Author Spotlight: Joshua Zimmerman



Joshua Zimmerman is a teacher, a student, and a small business owner who, in his abundant free time, makes awesome Instructables. If you need a beginning electronics project, he is your man. Whether it's through his Instructables that demonstrate his professional pedagogical training or through his website where he sells kits at reasonable prices, you're bound to find an interesting project or two. I had the chance to ask him a few questions about how he got started making, how Instructables helped him launch his store, and his love for plastic tubs.

How did you discover Instructables and what first inspired you to post a project of your own?

About a year ago I found myself with way too much free time.  I had just moved to the Milwaukee area after living in Japan for five years.  Finding myself in a new area with little money and not knowing anyone I decided to get myself a hobby.  My picking hobby electronics was largely in part due to the wonderful store American Science and Surplus in Milwaukee.  I randomly wondered in there one day and walked away with a couple hundred dollars worth of parts and ideas.  I was like a kid in a candy store, if the candy was made of resistors and LEDs.  Now the downside to this electronics purchasing binge was that I honestly had no idea what I was doing.  I remembered small amounts of circuitry from high school, but nothing substantial.  So I did what most people do these days and started looking online.  Big mistake.  While there is a wealth of information about electronics most of it assumes that you already have a basic understanding of theory and parts.  Not the most welcoming scene for a newbie.  Luckily I ran across some well written projects on which helped learn some of the basics.   Soon enough I had a nice pile of Altoids flashlights and vibrating solar bots sitting in my kitchen, as well as a few burns from my soldering iron. 

Tell us about your first experience with electronics. How did you get into it?

My first experience with electronics was back in elementary school.  I had always been fascinated by technology, and was a bit of a nerd.  I remember doing some simple circuity in Boy Scouts and taking apart old broken gadgets, but I never had an outlet to learn the more complicated things.  It also didn't help that at age 12 I had no money and the stuff at Radio Shack was well outside my budget. I also did a few very basic fun projects in my high school science club and shop class, but again, they were all very basic projects.  (Though I still own my Dr. Pepper night light some 18 years later.)

What was your first project on Instructables?

I've always been under the philosophy that if you give people the right parts eventually they'll build something useful.  That's how I ended up building my first project, the Solar Cockroach.  I was sitting in my basement one Saturday soldering things together, when it occurred to me that I could just solder a vibrating motor to a little solar cell.  Throw in a dash of hot glue and some legs and you have a little bug looking thing.  Simple, cute, and easy to make.  Seeing that Instructables had been so good to me I figured that I should return the favor and write up a little guide.  Much to my surprise the Solar Cockroach ended up being featured on the front page.

As a middle school science teacher, what do you do to encourage kids to experiment and tinker?

Teaching Middle School Science this past year has been a real treat for me.  On the first day of school I told the kids that if we hadn't blown something up by the end of the year then we weren't doing Science right.  My Science teaching philosophy is that kids need to experience things hands on in order to both learn and create the spark of scientific curiosity.   It's one thing to talk about an idea, but a completely different thing to have the students getting their hands dirty testing out an idea.  It's something I think the current generation of kids is lacking at home, the ability to create things with their hands in the physical world.  Not just create something on a computer (which is awesome as well), but build or create something they can touch.  Kids enjoy this approach because it's high interest, teachers love this approach because kids are actively engaged in their own learning.

In my class I try and include a mix of activities.  Some are highly structured with goals, directions, and many steps.  Other times I give students a goal and a box full of parts, letting them find their own way of completing the task.  Creative problem solving is a skill many adults lack and providing a risk free environment for kids to try things out allows them to make personal discoveries.

Tell us how your online store came about. How did you bridge the gap between maker and small business owner? Anything special about the store with regard to cat and/or dog toys?

My personal store (shameless plug for started out because of my first instructable.  In fact I completely credit Instructables for me having my own store.  After I posted my insurable for the Solar Cockroach I started getting messages from other Instructables users asking if I had kits for sale.  I did in fact have a plethora of extra parts around, so I threw them in a baggie and started making my own kits.  I then put my basic HTML and webpage skills to good use and created my own website.  (In fact, making your own commerce site is extremely easy and more or less free if you're using the right tools.) 

Oddly enough I don't make dog and cat toys.  The name Brown Dog Gadgets came from my parents who have a very cute chocolate Labrador.  She makes an easy mascot.  (Though I often find people ask me about dog toys.)  In the future I hope to make some cool light up dog collars using conductive thread, but time is something I'm lacking these days.

How does it feel to get the attention your projects have earned? You made it into Popular Science, and I imagine that's a little like being a kid who grows up reading Sports Illustrated and suddenly finding himself among its pages as an adult.

