4 of 6
Zapping TVs - and brains
Mitch Altman
Inventor and founder
Cornfield Electronics

Business ideas are everywhere, if you know where to look. Mitch Altman was inspired by a noisy TV in a Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto.

Altman, a 52-year-old electrical engineer, was trying to catch up with old friends over noodles one evening in the early 1990s, but the tube was too distracting. "It sucked our brains out," he says. That day Altman dreamed up a key-fob device that transmits "off" codes for hundreds of TVs at once. But it wasn't until 2002 that he got around to building the device. He called it TV-B-Gone.

Altman (pictured here with "The Brain Machine," another of his inventions) financed the venture by selling his equity in 3ware, a disk-drive controller company he had co-founded. That paid for the first 20,000 TV-B-Gones, which sold out in just three weeks in 2004. Now he runs Cornfield Electronics, which employs a dozen people and has sold 140,000 more TV-B-Gones, retailing at $20 apiece. His first year brought in more than $1 million in sales, driven by mentions in the media.

Sales have since slowed to $250,000 a year, and Altman is trying to goose revenues with TV-B-Gone Pro, which transmits more off codes. At Maker Faire he teaches classes in how to build a TV-B-Gone from a kit. "I don't get rich, but I do enough to live the life I love," he says.

NEXT: Firing the boss to fly solo

LAST UPDATE: Feb 12 2009 | 5:42 PM ET
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