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)