Time magazine might have named the selfie stick one of the best inventions of 2014, but the venerable pub missed an equally clever—and far less obnoxious—smartphone accessory that publicly debuted the same year: PopSockets. The collapsible grips/stands attach to the backs of phones, making them easier to hold in one hand for taking selfies or for scrolling through your Instagram feed. The brainchild of David Barnett, a former philosophy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, PopSockets has increased its sales tenfold each year and delivered 35 million units in 2017 alone.

Its success story doesn’t follow the same plotline most modern startups do, though. PopSockets has received no venture capital funding and done little in the way of traditional marketing. Instead, Barnett relied on old-fashioned hustle. He manned a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show before connecting with buyers from Sam’s Club and T-Mobile in his second year and landing PopSockets’ first major retailer deals. Those coups allowed him to hire people (like the former president of Boulder’s Kidrobot) with the business acumen he didn’t possess. A little luck hasn’t hurt either: Early versions somehow found their ways into the hands of celebrities such as Serena Williams and model Gigi Hadid, serving as unexpected free marketing.

That wasn’t the only happy accident in PopSockets’ brief history. Barnett’s initial design—for which he ran a 2012 Kickstarter campaign—featured two separate grips, like buttons on a snowman, around which users could weave earbud cords to keep them untangled. But his students, an informal focus group of sorts, gravitated toward the grip feature, so Barnett fabricated a simpler version instead. When YouTube stars discovered the product, PopSockets capitalized, asking the social media influencers to design their own collections. Today, the Boulder-based company has relationships with Swarovski, Marvel, and the NBA and offers about 1,000 styles ($10 to $50).

10 percent of net online proceeds PopSockets donates to nonprofit partners (Englewood’s Craig Hospital is the current beneficiary).

Barnett recognizes that PopSockets’ growth isn’t sustainable and that the market will soon be saturated with competitors. “New growth won’t only come from adding new colors,” he says. “It will come from international expansion and new products.” To that end, a car-vent mount launched in February and a stick-on wallet case with a PopSockets grip will debut online later this year. Maybe Time will finally start taking note.

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2018.
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.