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Ep. 053: On Launching a Smartphone Accessory Brand — The David Barnett Interview

Hear how David Barnett, the founder of PopSockets, evolved from philosophy professor to entrepreneur, and quickly grew his smartphone accessory company to 40 million units sold in his fourth year. Listen as he describes how employing “the power of reason” became a key to his success. Learn how his early product assumptions changed based on customer feedback — thereby leading to crucial new product and marketing strategies. Additionally, hear how he overcame early manufacturing challenges to finally achieve massive success.

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Top Takeaways from this Episode:

(1)  Don’t defer to the norm. Don’t defer to what most companies do. Don’t defer to general rules of thumb about how to start a business. Think through every problem on your own. Weigh the pros and cons and reason through it. It will bring you success.

(2)   We have an amazing opportunity here in the United States that most people in the rest of the world just don’t have — opportunities to start our own business.

(3)   Do not quit your job or quit school to become an entrepreneur, unless you have good reason to think your idea will be successful.


John Benzick: You know, one of the great things about my role interviewing entrepreneurs is that I get to hear so many diverse perspectives and advice on how to best launch a business; and as a result you’ll learn that there’s just not one or two or even three ways to succeed as an entrepreneur. There are many ways, many different ways to succeed. But the challenging part is that the advice I hear from one entrepreneur for example, can very often conflict with another entrepreneur’s point of view on a particular topic. And so it’s interesting to hear in this interview with David Barnett, the founder of Pop Sockets, how he uses the power of reason to sort through the noise and advice that he gets when he needs to make effective, crucial decisions. As a new entrepreneur who’s struggling to find his way.

David Barnett: They’ve actually learned that the power of clear thinking, I just have more and more confidence that people should not be deferring to the norm. Don’t defer to what most companies do. Don’t defer to what, what’s normal out there in business. Don’t defer to general rules of thumb about how to start a business. Think through every problem on your own, you know, weigh the pros and cons, really reason through it. It will bring you success. So it’s helped a lot that I paid no attention to someone’s background or when somebody says I’m an authority on this. To me, I didn’t even hear that until they give an actual reason for making a decision one way or another, it’s not going to have any impact on me. So the power of reason, I guess, is quite powerful and in business.

John Benzick: Today I’m interviewing David Barnett. He’s the founder and CEO of pop sockets. If you don’t know about Pop Sockets, the offer very clever smartphone accessories. My family has been using them for an a of years now and I’ve had my own custom made venture superfly branded Pop Socket as well, which is super cool. David officially started pop sockets in 2014 and now in 2018 he has sold over 40 million pop sockets worldwide. 40 million. This will be a terrific interview to learn about David’s journey as a new entrepreneur, especially since his previous career, at least on paper, was drastically unrelated to his new trajectory as a business owner. To learn more about his company, visit pop David, thanks for being here and welcome to the Product Launch Rebel podcast.

David Barnett: Thanks John. It’s super cool to be here.

John Benzick: Oh, I’m super excited. So David, there are three segments in this podcast. The first is called, give me the basics, which helps set the context about your company for our listeners. The second part is called let’s get personal or we get into some of the more personal topics about what it’s like to start a business. And the final part is what I call tell me how well we get to the heart of the matter on issues that aspiring entrepreneurs want to know now to help them move forward. David, what do you think? Are you ready for some questions?

David Barnett: I’m ready. Hit me.

John Benzick: All right, fantastic. Here we go. David, tell us the story. How did you originally come up with the idea to start Pop Sockets?

David Barnett: Sure, in 2010 when I was a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, I was tired of pulling my headset out of my pocket and having it be tangled. So my ear buds that I would use every time I made a phone call on my iPhone three back then, they were always tangled and out of frustration one day when I pulled them out, tangle that just hopped in my car and drove down to the nearest Joann Fabric in Boulder to look for a solution. So I walked around the aisles and eventually settled on a couple of really small buttons and a couple of really big buttons about one and a half inch diameter, the big ones. So the small ones separated the big ones from the backside of my phone. And then I used those two giant buttons to wrap my, my earbuds around the backside of my phone to keep them from tangling.

