Unlimited demand can mean rapid expansion, but the irony of your business suffocating under the stresses of relentless growth can be all too real. As orders pour in and problems mount, you have to adjust to meet needs, pushing what made your business great in the first place into a sea of chaos.
There's true purpose and skill behind successfully scaling your business to meet lofty consumer demands. No one knows this better than David Barnett.
In 2010, Barnett walked into a fabric store looking to solve a problem and walked out with a multimillion-dollar idea. In three short years, he went from selling 30,000 units from his garage to 35 million – an astonishing growth rate of 71,424 percent. Barnett is the founder and CEO of PopSockets, those accordion-style circular hand grips that just about everyone is slapping on the backs of their phone cases. PopSockets has offices around the globe and currently sells in more than 50 countries.
Barnett was originally trying to figure out how to prevent his earbuds from tangling in his pocket – he fastened two oversized buttons to the back of his case so he could wrap his earbuds up. While this was PopSockets' original function, it wasn't long before Barnett saw the true value of the product: the grip.
Barnett said he wasn't afraid to try new things and change his product early on. This spooked some investors, who said it was safer to be conservative and focused with his design, but Barnett attributes a lot of his success to constantly exploring how to make PopSockets more personal and in line with consumer demand.
"My approach from early on was a shotgun approach – throw everything at the wall and see what would stick," he said. "I'm really glad I did that, because it allowed me to get feedback, really, on that and let me realize my invention wasn't around headset management."
PopSockets is a unique idea born from organic curiosity. Barnett was a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder when he started working on PopSockets. He had no business or e-commerce experience, and everyone he hired at the beginning of his idea – mostly enrolled students or recent graduates – were also new in the field.
"We had some kids right out of college, or still in college – they had absolutely no experience," he said.
But his team was nimble, smart and focused on solving problems – and that made all the difference at the beginning, according to Barnett.
"I just needed someone who could solve problems, and just anything we would throw at them, not necessarily somebody who was focused in a particular area," he said. "Early on, we just had a bunch of clever generalists."
As things heated up, Barnett said, he didn't focus on trying to set processes or establish protocol around how his business operated. Instead he kept things simple: Solve the problem at hand. His team of clever generalists focused on knocking out as much as they could, but it led to disarray at points.
"It was just chaos," he said. "There wasn't much time to manage, and there was no process. It was a handful of people with zero experience."
Barnett's business expanded, and he started to think more about the problems he was facing. He slowly transitioned to hiring experts to build departments within PopSockets. This transition from generalists to experts allowed PopSockets to keep its nimble, dynamic structure – the focus was still on solving problems, but now experts could help drive the company forward and build out new areas. This approach allowed PopSockets to stay fast and efficient throughout the process.
"I do look for people … who are impactful; they really move the ball," Barnett said. "They're not people who are from a big company culture where things move slowly."
As experts and experienced workers began to build PopSockets, Barnett made another decision that he feels was crucial to the company's success: He handed these new employees blank checks to go build their departments. PopSockets' growth was astounding, and Barnett felt that having the right people in the right position with no budget constraints allowed the business to unfold naturally.
"I think we would have a lot more damage from not allowing these leaders to build out their teams the way they need to than we would from spending a little too much money on extra personnel," he said.
Barnett is happy to hand off as much of the responsibility on his shoulders as possible. He recently hired a president to run PopSockets' day-to-day operations.
Through it all, Barnett said, he remained focused and calm. He said he approached PopSockets' problems and challenges as they were: confined to the limitations of the real world. As a student and teacher of philosophy, he said he was used to grappling with big questions about existence. When it came time to handle PopSockets' issues, he realized a practical solution existed.
"These are all solvable problems compared to philosophy, where many of the problems were just impenetrable," he said. "The problems we faced – clearly there was a solution. Even if we didn't have it at the time, I knew that we could find it."