Sonodrome: Inspiring entrepreneurship in hobby electronics

Music Technology
posc (Custom).jpg

Posc, the signature handheld synthesizer from Sonodrome.

Lots of people who read, contribute to, and/or generate the content we feature on Make: Online find themselves in this situation at one point or another: They make something for entertainment, or to educate themselves or their children, post it on the web, and suddenly find they’re getting a lot of attention for the work. Many–and I hope, in fact, most–of these people like their day jobs just fine and are content to let their hobby stay a hobby. But some significant fraction look at all the are-you-selling-these e-mails piling up in their in-boxes, or all the where-can-I-buy-one comments piling up on their threads, and start to wonder: Am I missing an opportunity here?

The decision to turn one’s hobby into a business shouldn’t be taken lightly. No matter how much you love what you’re doing, there are times when any job is just work, and almost any kind of home start-up–whether it’s kit-packing or gadget-building or whatever–is probably going to require more hard work, for lower pay (at least at first), than a 9-to-5 job at an established company. Our hobbies are very often things we do to escape from work, and as much as we may sometimes wish we could spend more time at them, to suddenly find they’ve become obligations may sour, slightly, the pleasure they brought as simple leisure.

That said, there’s almost nothing we like to see better than a maker hanging out a shingle and selling their own handiwork. Finding these people and helping to promote their work was the single biggest reason we launched Makers Market. If you’re on the fence about hanging out your own shingle, give it a look and/or drop me an e-mail, and let’s talk. Likewise, if you’re ready to take the plunge but could use a bit of start-up cash, consider entering our Gadget Freak Design Contest. It’s been running for a couple of weeks, now, but the pool of entrants is still small, and the pool of truly impressive entries is smaller still, so there’s a very real opportunity there for the right clever person with the right clever idea. First prize is $1,000 in cash and guaranteed admission to Makers Market.

By way of inspiration, consider UK-based indie start-up Sonodrome. Since opening their Makers Market store in early March, their kits have been selling like snowcones in the Sahara, with three of their four products being featured in the Boing Boing Bazaar. I caught up with Jim and Kat, this weekend, and had a chance to ask them a few questions about their experience running Sonodrome so far:

Sean Michael Ragan: What first got you interested in hobby electronics?

Jim: It’s been a natural progression from tearing things apart as a child. I remember smashing a cathode ray tube with a hammer when I was about 12 years old… It seemed destructive at the time, but the vacuum caused some of the glass to get sucked in and ever since then I was really interested in how it all worked.

SMR: What was your first product? What was your inspiration?

Kat: Jim designed our Posc when we were at university. He was bored with the usual buttons, knobs and sliders on commercial devices and wanted to create an instrument with an alternative method of control. People liked how it was gestural and enjoyed the sounds it could create – we had a lot of requests from people who wanted them, so we figured it’d be a great product to start with.

SMR: How and why did you decide to start selling kits?

Jim: We wanted to share what we were passionate about, and encourage hands on learning at the same time. We’d just finished university and England was in the middle of an economic crisis – there wasn’t any jobs for anyone, let alone Music Technology graduates. The only way we’d get to do what we wanted was by doing it ourselves.

SMR: Where did your start-up funding come from?

Kat: We’ve started up with next to nothing. The Institute of Digital Innovation awarded us Innovation Fellowships, which helped to support us personally as we got the business going, but Sonodrome was originally set up with just the equipment and skills we’d accumulated throughout our degrees.

SMR: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

Kat: With a lack of start-up capital we’ve had to do some pretty long hours at Sonodrome HQ! We’re completely self-reliant, which can get stressful at times, but we like to get our hands dirty so that always helps!

SMR: Are there other kits, either in your field or not, from other indie electronics firms that you really admire? Or any indie kit makers in general?

Jim: We really like what Brian and Kelli over at Monome do. Hardware/Software hybrids interest us, and we relate to and appreciate their open source attitude.

SMR: Anything else you’d care to add?

Kat: Within the maker community people are sharing their ideas and helping others to get creative with technology. There’s a lot of cool people doing a lot of cool stuff, and we feel really lucky to be part of it.

Thanks, Kat! Thanks, Jim! Be sure to check out Sonodrome’s other hardware in their Makers Market store, and the custom software they’ve written for it at their UK site.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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