John Benzick: That’s really cool. Were these just regular apparel clothing buttons?

David Barnett: Yes, they were giant apparel clothing buttons. So if you can imagine the iPhone three is, was just tiny compared to today’s phones. So these, these buttons cover the entire backside of the phone, the two buttons together. And I like how you said, that’s very cool. You’re the only one who would say that, everybody around me thought it was ridiculous. So, so from there, actually that’s the transition into Pop Sockets. So from there, I just build the solution for myself. I had no intentions of commercializing it until enough friends and family made fun of me to the point where I decided to try to improve, improve this and make it have more functionality and look less ridiculous. So I went through a bunch of different mechanisms and settled on the accordion mechanism, which is the patented magic of the, the Pop Sockets. And I spent well over a year miniaturizing the, the accordions that you see in kitchen stores, like the giant funnels and bowls that collapse through that accordion mechanism. Right. Took me a long time to, to scale that down to the size of a popsocket. You can’t just shrink it. So a lot of work and then launched the business in 2014.

John Benzick: Yeah, that’s amazing. How many retailer doors do you sell to now and what channels do you sell through?

David Barnett: We’re in about 40,000 doors worldwide. As far as channels we are in the wireless carrier channel, so At&T, Verizon, Sprint, and other carriers. We are in a big box with Best Buy, Target and Walmart, then we’re in quite a few mid tier chains. Geez, I can’t, I can’t name them all, but for example, it’d be Tillys or Michael’s and then we’re in thousands and thousands of independent stores. So boutiques this is just domestically and we try our best to give a unique offering to each of those channels so they’re not all selling the same, the same Pop Sockets. And overseas we’re in about 45 countries in roughly similar channels.

John Benzick: That is astonishing growth in such a short amount of time, especially from a guy that’s never launched a business before. David, most entrepreneurs go into business with a set of assumptions and many of those assumptions prove to be different from what they expected there by making them scramble to make changes in order to survive. Regarding pop sockets, uniqueness, did your original assumption about that uniqueness prove motivating to consumers or did you have to change your selling proposition to sort of match what they were looking for?

David Barnett: So yeah, my original assumptions were false. I was lucky enough to learn early on, which is some key assumptions that were false because I was, I was still teaching at the University of Colorado, so I was able to get some early cases into their hands. The first Pop Socket product was an iPhone four case actually. Then it turned, it turned out by the fine. By the time I got to production, I think it was an iPhone five case, it had two Pop Sockets that collapsed flush with the backside of the case and it was, it was designed to make the headset, headset wrap, just perfect at the cost of a perfect grip or a perfect stand. And I noticed pretty quickly that while all my students said they’d love to wrap their headset around these every day when I put them in their hands, that’s not what they were doing.

David Barnett: They made me, one of them was actually using it for the headset wrap, but they were all using it for the grip and the grips were not in the ideal place. One was on the top and one was on the bottom. Really you want the grip toward the middle of the phone. And I learned this before I went to market. So I started tinkering with what the standalone Pop Socket that allows the consumer to put it wherever they want on their phone for the best grip location. And it’s been the real hit of the business. So had I not learned that lesson from my students, I could have launched at retail with, with the two Pop Socket cases and it probably would have flopped. And then I learned some other things in, in, you know, once we did launch, we launched slowly first in the couple independent stores, one on Pearl Street here in Boulder.

David Barnett: And I would sit and watch customers interact with our display and our product. And when we originally launched, it was two of these individual pop sockets. So we sold them in pairs and it, it just didn’t make much sense to the consumer. So I’d see them go up, they look at the packaging, they’d get confused, why would they want to, wasn’t a good explanation. So we, we started selling them just individually as, as singles with a hand drawn on the packaging to let consumers know that it was a grip for a phone. So a drawing of a hand with a phone with a pop sock and on it and the sales quintupled. I mean they just went through the roof as soon as we switched and started selling singles with the right packaging.

John Benzick: Amazing. So David, let’s get personal on a few topics. Did you ever aspire to be an entrepreneur or did you ever foresee that in your future back when you started this or before?

