Popsockets: An Innovation Story

TL;DR: Inventor has a problem, invents a product to solve his problem, tries the product out with friends and family, friends and family use the product for a completely different purpose, inventor pivots the product to focus on the purpose, profit!

You probably have a Popsocket, or if you don’t have a Popsocket, you probably have a friend who has a Popsocket, or maybe you have a Popsocket knockoff (tsk, tsk). The origin of the Popsocket is an excellent example of invention, design thinking, pivoting, timing, and luck.

Let’s start with the original problem; the inventor wanted to do something about storing his unwieldy headphones with his phone. He initially thought about attaching something to the back of his phone to wrap the headphones around. Original prototypes worked but stuck out too far, so he used the concept that some collapsible cups do to flatten the holders against the back of the phone when not in use. In order to wrap the headphone cord properly, he needed two Popsocket type devices stuck to the back of the phone and wrapped the cord around the devices.

His product worked well; it held his headphones securely. Excited about this, he smartly decided to share the product with his friends and family before going all out and building a ton of them to sell. He gave them a bunch of them to try out, explaining how to use them, then sent them off for a few weeks and would touch base with them later. I can imagine how he must have felt over those two weeks on tenterhooks wondering if the product was going to be a success.

Two weeks later, he met up with his “beta-testers” and was in for a shock: hardly anyone used them for their intended purpose – most people used them as a handle to get a good selfie, others used them as a stand to watch videos (Millennials and GenZ were starting to use their phones as their primary internet devices, watching videos on them became more normal and accepted), and for some others, it even played double duty as fidget spinner (my son used his for that until it broke and he needed to get a new one).

Surprised, but having an open enough mind to realize that his potential customers had found a use for his invention which was more compelling than his, he smartly decided to pivot the product and focus on its use as a handle/stand/fidget spinner instead, and it was a huge success.

Everything fell into place:

  1. He had a problem
  2. He invented a solution for that problem
  3. He tested the solution with a small group of potential customers
  4. He pivoted the product to appeal to his customers and promoted it as such.

He also very smartly protected his intellectual property on this, as the concept is so simple less scrupulous players can very easily copy it.

So many things could have gone wrong with this:

  1. He could have decided to launch his original concept without letting his prospective customers use it, possibly being a modest success but not a game-changing one – or it could have been a complete failure, as wireless headphones made cords obsolete
  2. He could have been a pig-headed startup founder who wanted to maintain his original vision and disregarded the feedback from his potential customers
  3. Snapchat, Instagram and other visual social networks which rely on photo-taking may not have been popular when it was launched, and finally
  4. People may not have taken to watching videos on their phones in the same way as they did.

While you might think his success was mostly luck, the pattern is there: solve a problem, let your customers play with the solution, then change the solution to match the more desired outcome, then launch. How many times have your products taken the same trajectory?