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MAKE is devoted to a growing community of resourceful people who believe that if you can imagine it, you can make it… With all the talk of tough economic times ahead, we’re doing a series of interviews with makers & friends around the world who either make a living from “making” or just earn extra money with the things they make. We’re calling this series “Make: A Living – DIY for fun and profit”. There are many different paths to making a living off what you love doing, we hope these stories and makers inspire you as much as they have inspired us.

Our first interview is with Mike Spreng (moses410) – a high school student who sells premade MintyBoosts (this open source hardware kit is available at the Maker Shed Store, it’s a DIY kit that charges iPods, iPhones and just about anything you’d charge via USB!).

Where are you located and what do you do?
I’m a senior in High School, living in Lansing, MI.  I make premade MintyBoosts, as designed by ladyada, and sell them online through Etsy and by providing my email on the mintyboost forums for people to contact me.

How did you get in to electronics?
Probably the first electronic things I got into were the Lego Mindstorm robotic kits, from there I just found that I really liked electronics.  One day I ran across the mintyboost on instructables.com, followed that to ladyada’s site and began selling them premade in July of 2007. I have also built Johnny Chung Lee’s wiimote interactive whiteboard and might build his head tracking VR display.

How does your kit assembly business work? What kits do you make?
I build the most recent versions of the MinyBoost kit.

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Pictured here, an altered Minty with the iPod cord attached.

How many kits do you build per month?
It varies really, but usually it’s between 3-7 per month, the most being 9 in one month least being 0 for a few months.

Is this your main source of income / extra money?
Besides this, I have a job with my dad’s marketing research firm for a few hour per week and I mow a family friend’s lawn, so yes this is one of my main sources of income right now.  I’ve made almost $1,800 in revenue. I sell them for $30 + $5 shipping and it costs me approximately $15 each for parts.

Where do you sell these kits?
The two main places I sell them are on the MintyBoost forum and on Etsy.com. I’ve also sold them on ebay, on the facebook marketplace and to the postal worker at the post office where I ship them. I’ve sold them all over the country, as well as many places internationally including New Zealand, Belgium, Australia, UK, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, and Singapore.

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Editor’s note: You can visit Mike’s Etsy store here

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Who buys these kits? and what do they buy them for (devices)?
Like above, people all over the world buy these.  Not sure of any age demographics but it looks like it’s about a 3:1 male to female ratio on who I’ve sold to.  Mostly people buy them for their iPods or other media player’s but I’ve heard people using them for their cell phones and for GPS devices (Garmins, etc)

What is their reaction?
I don’t hear back from people too often, but the responses are all very positive.  I think people really like the device and the premade service so they don’t need to drop $20+ on soldering equipment they would only use once.

What do your parents think?
My dad is a marketing professor and is very proud of my initiative and ability to run the business by myself.

Do you plan to make other types of kits and sell them?
I have no current plans to start selling other premade kits, but I’m definitely open to the idea. If I find another project I really enjoy, I think that that is a distinct possibility and would probably be easier because I have experience doing this kind of thing already. (I’ve been eyeing that Wave Bubble ladyada has…)

Have other people you know became interested in doing electronics after seeing your business?
In a way you could say that.  My friends all liked the MintyBoost when I brought a few on our class trips so people could charge their iPods on the bus and such.  Also I’ve given them to my friends as birthday presents, so yeah, they like the idea but it’s not like any of them have begun electronic projects like this because of what they’ve seen.

What advice do you have for other students or makers looking to make money assembling kits.
Find a kit you have personal interest in.  If you choose something random or something that you think is boring I don’t think you would value your customers the same way.  For me it’s personally rewarding because I know how excited I was to get my first MintyBoost made and I love letting other people get the same thing.  Be sure to keep track of your finances as well and try to have foresight in how many parts you order; order too few and you’ll be paying too much for shipping to justify it, order too many you’ll be in the hole for too long before turning a profit.  I usually buy enough parts to make 10-20 at time, that would be a good starting point.