David Barnett: So yes, I had thought of myself as pursuing a career as an entrepreneur as a child. Actually when I was age 10 to 16 my neighbors called me Ross Perot, he was a famous entrepreneur who ran for president a long time ago. And that was my nickname because I had so many businesses as a kid, I was always, always trying to sell something, sell a service. I’d made mixed tapes that I sold to the my peers at school, at lawn bowling businesses. I got jobs at restaurants when I was 12 and 14. Got, got the restaurants in trouble with the Labor Department for working there. So yeah, I was a hustler as a kid, so I always thought I’d be a businessman. And then I sort of got distracted by the world of ideas and academia for 15 or so years and became a professor and then got back to back to my roots as an entrepreneur.

John Benzick: What planted the seed for that entrepreneurial moxie?

David Barnett: Gosh, you know, I have to say, I think it’s something genetic. I think everybody has a little of it, right? Humans just like they projects, so we get bored easily. We like to complete projects. There’s something satisfying about that. And then, you know, when you look around at whatever society you’re in, you look at the opportunity for, for these projects and in the, in the United States, we’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be entrepreneurs. I mean an amazing opportunity here in the United States that the most people in the rest of the world just don’t have. And I think as a kid, I dunno, I noticed that that was one of the obvious opportunities as far as developing interesting, stimulating projects and, and then seeing the success from it.

John Benzick: Many aspiring entrepreneurs, David don’t know what they don’t know before starting a business. They’re sort of unconsciously incompetent in certain areas, not as prepared as they thought they should be in starting a business. Before you started Pop Sockets, to what extent were your previous career skills and knowledge aligned with your task of launching this type of company? Let’s say on a scale of one to 10 10 being very aligned, how well did your previous skills and knowledge fit with your new startup?

David Barnett: Oh, I’d have to say a seven or an eight. I mean, on paper it looks like a horrible match. I was a philosophy professor, so I had zero business experience. But philosophy is just clear thinking. So what more could you want going into business and being an entrepreneur, especially where you have to be able to, to learn various subject matter, you have to be able to learn finance quickly, marketing, sales, operations, supply chain, manufacturing, engineering you’ve got to figure that stuff out on your own, which is just problem solving, right? Sure. so philosophy really prepared me well for that. To be able to, to address new subject matter and master it even if I don’t master it as well as the experts, at least enough to know, you know, what kind of people I eventually need to hire. And so on. My main weakness was, was lack of actual experience with, with these topics, especially supply chain and operations and hiring, right?

David Barnett: Hiring people you can think as clearly as you want, but if you don’t have experience hiring people, you don’t really know what’s out there. And, and you know what you can expect how many people that interview before you know, what’s, what the market has. You just have no idea. And so hiring was really difficult for me. The first year or two I was hiring. Well, I fortunately didn’t have the choice to hire, hire top notch people because I didn’t have the money to do it, but still I was hiring people with absolutely no experience and it made it really difficult. Moving forward,

John Benzick: What’s the number one lesson you’ve learned since starting the company?

David Barnett: Directly related to the last point. It’s people, people, people. So one number one lesson I’ve learned is it’s all about the people. Surround yourself with really good people for what your business is, what you need, and your chances of of success just explode.

John Benzick: Do you have any regrets in behaviors or decisions early in your entrepreneurial journey? A lot of successful entrepreneurs have had regrets even though they’re successful. Have you had any of those regrets in any ways that you would have changed your behaviors or decisions in the past?

David Barnett: Sure, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. It’s hard to say whether I would have changed it cause they were all learning lessons for me. And maybe they were good in the end overall because I learned a lesson and it became strong report and, and took the business in a direction that I wouldn’t otherwise have without that severe mistake. But some big mistakes I made were, Jeez, not finding a, not surrounding myself with experts early on, not immersing myself in the community here in boulder of of startups and other entrepreneurs so that I could share it, share experiences with them and learn from them. Had I done that, I think I would have avoided contracting with the wrong factories again and again, having tens of thousands of defective product again and again. All that pain I experienced could’ve been avoided had I made the right connections and develop the right relationships in the community early on.

