What happens when you try to make bleeping and beeping a business? Meet the Beep-It, a simple but addictive optical theremin, and a fun noisemaking impulse buy for sonic enthusiasts. Then, if you’ve ever fancied developing a new idea into a product, learn a little bit about the path of its creator. We hear a lot about technology and entrepreneurship in broad strokes, but rarely do people tell you what it means actually putting ideas to work. So, where better to start than with a simple idea and a labor of love? Michael Una, musician, sound artist, and inventor, explains.

Greetings all, this is Michael Una. I’m an occasional contributor to CDMu and I want to share a bit about a big project I’ve been working on.

This is Beep-it:

More info at thebeepit.com.

It’s an analog optical theremin. This is not a new idea, but I was driven to make my own with a focus on playability and low cost. Beep-it started as an idea a few years ago, and I’ve been working to make it bigger and better since.

A little while back we heard from Roger Linn on “How to get poor with prototyping.” Mr. Linn made many good points and offered a  realistic, if somewhat harsh picture of what it actually takes to take an idea to market. I’d like to expand on this discussion by offering my own experience with this exact process, from prototyping to overseas manufacturing.

Back in 2009, my nephew’s birthday was coming up and I needed a gift. So I looked around my studio and found that I had enough parts to make something that looked like this. It made a lot of funny beeps, so I called it “Beep-it,” after the Cornelius song of the same name. The case is a big plastic petri dish and the circuit is a 555 oscillator with photocell control.

It turned out to be the hit of the party and all the little kids wouldn’t stop beeping.  I had a stack of the clear petri dishes left, so I made another 25 and put them up for sale on Etsy in late fall of 2009. These sold for $25. I also showed them at a small art gallery here in Chicago. I sold a few, but nothing too crazy until the Christmas shopping season hit and my Etsy inventory sold out in a matter of days. I scrambled to build more and fulfilled about 40 orders before the season was finished. Small numbers, but it showed that there was a bigger demand than I was aware of.

As I built all these Beep-its, two things happened. I became much better and more efficient at building them, and as I got better I became dissatisfied with the quality. I also ran out of petri dishes, so I undertook a redesign and came up with this:

This version upped the price to $35, because I figured out that I was barely making money at $25. Now that I had a better product, I set out to try and market them and drive up sales. I did workshops, made some videos, and did my best to get noticed by prominent blogs and influential musicans. It mostly worked. One blog post on Boing Boing kept me busy for a month. There were other months where I only sold a handful. But over the next few years I sold about 250 of this version and shipped them all over the world. I bought myself some nicer tools and moved my workshop from a 2nd bedroom to a rented studio space. Things were looking up.

Now there’s an interesting problem here- the more I sold, the more time I had to spend actually building them. Which meant that I had less time to do other things, like tinkering on new designs, actually playing music, etc.  I hired some friends and family to help with soldering circuit boards and drilling the cases, but it still took up a lot of my time. So I started looking for other solutions.

I applied for and won a small business grant from Scale Well, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of larger-scale manufacturing. I got some great advice from local hero Joe Born and electronics guru Mitch Altman, and started conversations with an overseas manufacturer. After much back-and-forth and dropping some serious coin, last month my first shipment of “fancy” manufactured Beep-its arrived:

I’ve now partnered with master motion and print designer Joe Moccia, whose fine work can be seen on the product itself and in our web and video design.

