Consumer Products and Retail: PopSockets LLC
Founder and CEO
Boulder, CO | Founded: 2012
PopSockets inventor and CEO David Barnett is making mobile phone users a little happier every day.
How did a philosophy professor go from exploring the inner workings of the human mind to creating an entirely new category of mobile device accessories?
“Philosophy is just clear thinking,” says David Barnett, the Founder and CEO of PopSockets. “It’s that same drive to figure out how things work,” he says — to grasp “the fundamental building blocks of the universe.”
The company he built makes a phenomenally popular collapsible attachment that can be used as a grip, stand and cord wrap. Available in a seemingly endless array of patterns and colors, the customizable accordion-style doodad also satisfies consumers’ fidget needs and desire to express their personal style. It has proved so popular, PopSockets has experienced astounding growth of 800% per year since its launch in 2014.
Indulging innate curiosity
Barnett insists he is not a technology or gadget freak himself — “I don’t care to have the latest smartphone” — but when he found himself with nowhere to store his earbuds, his innate curiosity and desire to find solutions kicked into gear. He glued two large buttons to his phone to create a cord wrap, then started tinkering with ways to get the buttons to expand and collapse, and quickly settled on the accordion as the simplest, most comfortable solution.
He believes he came about his entrepreneurial instinct naturally. “I think it’s genetic,” he says. “My grandpa had it.” His grandfather, an executive at the now-defunct media company MCA, showed Barnett what it meant to have the entrepreneurial drive. “It’s just a bug to create and accomplish things,” he says.
The bug drove Barnett to get a handle on how things function. Even as a child, he started several problem-solving businesses and says, “When something broke, my instinct was to take it apart and fix it.”
His fix for the earbud problem, among others, has made his company one of the hottest consumer brands in existence. Celebrities seen with PopSockets include Reese Witherspoon, Serena Williams, Ryan Seacrest, Kendall Jenner, and members of the Los Angeles Dodgers and U.S. Olympic teams.
The product’s popularity requires constant vigilance to protect against brand infringement. “Every business is unique,” Barnett says, and entrepreneurs must guard that uniqueness. Over the years, he has come to favor design patents over utility patents.
“Design patents are much easier to enforce,” he says, adding that PopSockets has made “a huge investment in brand-protection dollars” and is responsible for the highest volume of infringement reports to online retailers, globally removing 1,000 to 2,000 listings every day.
The reason behind the pop
The product’s star-studded fan base influenced Barnett to abandon his initial plan to “sell the company, make a lot of money and start a nonprofit.” He instead has chosen to stay the course with PopSockets, using its power to capture attention for causes he and his employees care about.
Barnett judges his company’s success by what it does to make a positive impact. One mission of PopSockets is to “make the world a little happier.” To that end, Barnett initiated a program he calls Poptimism that enables consumers to design custom PopSockets, with a share of the profits from their product’s sales going to support their favorite charity. “It empowers them to become activists,” he says. The program complements the company’s Pop with a Purpose campaign, which lets employees select a charity to receive donations from online PopSockets sales.
While Barnett is pleased to see the programs fund a wide range of worthwhile causes, he says his own personal favorite cause is relieving the suffering of what he calls “non-human animals.” Ultimately, he hopes to eliminate factory-farmed meat.
The way Barnett financed his company is just as unconventional as his approach to business. He lost his home in Colorado’s devastating 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire and used the insurance proceeds covering its contents to fund his dream. He replaced the home itself, but — unmarried at the time — he was satisfied to live in a house with few furnishings. (Rest assured that he and Nikki, his wife of seven years, have since invested in more comfortable surroundings.)
While his lifestyle has grown a bit more conventional, Barnett has not altered his view of what is truly important in life. He believes people should own their own happiness, and he strives to develop employees who are “selfless, customer-obsessed, responsible, impactful, passionate, innovative and courageous.”
Always the philosopher, Barnett says he conceived his approach to life and work “through pure reason.” The lessons he has learned from just thinking through an issue inform his attitude about how we should live and behave.
“If all of us just stick to business, we are going to live in a pretty bad world,” he says. “We ought to be doing everything we can to make people happy.”
Consumer Products and Retail finalists
Olympia, WA | Founded: 2003
Union City, CA | Founded: 1992
Houston, TX | Founded: 2001