Every time someone asks me, “What’s that?” there’s about a 70 percent chance I know exactly what they’re referring to. It’s my PopSocket, the bizarre circular device sticking out of the back of my phone that, also 70 percent of the time, I am busy fidgeting with.
There is such a thing as “journalistic ethics” wherein I should probably not reveal my extreme personal bias about PopSockets in the process of writing an article about them, but reader, I must do so anyway. I love PopSockets. I pity my former self who existed for more than a decade with a cellphone without a PopSocket. My life is separated into two eras: pre-PopSocket and post-PopSocket, and the latter is far, far superior.
I am also not alone in this: Start a conversation with any PopSocket haver, which I have done many times over, and they will almost always seem far too enthusiastic about a piece of plastic that costs less than $10 than they should. That is, until you experience the joy of a PopSocket yourself and become one of them.
The story of PopSockets is this: In 2010, David Barnett was a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who was sick of his iPhone headphone cord getting tangled up in his pocket. He attempted a few DIY methods, but the problem was that they remained protruding from the back of his phone, and realized he needed to create an accordion mechanism to collapse it back in. Half a million dollars from local investors, a large insurance payout after a wildfire destroyed his home, and a Kickstarter campaign later, PopSockets was born.
Named the second fastest-growing privately held company in America by Inc. magazine, PopSockets had as of this December’s holiday season sold more than 100 million units and now employs 200 people. But with that success has come a problem that nearly all smartphone accessories share: fakes.
I spoke to Barnett over the phone, where he discussed his approach to dealing with counterfeits (the company is quite litigious), how they market a product that sells itself, and the best placement for a PopSocket — and yes, there is a correct answer. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I was shocked when I found out PopSockets were originally invented as a thing to coil your headphones around.
That’s right. You can call it the best pivot of my life. Our first year, it was easier to sell somebody the product by telling them the benefits other than the grip. So you can tell them it’s going to mount on your dashboard — guys just go crazy for that. You tell them you can wrap your headset [cord around it]; the college students love it. You tell them you can clip it to your laptop monitor screen or clip it to your shorts. And people get excited, but then you tell them it’s a grip and people back then used to say, “Huh? Why do I need a grip, I can hold my phone just fine.” Then once we got it in their hand, it’s the grip that they get addicted to.
Obviously, PopSockets has about a million imitators and copycats. When did that start becoming a problem?
I saw my first counterfeit in probably 2016. I was pretty upset, and then I talked to people in the field of brand protection who said, “Oh, wow, you should be flattered.” They were excited for me.
I have yet to be flattered.
How do you deal with it?
Back in 2017 and 2018, we were taking down between 1,000 and 2,000 listings every day from marketplaces around the world. We were Amazon’s No. 1 customer in terms of the volume of takedowns every day. They had to develop new protocols just because of us. So if you’re in the US, you’ll see if you go on Amazon, it’s hard to find a fake. If you find one, it’s not gonna be on there within a day.
They learned a lot, we learned a lot. First, they cleared the marketplace of counterfeits — those are the products that actually use our name, PopSocket. And then after that, we got a general exclusion order issued by the International Trade Commission, who issues at most a handful of these a year. It’s an order to the customs agents to confiscate incoming goods that infringe our patent, whether they say “PopSockets” or not, so that includes all the fakes. As soon as we got that order, Amazon agreed to enforce our patent on their marketplace.
It took a long time, but we’ve made a lot of progress. Now the borders are theoretically sealed up, so each month we have between 20 and 40 seizures that are reported by the customs agents.
What happens when counterfeit items slip through?
We have lawsuits around the world. We have over 40 lawyers around the world, we’ve spent over $7 million last year fighting the battle. It’s worth the fight, though; as you can see from the US, it really is mostly under control. There are still some in kiosks, some in the promotional industry, but we’re going after those sellers.
