Oct 282012

This is Mitch Altman. He is 55 years old and has been manufacturing and selling TV-B-Gone universal remote controls (a project he invented and loves – it’s a keychain that turns off TVs in public places) for 9 years. He used to do consulting as an electrical engineer for small companies and does not have a day job.  He also travels the world teaching anyone and everyone how to solder and make cool things with electronics.

What did you do for work the last time you worked for other people?
For most of my adult life I was a consultant as an electrical engineer. Usually helping small companies with microcontroller projects (virtual reality, computer games, voice recognition, small disk drives, . . .).
I made the mistake three times in my life of being a full-time employee.

How long ago did you leave your last job?
I quit my last consulting gig in 2003. I saved up enough money to live a year without income, and made a conscious decision to use that year to do only what I love. I had no idea how I would make money, but I assumed that there had to be some ways to make a living doing what I love. So, I focused on what I loved (and not the money). I did lots of volunteer work/play. And I did projects that I had only thought about for years, ’cause while I was doing electronics for work, I didn’t have much electronics energy to apply to my projects for play at home. The TV-B-Gone universal remote control was one of those projects. And it was the one that really got on a roll. And it took over my life! And I loved it! And when it turned out that all my friends, and most of their friends, and many of the friends of friends, wanted a TV-B-Gone remote control, I decided to make a bunch. And I sold 20,000 in the first few weeks of sales. And I’ve been making a living doing what I love ever since.

How did you start doing only what you love?
Consulting was a nice way to make money. But I didn’t love it. And it took a lot out of me while I was working. Fortunately, I only worked about 3 months each year, since consulting paid well, and my living expenses are quite low. But, still, I didn’t love it, and it took a lot out of me while I worked, and it took me about 2 months to really start to love life again, and find a groove again, after finishing each consulting project. After about 17 years of consulting, I was driven to find ways of making a living doing what I love — and this is why I did that experiment with myself: to take a year to only do what I love, and see what happens. The results were spectacular!

Tell us about the different things you do to make a living:
The only way I’ve made money since 2004 is manufacturing and selling TV-B-Gone universal remote controls (and TV-B-Gone Pro, and TV-B-Gone kits). Well, occasionally I make a little bit of money writing, too. I spend a lot of time teaching people how to solder and how to make cool things with electronics — but I only break even doing this. I only do it because I love it! And I get to travel the world, visiting and helping hackerspaces as a result.

Sophi’s note: Mitch Altman is one of the co-founders of Noisebridge, a large and active hacker space located in San-Francisco.

What’s a Hackerspace?

How did you get started in your own business?
When TV-B-Gone became (literally) an overnight success, I suddenly had to create a company to make enough TV-B-Gone remotes to keep up with demand. I had little idea what I was doing, but I’d learned enough watching what worked and what did not work at all of the small companies I consulted for – so I’ve done OK enough at running my own business.

How much money did you have saved up before you went on your own?
I saved up $40,000 so that I could live a year without needing to make any income, so I could concentrate on only doing what I loved (unless any work might come along that I loved – but it didn’t).

How much more or less money do you make than you did as an employee?
As a consultant I made a lot more $ per hour than I do now. Well, actually, I can’t tell how much I make an hour now, since I have no idea how many hours a day I work. Since I do what I love, I am either working all of the time, without a break ever. Or, I am never working ever. If I’m working all the time, then I’m making about 50 cents an hour. If I’m never working, then I’m making an infinite amount an hour. But, in any case, I make enough to live my life (and my lifestyle is very inexpensive).

Sophi’s note: This just about sums up the money breakdown of working for yourself when you love the work so much that there is no other choice.

How does it feel to stop working for other people?
It is really scary to quit a job. We are very well trained to worry about money. And we are often trained to identify with the jobs we do. Quitting meant suddenly having some of my identity taken away! And making a conscious choice to stop accepting work that I didn’t love meant that I probably would not accept any work. How would I possibly find a way to make a living? I somehow knew that there must be some ways to make a living doing what I loved. And after so many years of living with depression and anxiety over my life’s energies being drained by work I did not love, I was fine living with whatever fears and anxieties I experienced while having no clue how I’d ever make a living again.

