Electronics kits are a staple of the maker community – both for creators and consumers. They’re the most accessible route into creating custom electronics and help us share our creations without getting too bogged down in manufacturing. HackSpace magazine sat down with Jason Hotchkiss, the man behind Sixty-Four Pixels, to find out what it’s like making electronics kits for musicians. This is the wisdom he had to relate
I used to do aimless tinkering with stuff just for fun. I did a bit of MIDI, I did a lot of things with the Novation Launchpad (a grid controller). I was putting the videos up on YouTube and some of them were getting quite a few views and people were asking if I was selling the things I was making.
One of the things was a clock made out of hard disk drives where the digits were etched through (hsmag.cc/TJChgv). With careful timing and everything, you could make it light up. I wasn’t going to sell it because it took me about a week to make, but some of the things like the strum controller and the arpeggiator – which were two of the first things I did – I thought ‘yeah, why not?’.
I had to go through some things, like how to get PCBs made up in a factory. I was doing stuff on stripboards or etching my own PCBs at home, so I’d got into Eagle, which is a PCB layout program, but I had to go through a bit of a learning process just to get started to know how to get PCBs made. Even just etching your own PCBs – when you first start out and you think ‘what do I even Google?’ – you start from nothing. I started going through that process and making my own boards and I had quite a lot of interest on YouTube and I found out how to get boards made up.
I got in with Tindie very early on and I stuck with them because they’ve always been good to work with. Especially at the beginning, it was a nice fairly close-knit thing. Emile Petrone, the guy who started it, used to have Google Hangouts every week and us Tindie sellers would all get together and have a chat – it was a really small thing then. I guess now they have hundreds of sellers and thousands of products. Certainly at the beginning it was like a little club.
Things have just gone from there. It’s been quite slow growth … Having said that, a couple of the products, when I first put them out, sold quite quickly – it’s surprising how many they sold straight away and I was almost not ready for the volume. We’re talking like 50 or 100, which for me is still quite a lot.
I started that way around – I didn’t start from the aspect of wanting to sell things, more I was just tinkering and I was just making my own projects for fun and sticking them on YouTube. It’s always good to have a bit of attention, isn’t it? – people giving you feedback. And people wanted to buy them and that’s where it started. I never really thought about it being a business, but now I’m trying to work my way out of the day job and do it full-time – because I enjoy it more than wanting to be a millionaire. As long as it can pay the mortgage, I’ll be happy.
I started with electronics projects about five years before that, about 2008. I’m a computer programmer by profession – I knew a lot about coding, so getting in an Arduino and code was never a problem, but the electronics I never really knew much about. I think the digital side of it was kind of easy because it’s really just an extension of programming, so working with shift registers, multiplexers… they’re just an extension of code. I’ve been trying to understand a bit more analogue stuff, which is a bit of a black art, but it keeps life interesting trying to do that.
I do love the fact that MIDI is so well crafted. To do so much so efficiently and yet be so simple and it’s stood the test of time. It’s, what, nearly 40 years old, and it’s still going strong.
There have been all these other things that have come out and have been supposed to replace it but it’s still the de facto standard.
I like making music and always have done, so I’m a bit of a synthesizer junky and play guitar and bass in bands, so music’s always been my main passion really. It’s not like I got into music because I thought I’d sell lots of kits; more that I started doing music kits because that’s what I learned first – my first Arduino projects were MIDI.
But I think the reason that some of the things have sold well is: the feedback I get is that the functionality is good – I think that’s because I come up with lots of things because I am (or try to be) a musician. I have ideas that seem to translate quite well into features on things like that. I think that’s why that’s eventually become the focus – it’s something that I can think of good functions and features for. I’ve used lots of similar products myself and I think ‘oh, wouldn’t it be good if it had this feature or that? I’ll make one!’
The biggest problem for me is always time. Everything takes longer, by probably a factor of ten, than you think it’s going to. Especially because, at the moment, I’m working around the day job. I only work three days a week, but it still gets in the way quite a lot. Apart from that, there haven’t really been a lot of big problems. I think that because I’ve not tried to do things too quickly, the money side of things has never really been an issue. I can invest the money I’m making off things into new parts or whatever. The outlay is never very high. At most, you’re talking a few hundred pounds to start something.
Space is getting a bit limited because as it’s grown, certainly my wife thinks that I’m starting to fill the house up. I’m thinking of getting just a small business space because I’ve started to employ a couple of friends as well, with some of the work for manufacturing.
Everything takes up a bit more space – finding space for someone to work, finding space for somewhere to keep things.
Advice for budding sellers
First of all, just go for it! Don’t think it’s going to be really hard. Things are easier to find now than they were five years ago in terms of printed circuit board making. You’ve got very good things like OSH Park that are quite accessible now. When I was doing it, you had to find someone in China and deal with them directly. There were a couple of sites that made it a bit easier, but quite often it really was a little bit difficult.
I guess my point is that all these things that look quite complicated at the beginning, you get past them all. There’s so much stuff online – especially now – there are so many forums on that stuff, so the first thing is don’t be scared that it’s going to be really hard. The second thing is to have an idea that you’re really passionate about. You can’t start and think ‘right, I want to make a product, what shall I do?’ Well, I guess you can – that’s what companies do all the time – but I think that doing it on your own, it’s really important to have the idea for the product before you have the idea to start a business – at least from my side.
Maybe other people can do it the other way around, but for me you have to have the passion for a product – and it helps to have one product, one idea to begin with – and start small, then build on it as you go. Be patient: things do take a while to get going.
I’ve always done things open-source. My family think I’m mad and a lot of people just don’t get it – I never used to. I was always wondering why wouldn’t you just patent everything – what if somebody nicks your idea? I really benefited when I was learning from other people’s open-source stuff, particularly the Arduino project – it really got me started with embedded coding and the fact that all the people very freely give code examples online and stuff, so I think just keep that spirit of sharing going.
I guess you do take the risk that someone’s going to take your idea and just run with it, but for me, I’ve not really had that happen. I’ve seen projects come along that were very similar to what I’ve done, but I’ve never regretted sticking everything up online. I do actually use a non-commercial open-source licence … I’m not quite prepared to let go. Keep things open-source; I think it generates goodwill. More often than not, somebody starting out is going to be benefiting from other people’s goodwill to get started.