What type of job/career do you plan on pursuing?
Right now I’m looking at either Engineering (not sure which type yet) or possibly pre-med.  I’ll probably be going to Michigan State University or Hope College next year to study one of those two.

How has doing this helped you?
Besides earning money, it’s a rewarding experience. I also wrote about how running this entrepreneurial business has helped develop my leadership skills for a college admission scholarship essay, which I’m sure that the business school will eat up :)

Where do you buy your parts?
I buy only the PCB from ladyada’s online shop for $5 a piece, I buy the boost converter chip from ‘linear’ for $4 a piece, and I get everything else from digikey for about $35 for enough parts for 10 units.

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Have you branched from just the basic MintyBoost?
On earlier versions of the MintyBoost there were SMT pads for a low battery indicator so I offered that when that was the most recent version. Also, I once saw a post asking whether you could cut an iPod dock connector cord and solder it directly to the MintyBoost so I decided to find out. It was very cool, instead of having to carry your iPod cord around with you, you had your MintyBoost with a 2″ long cord attached that plugged into your iPod. So I offered that for awhile but not many people bought it because it cost quite a bit extra considering it was very hard to solder in and the cords cost $20. (I’ll attach a picture of one I made.) I also offer the different color Altoid gum tins whenever my local stores have them stocked.

Editor’s note: As an added bonus Mike sent us his scholarship essay for Michigan State University, we’re posting it here too…

Freshman 2009 application
There are many different kinds of leadership.  At this point in my life my leadership skills have been developing mostly through my entrepreneurial experience. As a self-motivator I started my own small business in 2007.  Through this process I have gained leadership experience due to the responsibilities involved in running my own business.

Ever since I was young I have been interested in electronics, often taking things apart to figure out how they worked.  I was only too happy when I stumbled across plans online for a portable USB charging device.  Simply put two AA batteries in it, plug in an iPod, PDA, or cell phone and it would provide hours of extra battery life.  The entire device fit inside of an Altoids gum tin, for this reason it was called a “MintyBoost.”

The designer had an online shop that sold kits providing all the parts necessary to build one.  It looked like a very interesting project so I decided to go for it and build one.  Instead of ordering a kit, I went to an online part supplier and bought all the parts at a cheaper price, buying only the printed circuit board from the designer’s online shop.

I stopped by my local Radioshack and purchased the necessities for small electrical component work.  I got a soldering gun, the right size solder, a soldering station, and a multimeter for testing the current when I had a completed MintyBoost.

After I built it, I found that it worked great.  My iPod could get a full charge off of two AA batteries.  Poking around on the designer’s website, I found the “MintyBoost forums.”  While browsing through posts I saw a trend of people asking others to build them one and ship it to them.  Perhaps people didn’t want to invest in soldering equipment they would only need once, however, I noticed that many of these posts went unanswered.

I saw the demand for pre-made MintyBoosts and I decided to try something.  I went back to the online parts supplier and ordered enough parts to build ten MintyBoosts.  I then wrote a post on the forum telling people that I would sell pre-made MintyBoosts, including the tin, for $30 dollars each.  Within a month I had sold all ten. My cost for making one was about $15.  I continued ordering the parts, usually enough for ten to fifteen at a time, and selling them to people around the world including the UK, New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, Brazil, and Singapore.

I have sold over 50 MintyBoosts and have earned revenue of almost $1,800.  I like helping my customers get the cool little charger that captured my interest more than a year ago.  Providing an easy way for people who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make one is very rewarding for me.  While my small business has no employees to “lead”, my entrepreneurial experience has led me to a better understanding of the basic business principles of marketing, accounting, purchasing, and production.  I have gained an appreciation for all aspects of my business, and I believe this ultimately will have a strong influence on my leadership skills in the future.


If you know someone who is doing their own thing out there and succeeding by making, please let us know!