David Barnett: That’s one big mistake. And then another one was just various partnerships. A couple of partnerships I’ve made. I was too eager to enter into partnerships because I had a lack of experience and it’s really easy when somebody approaches you and says, you know, I’m an expert, just I’m going to take you under my wing and everything’s going to be okay. It’s just often not the case, right? These sorts of partnerships that entrepreneurs enter into early on because it’s much easier to say to license your product to a big company or to have some big group come in and run a sales department or a marketing department. It sounds really appealing because it takes the pressure off of off of you, but there’s, there’s risks of the risks in doing that. So I’d caution against being against jumping into any such relationship.

John Benzick: We alluded to this earlier, David, but starting a business is pretty unusual and so I want to get down deep a little bit more to understand your motivations to be an entrepreneur. A lot of people just talk about starting a business, but they never actually start one. Do you think you’re a creator at heart? Do you have a need to express something that ends up being in a certain medium, in a certain way, such as the business that you’ve launched? Was it your destiny to start this type of business?

David Barnett: Certainly. So yes, a creator, I also just crave stimulation. So I get bored of things relatively easily. I was bored of philosophy by the time I left and jumping into this, this business here gave me an opportunity to learn. Still I learn every day. I mean, I’ve learned so much about all those topics I mentioned earlier. And then also to have the satisfaction of something that’s useful in and you know, it makes people’s lives a little bit better is something I’ve had in me. Yeah. Since I was a child.

John Benzick: Did your success with pop sockets surprise you?

David Barnett: Yes. I mean, it surprises me so much. It’s just the last few months getting over the surreal experience of walking into this office every day and just thinking, this is crazy. I, my wife still says it everyday. She’s like, this is so crazy. When she’ll see a, you know, an article, a magazine article about me, or she’ll see Pop Sockets at the checkout lane of target. And I agree. It just feels surreal. I never imagined it would be anything. I thought one day I’d sell thousands of dates, but never in my wildest dreams. I think I’d sell over 40 million of them.

John Benzick: Along those same lines, what are you most proud of in the last four years?

David Barnett: I would say the philanthropic component of our company and we’re, we’re, we’re moving more and more in that direction as a brand. So, you know, some of the most touching moments of, of this business had been meeting with people with Parkinson’s for instance. So we supported some Parkinson’s groups. If you have Parkinson’s, it can be difficult to hold your phone and communicate with your friends and family. So we donated 10,000 pop sockets, grips to people with Parkinson’s and raised about $300,000 for some Parkinson’s groups. And you know, in some of those individuals came and spoke to our company about the impact it had on their lives. That was quite touching this, this quarter we’re raising money for arthritis foundation. A lot of people with arthritis tell us frequently how much, what a difference pop sockets make because they can hold their phones comfortably. And then next quarter we’re working with the Hospital in Denver. It’s one of the nation’s foremost spinal and head injury units. And patients also have often have difficulty holding their phones and communicating with friends and family. So pop sockets can really help them. We’ll raise money for them and get pop sockets into their hands.

John Benzick: Yeah, that’s a real nice, enjoyable benefit from entrepreneurship. David, many entrepreneurs experience self doubt as they go along their entrepreneurial journey. Sounds like you’ve been successful pretty much from the start. How much self doubt have you had, if any, and how have you dealt with it?

David Barnett: I’m laughing because you should ask my wife that question. She’ll say yeah, no, not with him. You know, calling me arrogant. So I, I mean, not a lot. I’m not I just, I have a fairly significant appetite for risk and I’m okay with failures. So, you know, had this failed, I’d be okay with it. I would just go do something else. You know? Even though I’d spend every dollar in my savings and sacrifice so many hours of time still if it failed, it failed that just try something else. And so it’s just, I don’t know, I guess I’m fortunate to be built like that. I’m okay with failure.

John Benzick: Do you think starting your business has changed you?

David Barnett: That’s a great question. Yeah, I’m sure it has. It’s given me all sorts of new skills I never had before and I think it’s probably made, made me more social. You know, in academia it’s, it’s a pretty solo discipline. You’re by yourself sitting in a room thinking all day long. That’s why philosophers and mathematicians go crazy. And so this is a far more social career path where I’m interacting with people just nonstop every day. And I really enjoy these relationships that I built with, with my colleagues here at Pop Sockets. So it’s more of a team endeavor and it’s probably changed me into more him being less of an introvert who spends time alone. So, yeah.

