August 7, 2013

Bigger and Better: Bryce Bigger On His ConvergeFL Workshop

By Tyler Houle

Bryce Bigger, founder of The Bigger Design, is an interactive designer and developer living in Columbia, South Carolina. We caught up with him last week to get a sneak peek of his ConvergeFL workshop, Build an Autonomous NERF Blaster with a Crash Course in Processing and Arduino, and session, The State of Being a Maker. Let’s dive in.

Tyler Houle: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up starting your own interactive design/development company.

Bryce Bigger: I graduated in 2000 from James Madison University with a degree in Media Arts and a specialization in Video and Motion Graphics. I wanted to work in Hollywood doing visual effects, but instead, I immediately joined a dot-com [company]. Well, it turned out to be a dot-bomb and I was canned after six months, on my 23rd birthday. So, I started freelancing to pay the bills, just doing whatever: logo design, websites, video work … anything to scrape by. After about four months, I had a friend who recommended me to a project management software company and I started working for them. Next I worked at a flight simulation company on stuff for F-16s, F-18s, and predator drones, and even some terrain generation — which was so crazy, but awesome at the same time.

In 2004, I moved to South Carolina with my wife and started freelancing again during the day and teaching at a community college during the night. And, actually, I was able to keep the project management software company as a client, so that was cool. I remember in 2005, we were at my wife’s grandparents house for Easter Sunday, and I just said, ‘I can’t do it! I can’t go back to teaching!’ laughs I decided to just start freelancing full-time and hustle for more clients, and that’s how The Bigger Design was started.

TH: On your birthday?! Yikes! So, what type of projects does The Bigger Design work on now?

BB: It’s all over the place now: 3D games, iPad apps, government work; I went 18 months without building a site and now I have three to build in one month. I have a really scrappy mentality, and if I could give any advice, it’s to keep learning — you never know what’s next and so you have to move out of your comfort zone. I read manuals and whatever else I needed to in order to get stuff done.

TH: What else have you learned over the years? Are there any skills you wish you had when you started out or any advice you can lend to freelancers or budding entrepreneurs?

BB: I’ve ended my biggest rookie mistake: not being very good at discussing rates or how to meet with clients. I had to learn who the clients were, what they did, how to sell them, what to charge. Learn how to sell yourself, and don’t sell yourself short. I wish I could keep my website more updated, too, so I could put forth a better outward presentation. It’s hard finding time for yourself though; it’s like that saying, “The shoemaker’s kids always have the crummiest shoes.”

And, invoicing — I hated invoicing. Luckily, my wife has a finance degree, but I was always looking over her shoulder asking if I did my timesheets wrong, as she reviewed them. Now, I use Freshbooks.

Oh! Don’t burn any bridges when you leave somewhere. To this day, I still have the project management company as a client AND the owners of the flight simulator company — they had sold the company, but I still work with them in their new business. You know you may not work with someone right away, but a few years down the line they’ll need your set of skills and wonder, “Who was that guy that used to do that for us? Oh right! Let’s call him up.” You could be the best ever designer, but if you’re an asshole, people won’t want to work with you. However, a decent designer who is nice, is reliable, and communicates well will always get a call back.

TH: Thanks for the tips! You’re well-known right now for your work building autonomous NERF guns. Why NERF guns, and can you tell us a little more about that?

BB: For Christmas, we have over 30 adults in the extended family, so it’s not very economical to buy everybody a present, so we do a secret Santa thing. One year, someone asked what I wanted and I had been walking through the store near the NERF guns, so I asked for that. After I received it and fired it a bunch of times, it got a little boring and I started to wonder what else I could do with it. Could I automate it? Could I program it? At the time, it was 2008, and I was working with Flash a lot (shhh!) so that was my first NERF prototype build. Since then it’s snowballed into showing it at trade shows and building installations for a few clients.

TH: Your book (Build Your Own Autonomous NERF Blaster) is coming out soon; what do you have to say about that experience?

BB: Actually, it came out early. I don’t think you can walk into a store and buy it yet, but it’s available online already. Umm … it’s a total bitch, and I can’t say I recommend writing a book. laughs Coming from my background, I had to start using Microsoft Word all the time with special formatting for the publisher that was hard to figure out; I didn’t have control over the layout, formatting or money. The only thing I had control over was the content. And, you know, sitting down and writing all the time is really difficult. I went from working with graphics and writing code all day to explaining all about it. So, do I recommend it? My knee-jerk recommendation is “Hell no.” But, I think over time maybe I’ll see some indirect benefit of it.

TH: Well, you have your workshop, “Build an Autonomous NERF Blaster with a Crash Course in Processing and Arduino”. You’ve already done some, and you have one coming up at ConvergeFL in September. What can you tell us about those? What key takeaways will people leave with?

BB: The ConvergeSE workshop went really, really, well. No one had their phone out — they were all building and trying to outdo their neighbors. It’s almost like playing with the next generation of Legos and at the end you’ve constructed something that actually has a function — that’s rewarding. The attendees tell me they thought it was awesome and they can’t wait to show their kids or their buddies. One guy came up to me and said, “I’ve been an engineer for ten years, and that was THE best engineering I’ve ever done.” I thought to myself, “Sorry, what kind of engineering have you been doing for ten years, and thank you. Thank you very much.”

As far as takeaways, I want people to see software and hardware coming together with duct tape and velcro. They are cheap and they get the job done. When people start to build something, they think they need to go out and buy brand new stuff, but they don’t. Look around and you might be surprised you already have what you need. Steal a NERF gun from your nephew or coworker — someone in every office has a NERF gun. We’ll supply that in the workshop. We’ll use twist ties like you would find on a loaf of bread. We’ll mount a webcam with duct tape. It doesn’t need to be fancy if it gets the job done. When you leave the workshop, you can decide what needs to be changed for your next build iteration. You can make it better, take a little duct tape off, even fabricate parts with a 3D printer.

Also, this workshop is for everyone. At the previous one, we had a 50:50 ratio of business and designer folks to real techie people, and they all had no problem. Coding doesn’t need to be difficult and I want to show workshop attendees just that.

TH: Are there any other speakers or sessions you’re looking forward to at ConvergeFL?

BB: Yes, let’s see … James White. I’ve seen him before and he’s awesome. I love his style and his presentation. He’s entertaining and fun to watch. Also, Al Letson, the poet — I typically like sessions that are sort of in the genre of the conference, but not really. That’s how we grow. I don’t want to do the same stuff day in and day out; I want to do whatever I think is fun and awesome.

TH: Awesome! Thanks so much for your time, Bryce!

Catch Bryce Bigger’s session, The State of Being a Maker, and his workshop, Build an Autonomous NERF Blaster with a Crash Course in Processing and Arduino, at ConvergeFL in Jacksonville, September 11-13. You can also see James White, Al Letson, and tons of other awesome speakers and presentations. Sign up today!

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