So despite having actually designed a product and brought it from idea to prototype to manufactured object, I still feel like I’m just getting started. My next steps are now to talk to bigger retailers and get them to carry my product, and to start working on the next product. And hiring a lawyer to handle some business administration stuff. And setting up a more robust accounting system. And putting together a new live performance to showcase my new devices. And like 10 other things that I can’t think of right now. But let me offer a few parting tips for anyone thinking of turning their idea to reality:

  • Pick something you can accomplish. Build one, and sell it. Keep track of how long it takes you and how much you spent on parts, and how much you got for it. Then have a good think about whether it’s worth pursuing.
  • While you can hire someone to do all the work for you, don’t. It will cost you way too much, and you won’t learn any of the valuable lessons that will go into running your business later. You actually need to do everything once before you can hire someone to do it for you, otherwise how will you know if they’re doing a good or efficient job?
  • Don’t spend money you don’t have. Personally, I think taking on debt is a terrible idea. People will argue that it’s the fastest way to accomplish your goals, but you won’t spend it as wisely if it’s imaginary money. Spend it out of your own pocket and try to grow that, especially at first.
  • You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to be an information sponge. In order to be successful, you have to be learning all the time. Which includes un-learning misconceptions and bad behaviors.
  • Ask for help. People love to share information and successful people won’t mind helping someone with a good idea and good energy. People who don’t share information usually aren’t very successful anyway.
  • Stop thinking about it and do it. Until you actually do something, it’s all theory. Get your hands dirty and make mistakes, and keep notes. The time has never been better for a good idea to take off.

Readers, many of you have great ideas. How far have you taken them? And what roadblocks have you hit along the way?

More (and purchase info):

Beep-It: Portable, Open, DIY Optical Theremin

Beep-It assembly of an earlier model at Handmade Music, Brooklyn (workshop + performances with Michael Una)

  • Love the idea! Very nice video too. I like the small details like the wave form chroma keyed on his wall, the twinkle on the product in true home shopping channel style.

    It would be useful if you could control other things other than the "beep" tho. That will get tiresome after a short while i'm a afraid. Just like many of these toys I guess. But I don't have a thing for gadgets in general.

  • loopstationzebra

    At least this thing sounds better than James Blake's voice.

    That's saying something, I suppose.

  • Great post!

    Really interesting to read as I launch my DOTKLOK project (http://createdigitalmotion.com/2011/02/dotklok-an-open-source-arduino-based-clock/).

    I'm currently selling kits which isn't too labor intensive, but I do offer it assembled as well, but could see myself getting overwhelmed on that side of things, so I'd def. like to eventually offer a more mass produced version at a better price-point.

    Great to learn about some of the resources for funding like Scale Well; but how exactly does one start to the dialog w/ overseas manufacturers?


  • Great article, Michael! It highlights entrepreneurialism in general and the personal perspective really makes the whole concept a lot more accessible.

    A note on debt: I agree with you for projects on this scale: that debt acquired for a new idea= generally a bad idea. Money is a force, but it has to have a return for the entity throwing down. If you can't figure out a Profit and Loss by end of year one, you cannot expect to get people investing in you. It generally comes down to common business sense, and I think lending institutions are just beginning to remember this.

    Another thing, you had your product created offshore. To readers, please don't think that this makes it that much easier. You also have import taxes and customs to deal with. I'd recommend finding a Customs Broker. Someone awesome who has done this a million times before. Just because someone quotes a reasonable production price does not mean that that is your final cost. Remember shipping and taxes.

    Props, Michael: DIY product development is completely possible and even more accessible than ever. Play away!

  • fedor

    You can take a flashlight, or you can take a modulating lightsource, or you can take a soldering iron and build this beepit by yourself in less than 10 minutes.
    What's the point in building ordinary stuff with no features? I can't get it, realy. It would be interesting to add somthing to it – such as lightsource, which could me modulated, or you can adjust light power or fucking something else.
    Waste of money.

  • dyscode

    I bought one of these, 2nd run I think – square one. An I don´t regret it. Most People I show it to are instantly hooked and it´s most of the time an important piece in my live-gigs 😀

  • michaeluna

    @ fedor – If you'd like to build your own, the schematics can be found here: http://createdigitalmusic.com/2008/11/beep-it-por

    It's been my experience that while many people enjoy building their own instruments and can operate a soldering iron, a great many more would rather just buy the finished product, especially if it's relatively cheap.

