped. But, I’m still doing OK enough. My latest kit, ArduTouch music synthesizer, is an inexpensive electronic musical instrument, and a few people have written really nice articles about it for a few international magazines — which has boosted sales.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Mitch Altman: I’m really lucky, as I mentioned earlier. I, of course, haven’t travelled since the pandemic started. But, other than that, I am still doing what I always do: work on projects (which I can do anywhere, including at home), and give talks and workshops (although only online, for now).
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Mitch Altman: [For giving talks and workshops, there are many tools that work. My favorite, though, is Big Blue Button. This is a free open source tool that is very much like Zoom but was created to be used by schools. There are really only two features that Zoom has that BBB does not: BBB doesn’t collect your personal data, and it doesn’t sell it.
Running my business has been remote since 2005. Everyone in my company works part-time from home (or wherever they are that has internet). So, the day-to-day running of the business hasn’t changed at all. We are all very used to communicating and doing what we do from home (or wherever we are). We use Zoho Books (an online accounting package). I use Linode for my server, which can be managed anywhere with internet. We mostly communicate over email, but if we need to alert each other of something time-critical (which happens from time to time, especially at tax time), we send a text over Signal (or SMS). And, if we want to chat with video, we use BBB.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mitch Altman: As I mentioned, everything I do is open-source, with all of the documentation for creating my projects free and open online. There are several other people/companies — we’ve all met and become friends — who also do open-source hardware for fun and education: Adafruit, Evil Mad Scientist, Seeed Studio, Olimex, DFRobot, Sparkfun (just to name a few). Each company has its specialties, but we all overlap, and we all help each other out. That makes it easier for all of us to continue to do what we all do.
Your final thoughts?
Mitch Altman: Pandemics are not the best of times for most of us. But they are a great time to start your own company. You may have more time to explore. Others may, too. Make use of your time to create projects you find meaningful. Collaborate with others. If you find a project that excites you, perhaps it is exciting and meaningful for others. If it is, then you have found a project that others will pay you for. Now you have a startup worth starting. This is what real entrepreneurship is all about!
It is sad that so many companies are going out of business. These are crazy times. But crazy times also create crazy opportunities for exploring what may work better for you and those around you. Please consider making use of your time to explore, and see what you come up with. It may be the perfect time for you to start your own small business that you can make a living from. What would your life be like if you could make a living from your own small business, working with people you like, on a project you love?
I love helping others. If you have any questions you think I can help with, please email me:
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