Products that enhance user experiences have become ubiquitous and indispensable. In 2018, the burgeoning mobile phone accessories market in the U.S. amassed $28.52 billion and has continued to boom since.
For former philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and entrepreneur David Barnett (92C), creating the infamous PopSocket wasn’t a conscious decision, rather, it was a simple solution to his earbuds being constantly tangled.
A brand that started with Barnett gluing a large fabric button to the back of his iPhone 3 has since blossomed into a $200 million company that has sold more than 100 million units since its inception in 2014. The Wheel discussed the meteoric rise of the cult favorite and Colorado-based PopSockets with Barnett, founder and CEO, on Feb. 4.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Angela Choksi, the Emory Wheel: What encouraged you to major in philosophy at Emory?
David Barnett: I was actually originally an economics major. I remember that I was sitting down with an advisor, and told him that I found economics interesting at the beginning, but I was losing that interest quickly. He told me to not waste my time, and that this was my one chance in life to take classes about all sorts of different topics. About a year into classes, I went to drop or change a class, and I vividly remember standing in front of a wall on which they used to post course listings. There was a cute girl next to me who picked a philosophy course, and I thought to myself, sure I’ll try that class. I took the class, I loved it and ended up eventually getting a Ph.D. in philosophy.
TEW: How would you describe your transition from being a philosophy professor to becoming a CEO?
DB: The timing was just perfect for me. I was burnt out of thinking of philosophical questions and the discipline itself. I love philosophy and loved grappling with those questions, but after so many years, I felt that you can only make so much progress. Then, just by chance I came up with this invention … that I thought that I could sell to other people, and by the time I brought it to market, I realized that I could actually sell quite a few of these. Philosophy still comes in handy every day, though, in terms of critical thinking skills and decision-making skills. It has been invaluable for me in business.
TEW: How did the idea of PopSockets first come to you?
DB: As a kid I was an entrepreneur, so I think that I was tapping into that spirit. In 2010, I was fed up with my earbud cords tangling in my pocket, and so I drove to a nearby fabric store to find a solution for myself. I ended up gluing a couple of big clothing buttons to the back of my iPhone 3 with a few spacer buttons so that I could wrap my headset cord around these two huge inch-and-a-half clothing buttons. iPhone 3s were tiny, and so these buttons covered my entire phone, and it worked for my purpose, but looked quite ridiculous, and my friends and family made fun of me. I quickly set out to improve the solution, and toyed with many different mechanisms until I landed on the accordion mechanism. I worked on making it more functional so that it could serve as a grip and a stand and clip on to things, but still lay flush in your pocket. The grip is really the central feature that took off as the main benefit of a PopSockets Grip.
TEW: What inspired the name “PopSockets”? Is there any significance behind it?
DB: Originally, the company and the first product was called iButtons. I did not really love the name, and just quickly came up with it, but then a billion-dollar company threatened to sue me for the name, since I owned the iButtons.com domain name. When I was a professor, I brainstormed some names with my students and my wife actually put our ingredients together to come up with the PopSockets name.
TEW: How do you feel when you see someone with a PopSocket on their phone?
DB: It’s almost sad now that I don’t feel nearly as much pride and joy as I used to, since I have seen so many. In the early years, it was a big deal when I would spot one of the PopSockets Grips in the wild. I was so excited to see one at the airport or in another state. It was a surreal experience for me to see an invention that I had been working on by myself at a desk in a little room, after prototyping so many versions, to be used by celebrities and so many other people when they blew up.
TEW: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted you in your role as CEO, as well as the PopSockets brand?
DB: Before the pandemic, we had about 300 employees, and sold at about 100,000 doors in the United States alone. The pandemic was a major threat to our business, and we were running out of cash from all these doors closing, so we quickly had to cut expenses by roughly $45 million dollars within a matter of weeks, furlough 60 employees, and lay off 40 employees. Those were some of the roughest days that I have had in the brand, and we had to be prepared for a decrease of about 40-50% in our sales projections. We ended up missing by about 20% at the end of last year, and that was in large part to our online business, as well as our retail partners that remained open, like Target and Walmart.
TEW: How do you envision the future of PopSockets in the next few years?
DB: As far as growth goes, we are focused on a shift of approach, in terms of building a brand that sells direct-to-consumer around the world, especially as we grow our business in Latin America and Asia. Instead of simply pegging our products in a large store, our strategy is to grow brand awareness through social-media, and influencer and awareness campaigns. This year we are launching a MagSafe collection for the new iPhone that has a magnetic platform on the back of it. We also have a big confidential product that we are launching later this year, and are also toying with launching products that are not mobile phone accessories.
TEW: What is your fondest memory from your time as an Emory undergraduate?
DB: I have so many fond memories from my time at Emory. Just yesterday I was thinking about the draft of a book that the author, who was my physics professor, shared with me. Even though I wasn’t a physics major, I formed a rapport with him and he felt comfortable enough to share his unpublished manuscript with me. Even though it went way over my head, I read the whole thing and was stimulated by it. Pulling all-nighters is a fun memory of mine, even though I did not really retain much while cramming. Curly fries, intramural competitions and of course, late night meals at Waffle House with my friends will always remain in my heart.
TEW: If you could share one piece of advice with Emory students or budding entrepreneurs, what would it be?
DB: Tenacity is one of the most important qualities that an entrepreneur should have. You should also have the ability to internalize feedback and tweak your ideas accordingly. One should definitely join a start-up community that can support, advise and guide you in key ways especially when you are just starting out with your business. One must also find the right balance of confidence, which is associated with being tenacious, accepting failure. Most entrepreneurs have a little too much confidence, which is what allows them to take the risks that other people would not take. One must still be receptive to the feedback being received and the data surrounding your product or invention. You cannot be deaf to the market, and have to be willing to adjust in light of feedback from the community.
TEW: What were some failures that you faced or obstacles that confronted you during the early stages of the company?
DB: Two of the biggest obstacles that I encountered were around supply-chain and hiring. I had massive problems around quality with my product, with shipment after shipment of products being defective. I had no expertise in manufacturing or identifying the right suppliers either domestically or overseas, and that led to massive pain for me that could have been avoided had I aligned myself with an expert or joined a start-up community in town. Our very first shipment of 30,000 PopGrips, which took all the money that I had at the time, all had an ineffective adhesive and so they fell right off the phone. The second challenge was formulating expectations on what sorts of people I could hire for various positions. I had no understanding whatsoever of what an A player is or what a B or a C player in business is. As I hired people, I had no idea whether I was hiring the best person in a field or the worst person in a field because I had nothing to compare these people to. Over the years I have understood what is available in the talent market and what sorts of people to hire for different levels of the company.
Barnett’s inspirational journey of perseverance, tenacity and hard work is surely one that is celebrated. From late nights at Waffle House to early mornings in Colorado, Barnett’s story epitomizes entrepreneurial spirit.
Today, Barnett’s company sells a variety of mobile phone accessories and has offices around the globe including Finland, Singapore and South Korea. Ultimately, Barnett’s clear vision for the PopSockets brand and the company’s grand plans to conquer even more phones in the future chart a bright path for its highly anticipated initial public offering.