Yet somehow, deep inside of me, I knew that I would find some way(s) to make a living in doing what I love. I knew I really did not want to go back to depleting myself working on projects that were just OK, and only doing them because they paid me. And while doing more and more of what I loved, the fears, worries, and anxieties started to diminish. And joy of life began to increase. These were clues that I was doing the right thing. That felt really nice!

Are you passionate about what you do?
Fuck yeah!

How do you support yourself financially? Specifically what kind of work pays the bills?
Manufacturing and selling TV-B-Gone remote controls is the only real way I’ve made money since 2004.

Do you consider yourself financially stable or not?
There are no guarantees in life. For the last 8 years I’ve made enough money from TV-B-Gone remote controls to pay for my life. It is still scary every time I pay a huge amount of money for manufacturing the next batch of manufacturing. I can’t help but wonder, “Will people buy all of these new TV-B-Gone remotes?” But, so far, they always run low, and I need to make the next batch. It seems very stable. Even with economic down times, the amount of sales remains more or less constant each year.

Do you have health insurance and if so, what kind?
I have catastrophic health insurance. I’m not the kind of person who goes to the doctor when I have a cold or the flu. Paying for insurance that covers everything is incredibly expensive. I pay $168 per month for my high-deductible insurance that will cover hospital stays for anything that might happen health-wise. The amount I save on monthly premiums would more than pay for any deductible I’d have to pay if I had to go to the hospital.

How much time do you spend looking for new business?
I do not look for new business. Through word of mouth (and media), people find out about TV-B-Gone, and enough people keep buying them to keep me manufacturing and selling more.

Are the people around you supportive or dismissive?
I would not hang out with people who are not supportive. So, all of my friends are supportive. And I’m lucky enough to have had parents and brothers who are supportive (since we can’t choose our family – we can only choose how much we hang out with them).

Do you continually need to explain why you’re doing what you do?
One of the things I do as I go around the world giving workshops, and giving talks, is to tell my story, and ask people to consider what their lives might be like if they did less of what they knew they didn’t like, and made time to explore what they might love.

Sophi’s note: I saw Mitch give a talk at the Open Hardware Summit in 2011- entertaining and inspiring!

Mitch: I also give people permission to contact me if they ever find themselves wanting to be convinced to quit a job they don’t love.

Sophi’s note: He really means this! I’ve heard him offer this to people!

So, in this respect, I find myself continually explaining why I do what I do – I find it helps people, and I love helping people any way I can help. And I often find myself surrounded by people telling me they wished they could make a living doing what they love. And, of course, I tell them that they can! It’s scary, sure — but if you don’t make time to explore and do what you love, you won’t be doing what you love! Is it worth facing the fears? It’s up to you.

Are you happy in your work life or do you wish you could change things?
No matter where you are in life, there is always room for improvement. I’m always wanting to improve my life, and the lives of those around me. So, I try to be conscious of the choices I make, and choose to learn from the consequences of my choices. And then I make new choices based on what I’ve learned. And this process gives my life meaning. And through the inevitable ups and downs of life, I find that overall, my life improves each year. So, yes, I am happy in my work and my life, and I’m always striving to change things for the better.

Link to Mitch Altman’s Wikipedia page
Link to TV B Gone

Contact him if you ever need to be talked into quitting your job and doing what you love:
mitch at CornfieldElectronics dot com

 Posted by at 4:50 pm

  3 Responses to “Mitch Altman – Inventor”

  1. Thanks for the inspiring interview! I can fully idenfity with Mitch. I’m also on my journey of pursuing my deepest passion. I’m already doing it part time but planning to do it full time.

  2. [...] out this interesting interview with Mitch Altman at the Super Green Dot, an project that interviews folks who have quit the “day job” to build their life [...]

  3. Thanks Mitch- you are inspiring in your authenticity. Really hard to quit my job, but you\’ve planted a seed…

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