John Benzick: What have you learned most about yourself since starting the company?

David Barnett: Well, I guess just strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses would be, you know, from lack of experience as a, as a leader. So there’s always opportunities for me to improve as a leader and, you know, give more frank feedback to people around me and improve on communication and really help people to succeed who, who I am leading. Those were not skills I had. They’re not skills that you have as an academic at all. So I’ve learned that that’s a big weakness of mine. That, that I’m always working on a, and then strengths. I’ve actually learned that the power of clear thinking. It’s, I mean, I just have more and more confidence that people should not be deferring to, to the norm. Don’t defer to what most companies do. Don’t defer to what, what’s normal out there in business. Don’t defer to general rules of thumb about how to start a business.

David Barnett: Think through every problem on your own. Weigh the pros and cons, really reason through it. Listen to everyone at everyone else’s reasons, regardless of what their experiences and it will, it will bring you success. So it’s helped a lot that I paid no attention to someone’s background or the, you know, somebody says I’m an authority on this. To me I, it’s just, I didn’t even hear that until they give an actual reason for making a decision one way or another, it’s not going to have any impact on me. So the power of reason I guess is I’ve learned quite powerful in, in business.

John Benzick: From a professional or personal standpoint, who has influenced you the most?

David Barnett: Wow. It would probably be some philosophers. Sure your listeners probably haven’t heard of them but as some philosophers who really valued careful, clear reasoning and they valued certain principles, like don’t use fancy words, don’t try to impress people by saying fancy things. I mean it’s kind of like there, they’re the Steve Jobs of the philosophy world. Steve Jobs was always saying simplify, simplify, simplify. You look at their packaging, you look at their stores, you look at their, their products. They are always trying to simplify and just, you know, just have it be clean and simple and address your need without mucking it up. And it’s the same goes for reasoning. You know, and when you’re communicating with somebody, use simple words, make your reasoning explicit, make your goals explicit. And so these or a couple of philosophers Frago and Russell are there names who really valued that and taught me that the value of clarity and simplicity and I’ve applied that to business.

John Benzick: Fascinating. So David, here we are in the, tell me how segment of the podcast where we aim to get to the heart of the matter regarding key issues for aspiring entrepreneurs. David, let’s talk about raising capital. Did you originally raise capital for Pop Sockets?

David Barnett: It was was self funded so I spent all of my savings. I had a full time job, so I was spending some of my paycheck and my house burned down. So I got to spend a decent amount of my insurance money. So those are, could be unique circumstances. And then eventually I met various people around town who were interested in Pop Sockets and ended up investing. I raised about $500,000 through seven or eight investors. Uhhey were not, it’s not institutional money and I didn’t, I was just lucky enough to meet one person who introduced me to another who introduced me to another. I don’t think my model is, homething to strive for. So I, I think it’s probably better to educate yourself on the different ways to raise money and, you know, put together a clear plan and maybe try to raise institutional money from private equity or venture capital or you know, friends and family. You got to be careful if they’re actual friends and family. Mine weren’t, you know, you could easily burn relationships.

John Benzick: Sure. Let’s talk about finding a manufacturer. You had to start from zero on that, I would imagine. How did you go about finding a manufacturer for your products?

David Barnett: Sure. I’ll preface by saying this was one of the most difficult challenges for me and, and I had two big failures to start with, so I might not be a great example, but a good example of what to avoid. I did not reach out to a lot of experts. Instead it was basically a friend of a friend who knew a factory to start with and it was the wrong factory, so they just couldn’t make the case the case, right? I eventually had to leave that factory after about a year and I worked with a Colorado company that specialized in supply chain thinking they would be my savior, but they chose the wrong factory and I had defective product after defective product after defective product. It was really a really painful experience. So I highly recommend that people find the right teams here in the u s whether you’re manufacturing here or overseas, get expertise here people who’ve worked with a lot of factories and know what you need for your product.

John Benzick: Let’s switch gears and talking about selling the product to retailers. How did you learn to do that early on? What were those first approaches to buyers like us?

