Awkward Engineer Creations had it's humble beginnings a few years ago as a humor blog that made approximately zero dollars. With the dawning realization that the adsense revenue off a few hundred page views a day was not going to cut it, I made the decision to Do Something Different.
After playing around with the idea of teaching cooking classes to the culinary clueless and also making software to manage the process of building space satellites, (Seriously, opposite ends of the spectrum, I know, but I was in a weird place.) I was given the very good advice to do what I would want to do anyway, if I already had a million bajillion dollars.
It turns out, I had a strange obsession with pressing red buttons. Like the red alert, stop the presses, launch the missiles, sort of thing, i.e. usually the kind you're not supposed to press. I was dead set on getting an e-stop button for my bed room light switch and despite searching high and low, I just couldn't find one that was suitable for a home electrical wall box.
The obsession was so deep that I ended getting my hands on an industrial switch and modifying a face plate so the thing would fit. It wasn't grounded properly, the switch didn't quite fit in the wallbox and would sortof flicker as the contacts were forced open, and the hastily modified, improperly mounted plastic faceplate eventually shattered when I invited a friend to press it and they hit it too hard.
But holy cow, the "clunk" sound it made when you hit the thing! It was FUN to press, and I knew that if I wanted one that badly, someone else would too.
So this is the part in the story where wanting to start a business and having few resources becomes about HARD WORK.
Essentially what I decided to do was make a Panic Button Light Switch Kit that I could sell. I would use push-on/push-off dimmer switches, which make such a satisfying thunk when you press them and I would put them in a kit with a cool looking, stainless steel faceplate, and then find a company to make a red button that would fit the switch. Most importantly, the parts in the kit would be consumer grade, and would fit a home wallbox.
This might sound simple in practice, but it took weeks, if not months to get everything in place. Companies wouldn't do a minimum order I could afford... other companies wouldn't sell to me at wholesale prices... some companies just wouldn't call me back.
I spent about $500 on my initial parts order. I couldn't even afford to pay the button company to make the buttons the right size for me, so I designed a jig to use on my drill press, had a friend 3d print it for me, and drilled out the first 100 pieces myself.
I had blurry photography I did with my cell phone camera, I had no idea what to put into a promotional flyer, I had poor packaging, and I generally had no idea what I was doing.
I went to neighborhood stores. They said they'd maybe carry it on consignment. I tried calling bigger chains. No one returned voice mails. I scoured Linkedin to find better contacts. They didn't like the idea, either.
And then I got lucky. I found a buyer at Thinkgeek.com, who thought my idea was pretty cool and wanted to order a bunch. They had a photographer, so it was ok my pictures weren't great. They were online, so it didn't matter if the packaging wasn't customized. They were willing to give me a shot, and it turns out, I did well.
In fact, I did very well.
I had my kitchen table covered in Panic Button Kits, literally filling the order myself (with some help from my future fiance), but it was rewarding and worth it to have the income coming in.
That's when I began bootstrapping, in the truest sense of the phrase, using the income from that initial $500 investment to grow the company. I was able to start buying materials in larger quantities and getting better prices.
I had grown to the point where I thought it was time to invest in proper retail packaging. Then I was floored when I found out it might cost a few thousand dollars for a graphic designer to design the box for me.
So I gritted my teeth, bought a book on graphic design, got a copy of the free vector drawing software, Inkscape, and went to work. I went through iteration after iteration after iteration. It probably took me ten times as much work as an experienced design professional, but when you're resource strapped, that's what you do.
After a lot of work and a great job by our printer, I finally had real packaging.
From there, it was time to sell, sell, sell. I broke into test runs at Urban Outfitters and Newbury Comics. I even got my first inbound sales call from people looking to buy from me, instead of me having to call them.
Small places, like the MIT Museum Gift shop and the mom and pop shops I talked to were willing to carry me. (And the Kit sold!)
We're still small, but we're getting a sales track record now and we're growing. We even have enough of a workload that its worth it to pay an assembly house to fill the orders (which technically makes us job creators!).
We've learned more than we ever planned to about web design, content marketing, social media strategy, cold calling, photography, negotiation, legal structures, and more, but the entire time we were having a blast.
We're always using our hard fought knowledge and income to invest in our next projects, so join our email list and see what we're cooking up next.