    @ Liz makes some great points here – I totally got dinged by US Customs for making some pretty basic mistakes.

    @ Andrew- sending you a PM. I was really stuck for a while until I received a personal recommendation from Mitch Altman. There's a lot of scammers out there.

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

  • Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time

  • fedor

    @ michaeluna
    The question is not who's like diy, who's not, but in product design innovations in such trivial things, like optical theremin. Damn, building such stuff is not that kind of work, which can take time, or need special knowledge – it suitable for totally newbies. So, what's the point to do it like a serial product? 'Coz of box design? I think the only reason could be fresh idea – here's non of it. That's all.

  • Great as usual!


  • Stan9fos

    I was already lovin' that awesome necktie, then LASERS started shooting out of his frickin' EYES!

  • muhfuhckerimill

    great post.  a topic i'd like to see more of.

  • genjutsushi

    Ok… the beep-it demo is probably better than ALL of the Octatrack ones put together.

    And i love Michael Una's neck tie!

  • It makes me very happy to see a new generation of hardware entrepreneurs in North America. Building stuff is a critical skill that we have to relearn after several decades of outsourcing manufacturing.

    As transportation costs increase and foreign manufacturing becomes more expensive, there will be more opportunities for small scale manufacturers.

  • Joe

    Most people have never heard of or operated an optical theremin, or a traditional theremin for that matter. I believe Beep-It does do something new for the optical theremin- it makes it into a product, and thus introduces it as a tool (for sound-making, for brain stimulation) to a much larger group.

    If I heard about an optical theremin for the first time, I could go buy a soldering iron, I could find plans online and get parts at radioshack, sure. Or I could just buy one. Its basically, do you want to brew your own beer or buy some? Do you want to make your own pickles or not? Oh you do? Sweet! Go for it, here's how we make ours. You should totally buy a Beep-It, mod it out, and send video links of your experiments to unatronics.

  • coco

    I tend to agree that there is nothing really innovative here.  Most 555 data sheets give the schematic for an oscillator, and the parts for this would only cost a few dollars. So for $30+shipping you basically get a nice looking case.

    I find this optical theremin is much more innovative and interesting:

  • rhowaldt

    @coco: yes, the tingamagoop is really cool, and is also 5 times the price (built). i also find a Buchla much more innovative and interesting. it's not the point. the point is: anybody wants to buy this? go ahead, and have fun.

  • coco

    @rhowaldt: I agree with you.  However, my hang-up with this project is: I don't understand the price at all.  I would expect to pay more money if the inventor had to invest a significant amount of time developing this product.  However, the schematics for a simple oscillator can be found almost anywhere, so I am not paying for an intellectual property investment. Likewise, the parts needed to build this are very cheap, so that doesn't explain the cost either.

  • gofish

    my hang-up with this project is: i was bored with this thing about 30 seconds into the video. i can't imagine anyone wanting to play with it for more than a few minutes. had i thought of this idea, i never would have even tried to construct it because i would have thought "nah. that's too boring."

    …and yet here he is, selling bunches of them and making money. the guy who thought of the pet rock back in the day made tons of money off of that so what can i say? congrats. might as well go for it.

