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This Pittsburgh-born device turns on all your lamps with 1 switch, no Alexa needed | TribLIVE.com
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This Pittsburgh-born device turns on all your lamps with 1 switch, no Alexa needed

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, April 25, 2018 4:45 p.m
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The Switcheroo, on sale now. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
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A Switcheroo sits next to the two first prototypes Mike Neilson designed for the device. Neilson, of Kennedy recently started selling and shipping the device. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
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Alex Jones Photography 412.951.3559
Mike Neilson holds an early prototype of the Switcheroo. (Photo from Switcheroo)

There are 80 boxes of Switcheroos crammed into the back of Mike Neilson’s car.

He’s on his way to the post office to ship products promised to customers through his Kickstarter fundraising campaign.

Neilson, who quit his full-time job three years ago to found Switcheroo, has shipped the small devices all over the United States, Canada and to military post offices. He’s tried all types of mailers, boxes and packaging. The folks at his local post office give him funny looks.

Shipping is just the latest skill Neilson, of Kennedy, has had to learn as he brought the Switcheroo, a device that allows you to turn on multiple lights with the flick of one switch, from concept to production.

“It’s like every six weeks you have to learn a new job,” Neilson said, sitting at Alloy 26 in the North Side’s Nova Place, where he rents space to run his company of one. “You have to be everything. You have to be the engineer, the shipper, the customer service representative.”

Neilson was none of those when he started Switcheroo.

On Friday, Neilson officially launched Switcheroo. He threw a party at AlphaLab Gear to celebrate, took his first orders through his website and shipped the devices to people who backed his company in the early days. He has poured more than $200,000 into the company, paid himself very little, relied on investment from friends and family and rebuilt hundreds of malfunctioning units in his garage.

“There’s a real sense of pride,” Neilson said.

And a lot more to do.

A Switcheroo is smaller than a small remote control. The device plugs into outlets around a house. One device must be plugged into a switched outlet and set to send. The others are set to receive, and Switcheroo syncs up lamps or other electronics to turn on or off when the switched outlet is flicked.

You can watch the entire Switcheroo Kickstarter Launch Video here.

The Switcheroo requires no new wiring. It uses radio waves, not Wi-Fi. There’s no app, and you can’t ask it to turn your lights on. You actually have to flick a switch.

All that is intentional, Neilson said. During the development of Switcheroo, smart home devices shot up in popularity. Smart light bulbs could be turned on or off through an app and later by Amazon Alexa or Google Home devices or Apple HomePods.

But Neilson never worried. He never saw himself competing with Amazon, Google or Apple. Switcheroo offered the convenience of “Alexa, turn on living room lights,” without the hassle. No complicated setup. No passwords to remember. It won’t stop working if your internet goes down. It can’t be hacked. It doesn’t collect data.

“There’s a lot of those products sold, but there’s room for me, also,” Neilson said.

The Switcheroo arose out of Neilson’s frustration with the lighting in his own home. He wanted to turn on all the lamps in his living room with one switch at once without running extension cords all over the place or calling an electrician. Neilson searched Amazon but couldn’t find anything. So he decided to make it himself. Neilson said that 60 percent of homes have at least one switched outlet — an outlet that is controlled by a wall-mounted light switch — and 90 percent of the people with switched outlets aren’t happy with how they are set up. He wasn’t the only one searching for an answer.

His idea earned him a spot in AlphaLab Gear’s startup accelerator for hardware companies in the fall of 2015. AlphaLab Gear gave Neilson access to valuable contacts, mentorship and other companies like his with the same challenges. If he needed an accountant, designer, marketer or engineer, someone at AlphaLab Gear had one on speed dial. Neilson said it felt like college.

As AlphaLab Gear wrapped up, Neilson prepared to be on his own. He rented space at Alloy 26 and launched a Kickstarter campaign. Neilson asked for $25,000 and raised $29,000. He needed 10 times that. Friends and family invested to close the gap.

He went to China twice and selected a factory. Just before Chinese New Year celebrations brought the factory to a halt for several days, Neilson’s first shipment of 800 Switcheroos arrived.

They didn’t work.

There was a production issue that caused the lights to flicker a few times when turned on. Neilson couldn’t ship them. The factory in China sent Neilson 800 replacement parts, and he manually opened each device and swapped out the parts. It took him a couple of weeks.

Neilson has personally tested every Switcheroo from the factory since. He knows he can’t keep doing that as his company grows, but right now, he wants to understand all the things that could go wrong with one of his Switcheroos.

Neilson, who still does part-time work for ThermoFisher, his former employer, in what spare time he can find, doesn’t know how big his company will grow.

“As much as I can,” he said.

But whether he wants to sell 10,000 Switcheroos or 10 million, his next step is the same. It’s time to start selling, another skill Neilson will have to learn.

Switcheroos are available at switcheroo.com . A two-pack sells for $39, a five-pack for $89.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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