We litigate fiercely. [The biggest lawsuit] is against a company called Quest USA Corp.; we have three federal lawsuits filed against that company out of Brooklyn. They make a product called SpinPop that’s sold in Walmarts. If you look up a picture, you’d think you’re looking at a PopSocket.
We’ve had lawsuits in Europe; we’ve had a judgment by a judge in Chicago for about a million dollars per plaintiff. On eBay, we had a case against 20 or 30 sellers, and the judge will freeze their PayPal accounts during the court case and give whatever proceeds are in those accounts to us if we win.
Obviously, all of this is happening because PopSockets sell really well. Why do you think people love them so much?
I can tell you from just looking at the alternatives and why they’re not blowing up. There’s plenty of alternatives on the market, right? There’s straps, there’s metal rings, there’s a string like a little bungee cord. If you think about two things, if you think about putting your fingers in any of those compared to just relaxing your fingers around our accordion, it’s just a nicer experience. It’s nice, soft, easy to put your hand in, easy to put your hand out. Your hand’s not trapped in it. [It’s] fun to play with. I don’t know if you fidget with yours, but most people do.
Yeah, so none of those [other products] are fun to fidget with. They lack the magic of the accordion.
I’ve read that in the first few years, you didn’t do any marketing and that it was all word of mouth. What’s your approach now?
Last year was the first full year of having an actual marketing team. We still spend ... far less of a percentage of our revenue on marketing than most companies do. Early on, we just wanted to sell a lot of products to generate revenue, to build up the company and get our feet beneath us. And word of mouth is great for that, and it served that purpose.
But now what we want to do is build a brand, and we want people to understand that PopSockets is not just a product; it’s a real brand with real values and a real product DNA, and they’re going to expect more fun, interesting products from us.
Is “fun” how you would describe the PopSockets aesthetic?
Products from us, you can expect to be fun. The PopSocket grip is fun to play with. People call that grip life-changing, which I still laugh at, but I remember first hearing that years ago. It should make your life better. And then they [also] allow for self-expression.
What’s happening in the phone accessory space right now, and are you responding to any of those trends?
I have no idea. I don’t pay attention to the phone accessory space. I’m not really into phone accessories. I’m laughing, [but] that’s really no joke. We tend to pay attention to what our particular consumers like and the needs they express. We have a product development team in San Francisco of 20 people and another in Boulder of about 10 people.
Is it still stuff that you put on your phone?
We are exploring other areas, but that’s not the central goal. In the next two years, you’ll see products from us that are mostly focused on the backside of the phone, so still mobile accessories. We will eventually jump categories.
Do you have any theories on the best placement of a PopSocket?
I do. I’ve seen high riders and low riders, and they are all wrong. A lot of people like to say there is no right answer to a question. My PhD people said that there is a right answer to every question, and the answer to this question is that it should almost always go right in the middle. If you have a plus-size phone, slightly lower than center.
Oh, and you want it in between your pointer finger and your middle finger; you don’t want the Vulcan grip, two fingers above and two fingers below. It’ll restrict your access to the screen. If you rest it on the tip of your middle finger, you can pull your hand all the way around the front of your screen and your hand can be really relaxed.
Well, I am thrilled to know that I do it the exact right way! So having been a philosophy professor, have PopSockets helped you see the world any differently?
I thought you were going to ask the reverse question, which is how is philosophy applies to business, but you’re basically asking how has business applied to philosophy? I don’t know that I’ve learned anything deeply philosophical from this. I’ve probably learned more about psychology than I have philosophy, because philosophy is a pretty individual sport. Business is all about collaboration, and as we now have 200 employees, I’ve learned a lot about human psychology and the challenges of working together in groups.
So PopSockets has not unlocked the meaning of life for you?
Unfortunately, I never thought about the meaning of life as a philosopher, either. So I’m not even sure what it means when people ask me what the meaning of life is. I know what the meaning of a sentence is, and I did study that. As far as the meaning of life, no, it has definitely not enlightened me on the meaning of life.