  • ann

    The video here is intended to show a versatility in the sound. The type of sound which an artist is going for wound bit necvessarily be "all" of them. The very beginning when they say the intensity of the light determins the sound. The real theramin was a musically correct sound, on key and could hit its own range of notes, It was designed as an instrument with the inventor hoping that it would some day be as desired as a violin. The Beach Boys were the first musicians I know of that actually used one, but then again, not all bands have a Brian Wilson who has talent that is amazing. Most people thing the Beach Boys in the way I have memories as a surfer music. Brian Wilson was quite ahead of his time and had the ability tom produce the most expanded perfect sound that the music would allow for. Elvis Costello nails this uncommon composer style. So people just play songs but some people arrange music. So thr boringness you speak of gotfish isnt what you heard. You coukld theorectically incorporate what ever sound you choose. I saw Blues Traveler last night and there is a song where Popper pkays harmonica, unlike any other song of his, to me it sounded like a Theramin, now I am wondering if maybe they have one of thjese, or something similar. I thing the intensity of the light is the key here,a light wand which mjght have variation which colors could play a role might be a future wat to go, in order to get a proper note… and not a sound.. I like it, and like the Theramin, it is a particular desired sound. Go look at a Theramin, and the histiry. It is the first electronic instrument made way back inb the 1920's in Soviet Russia. It wasnt like there was electric guitars or syntheesisers or even fine strings available. The poor man was kidnapped held prisoner and and forced into a labor camp. Moog the father of the Synthesiser certainly appreciated the Theramin sound,. So perhaps whether or not you can imagine anyone wanting this sould, its a matter of a true musician, wanting a particulae sound in his project.. Oh and onel last comment, Perhaps rather than getting bored with the video, try to appreciate that it isnt meant to entertain..This guy is doing something and he is starting out. If he teamed up with an instrument manufacturer, in essence this devocew beiong so small and portable is the desireability. I hope he expands on light waves, a wand would work. the intensity and maipulatrion of light waves can be mnipulated and an electronic eye can be made to react to colors and brightness. Maybe Moog would like to partner. If so.. it could be the nest big thing for touring concerts

  • ann

    apologies , my key board is crapping out sorry for the typos uncorrevt. Mix that with my inept ytyping, i actually can spell it just doesnt look like it LOL.

  • ann

    By the way, yes there are several ways some one could use a device to make elctronic sounds, a "Theramin" persey is an INSTRUMENT technically.,There is a difference. It has to do with acheiving a desired sound, but if someone wanted to incorporate the REAL theramin,it is possible to play music which is written in notes. I feel that many people here are not realizing the inventor calls it a theramin and he himself is a musician , I feel it is intended to maybe be a portable Theramin like product. The ability to plug into a board might again be what the idea is about. The fisrt thing after his nbame is Musician. My friend is an electrical genius and not a musician.. do assembling one with a solder iron might be possible, but the point is the word Theramin means its based on an instrument and not just a gadget, Sorry to rant, but do a little homework ,maybe this guy needs a litttle on cam vid assitance, but dont let what you feel is a simple elctronic device that people see to like be mistaken for what he is doing here. He is trying to make an easy and portable Theramin.I wish I had one of the original ones and could see how ieasy it is to get the sound desired… could you imagine if you could learn to play a violin with out having to know the strings and finger positions, The Theramin is the only instrument played with out actually touching it. Lets start there in the critique. I certainly get it… only a few people posting here seems to actually get that. Most of them say they love it. It could be used in audio engineers work in movies or anything where someone needs a weird sound too. You could add strobe capabilities and a more sophiosticated eye.. as I am sure you all know that light is where the possibilities are endless. Light can be seperated and using certtain tool;s the wave manipulated.Something not unlike the science in gemstone facets. It isnt the little cuts on a diamonds that make them sparkle, its the axis and the direction of the fractures whjich in combination worth together , if some one did it wrong the refraction would seriously be affected. When found in a min Diamonds are not clear like say a quartz crystal as most think, quite the opposite in some cases completey opaque in natural form..but when cut become clear. That is what the big joke in the Gemn industry, Black diamonds are simply industrial diamond which people have been fooled into thinking are a gem.. they arent. Its all about the light wave. A real scientist could in essence trick this idea using a photo light sensor that is high tech and a light wave in a specific range.and create some real specific results Ever see a diamond/moisenite light tester? Pawn shops use them to make sure diamonds are really diamonds, they had to create a special wave because the pevious versions couldnt tell the difference between a diamond and a moisenite. People were ripped off for several years and t5he retaileres did not know they were doing it. So why i am ranting I get it.n a photo eye gives thios some real possible directions