Nine years ago, a philosophy professor named David Barnett glued two buttons to the back of his mobile to keep his headphone wires from getting tangled. Now he’s planning an IPO for PopSockets, the US$200 million company that grew out of his plastic epiphany.
Never heard of PopSockets? That’s OK, because you’ve probably seen its products on the back of a teenager’s phone. The Boulder, Colorado-based company offers the ubiquitous little plastic doorknobs (the highlighted version on its website right now features the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots), as well as smaller versions (PopMinis), mounts, wallets and cases. You can even design your own. The company’s success has been directly related to its presence on social media.
The PopSocket is a product that “lends itself well to influencer community,” said Conor Begley, founder of Tribe Dynamics, a brand marketing company. “Why do you need a PopSocket? It’s for taking selfies with a really big iPhone. So if you’re using your iPhone all the time as a camera, PopSockets are really useful.”
Barnett, who said the company, now with 200 employees, plans a big expansion into Asia, is considering an initial public offering so he can provide equity options to employees and to enhance liquidity.
“The valuations in the public market, despite what many private equity groups will tell you, at least in our sector—they seem to be better than the valuations in the private market,” he said.
But there are obstacles to his plan: Brand recognition, the possibility of an economic downturn and the reality that every day, fewer headphones have any wires at all. As wireless earbuds become de rigueur, PopSockets may have to rely more heavily on its use as a decorative grip, phone-stand or selfie-helper.
Nevertheless, Barnett said he’s had conversations with Morgan Stanley, UBS and Piper Jaffray about his IPO musings, and plans on approaching others before making a decision. Morgan Stanley and UBS declined to comment, while Piper didn’t immediately respond. Barnett, who said he currently owns 40 per cent of the company, plans to list PopSockets on either the New York Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ if he goes public.
In 2014, Barnett left his job as a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and started working on his startup full time. His friends and family weren’t all that supportive, he said. “They thought it was a silly idea,” Barnett, 48, said. “They made fun of me until the second year of business when it was finally taking off.”
The first few years weren’t without trouble. The first shipment Barnett received in 2014 included 30,000 defective PopSockets. He had to replace the gel back on each one. “It was order after order of defective products,” he said.
He eventually sold those 30,000 units. Sales continued to improve, rising from 300,000 to 3 million units by 2016. (Bloomberg couldn’t independently confirm the sales figures).
Then came the real breakthrough, thanks to social media. Gigi Hadid, the American model with 45.8 million followers on Instagram, began posting mirror selfies with her PopSocket. Around the same time, Ryan Seacrest was spotted taking a selfie on the red carpet of the Grammy’s with a PopSocket.
“It just spread in Hollywood and then middle schoolers in Colorado started using them,” Barnett said.
By 2017, he sold 35 million. In 2018, PopSockets said it sold 60 million products and the business brought in more than US$200 million in revenue. The company has also launched a program called Poptivism, which donates half of the proceeds from a PopSocket a customer designs to the charity of their choice.
“My real goal was just to get a product on a peg in a store,” Barnett said. “I just thought it would be really cool to be able to walk in there and be like, ‘I actually made that!’”