I won't lie, I like attention.  When I started my website I never dreamed that I'd be getting so much good press.  The real attention explosion was after I posted my Altoids Solar USB Charger.  The idea of making a simple USB charger into an Altodis tin really got people excited.  While my idea wasn't overly new (search Instructables and you'll find many different designs) I modeled mine around the casual user.  A project that anyone could make if they had basic soldering and hot glue skills.  I've been lucky enough to be written about on Huffington Post and Treehugger, which has greatly helped my little business.

Popular Science ran a little blurb on one of my projects in the February Issue.  I was surprised when it wasn't about my USB charger, but was about my Giant Game of Operation.  I had created this for a school fair, posted it, and really hadn't received many hits.  Popular Science apparently thought it was the bee's knees.  Finding myself in print was a nice change from all the blog press I had received.  It gave me something to put up on the wall.

Speaking of being maker-famous, how was the Craftsman maker event in Chicago with the other Instructables authors?

I loved the Craftsman maker event in Chicago!  It was great to meet other local makers and share ideas and see their projects in the flesh.  While there is a new Maker's Space in Milwaukee, I live way too far away to ever attend their meetings or use the space.  One of the best things a new maker can do is to spend time with other makers.  I hope that Craftsman and Instructables keep doing events. 

Where do you get all the Altoids tins for your projects?

I go through a lot of Altoids tins with my website.  I used to buy them from a local store, but that was very expensive and a waste of mints. I buy most of mine second off eBay.  You'd be amazed at how many mints some people eat.  I once bought a box of 350 Altoids tins off a lady in Minnesota.  I can only guess that she has the most minty breath in the entire Midwest.

Any advice you'd give to someone starting their own business?

I have heaps of advice to give, mostly because I spent way too much time researching in the beginning.  Actually I hope to write an inscrutable on starting your own eCommerce site at some point in the future, when I'm not swamped with papers to correct.  My biggest piece of advice is to not give up and ask for help.  Sure, you can have a great product or idea, but it takes time and effort to get it off the ground.  Ask your friends and family for advice.  If you know a lawyer, get them to help you out with paperwork.  Find a friend who knows html to help make your website.  Show your stuff off at local events or show your stuff off at local coffee shops.  Its amazing how quickly things can balloon due to random chance or a random blog post.

Also, use free services when you start.  Use wordpress to run your site, use paypal to handle your payments, use gmail to handle your email, use etsy to show off your stuff, use Instructables to promote your products.  I only paid $10 for a domain name to start my company out with.  Thats it.  Sure, I paid for more stuff along the way, but that was after I had made a little bit of money.  If you have the motivation and energy to get things online, you're bound to sell an item or two.

Is there anyone who has been influential on the things that you make?

My parents.  My father grew up as a DIY farm boy and is always working on home projects, and if something can be fixed by him then he'll give it a try.  Recently he and I have been working on fixing up some vintage 1940's radios in our spare time.  He does the woodworking while I do the electronics.  My mother on the other hand is a bit more artistic.  Growing up she always made my halloween costumes for me, sewing them together rather than buying them.  She also is an insane scrapbooker.  One day paleontologists will dig up the remains of our civilization and find scrap book after scrapbook cataloging my life.  They will be both amazed and confused by the ordeal.

Which Instructable are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of my Altoids Solar USB Charger.  It really embodies the height of a useless yet not useless weekend project.  Not too tough to make, yet cool enough to impress the ladies.

The most indispensable tool at your disposal is…?

Plastic tubs.  Yes, I did say that.  Plastic tubs and bins.  I have so much pure electrics crap in the basement that without plastic bins I'd go insane.  I have always had a weird plastic bin love thing going on in my life, and having all these parts just allows me to reach my inner desires.

What kind of projects are you working on in the future?

I'm amazed by Arduino projects.  Amazed.  The idea that for under $30 a person can buy a little kit and create their own program blows my mind.  As an educator I see endless possibilities for using Arduino, and Arduino-like, projects in the classroom.  Especially for higher level students.  I showed my Science Club an Arduino running a little LED matrix and the kids went wild.  Give me a group of kids, a semester of time, a whole lot of parts and I'll give you a bunch of future makers.

I've been working with a couple of other hobbyists to try and create a couple of very low cost Arduino clones geared towards the education market.  I know from experience that teaching supplies are insanely expensive, and that higher priced tech items are going to deter teachers from experimenting with such devices.  My hope is to create not only cheap clones but also to design lesson plans and projects, so that teachers who have never tried programing before can have the resources available to do simple projects with their class.  The same goes for first time hobbyists who want to do a specific project, but who are on a tight budget these days.