David Barnett: We started small just with the independents here in Boulder on Pearl Street and there’s a kite store called Into the Wind. It’s has a national reputation and the owner was kind enough to try Pop Sockets up on his up on his countertop. And then we got into a few other independents here in Colorado and then just went to trade shows. So consumer electronics show, my sister and I were there each year and we would grab every person that walked by and give them the demonstration, the Pop Sockets demonstration. And we were lucky enough to have T-mobile and Sam’s Club both stopped by our booth our booth in 2015 and both were interested once we gave them the demonstration, we made deals. Those were our first two big retail deals in 2015 and it was a real turning point for the company because we also finally had some money in the bank to hire some people with experience.

John Benzick: What is your selling mechanism? Do you hire sales reps or do you go with independent sales rep groups? You make calls on your own? Do people find you? How does that work?

David Barnett: So there was a pretty quick transition after our Sam’s club and T-mobile programs from grinding. I mean just, you know, sending emails to all the major wireless carriers, sending samples grabbing everybody that walked by trade shows. So it was, it was real active selling to order taking. So there was a real flip where all of a sudden we were just inundated with calls from independents to all the major retailers that you’ve heard of. They have approached us, they want their Pop Sockets. And so it’s, we’ve been fortunate, we don’t have salespeople who are out knocking on doors. We have mostly order takers. We do have a sales rep group that handles all of our independent accounts just because it’s easier from a communication standpoint.

John Benzick: What are your plans for product development? You must come to these sort of transition points where you need to make decisions on whether you go this way or that way.

David Barnett: Sure. In the short term our new products will focus on variants of Pop. So Pop Sockets with different materials and finishes and possibly new technologies in the actual Pop Socket a Pop Sockets ecosystems. So different mounts that can be used with a Pop Socket. We have a card holder that holds a couple of credit cards and a, an ID and it attaches to the backside of a phone and has an integrated Pop Socket to products. You can’t mention all of them, but we have a family in the pipeline that are closely related to the pop socket. And then after, after a couple of years, we may jump categories and venture outside the mobile accessories category.

John Benzick: I’ve always talked to aspiring entrepreneurs that the easy part of selling a physical product is to get it in the store, but the hard part is to get it off the shelf, have consumers come and want to buy the product from the store. How did you create awareness and demand for your product or was your product so unique and motivating?

David Barnett: It didn’t sell itself on at first because it didn’t have the proper packaging and it was packaged with two Pop Sockets in it, which was confusing to the customer. But as soon as we got the packaging right, word of mouth was, was sufficient drive sales. We had, you know, remarkably high sell through at anywhere we placed pop sockets and it was from the fact that a critical mass of people here in the United States at least had pop sockets in their hands and they were telling friends and strangers what it was and where to get it.

John Benzick: That is so great. It’s so rare to be in that position. Congratulations. And finally, David, did I miss any questions that you feel like you’d like to provide answers to or do you have any closing pieces of advice for our aspiring entrepreneurial listeners?

David Barnett: Closing advice I would say, well, unless you’re independently wealthy, I wouldn’t recommend that the typical person quit their job or quit school and jump into being an entrepreneur unless they have good reason to think their idea is going to be successful. I do recommend that people stick with the stable job, stick with a stable career, and then use their time at night, use their weekends to test out ideas and see what’s, what will be successful before taking that big plunge. And that’s about it. I mean, you have to have a little overconfidence for being an entrepreneur, so listen to feedback from people, but you’ve got to have thick skin too at the same time. So that combination I think really helps as an entrepreneur.

John Benzick: David, that’s a great way to end it. You’ve been a fantastic guest offering some great stories and advice to our aspiring entrepreneur listeners. Congratulations again on your success for your entrepreneurial courage and for sharing your experiences with us today.

David Barnett: Thanks very much for having me, John. I enjoyed it.

About the author, John

John Benzick is an entrepreneurship coach and the founder of Venture Superfly. He is a Tech Partner at the venture-capital fund of Matchstick Ventures, a Mentor with Techstars Retail accelerator, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence and (former CEO-in-Residence) at the University of Minnesota, and founder and owner in two consumer product businesses. Click the button below to learn more.

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