Sean Carrigan noticed something annoying. Not earth-shaking, but irritating no doubt. It was an experience to which millions can relate. Rather than grumble, shrug and move on, however, Carrigan started a company to attack the problem.
“I was in a place where I needed my cell phone charged, and it was very frustrating,” Carrigan said. “It’s a helpless feeling. And it’s a universal problem.”
Specifically it was a restaurant in eastern New Orleans where Carrigan’s phone died. He was anticipating some phone calls, emails and text messages. He asked if he could plug in behind the bar, but the bartender wouldn’t cooperate.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was something I could pay a little bit of money into and charge my phone,'” he said.
Now as chief executive officer of the New Orleans startup MobileQubes, Carrigan is the one planning to provide such an option.
During the upcoming New Orleans Entrepreneur Week business festival, he will seek support at the newly created Demo Day introducing local angel investors to homegrown businesses and the business pitch competition produced by the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission.
The idea of MobileQubes is to establish a network of kiosks that dispense charge packs capable of refilling most mobile phone batteries one to two times. Carrigan likened the service to the Redbox movie rental stations. “The business model is a rent and return,” he said.
The company is focusing on airports, hospitals, convention centers, theme parks and casinos, all places where people might be committed to staying for extended periods – what Carrigan called “closed systems” — while wanting to remain digitally connected as they move about. MobileQubes also might add offices, especially those where employees often rove into the field.
The kiosks will help customers get the correct type of battery pack to fit their phones’ plugs. When customers deposit drained packs back into the machines, they will automatically recharge. The electrical parcels are designed so only the kiosks can recharge them, said Carrigan and his partners in the business.
“The machine processes it, recharges it and deploys it for the next customer,” Carrigan said.
They plan to rent the battery packs for $4.99 for the first day and $.99 cents per following day up to eight days. If someone doesn’t return one after that, the system will charge $19.99 for the missing battery.
MobileQubes kiosks have yet to go live. The company plans to deploy the first 10 to 15 by the end of the summer and begin collecting data on customers’ responses.
While the venture started with Carrigan, much of the company’s story thus far is about the converging paths of three partners.
Carrigan, 31, started his career in business development at Dow Jones in New York and said it was a great job but it was hard to make a difference in a large organization. “Everything I did, I wasn’t really moving the needle,” he said.
So he helped launch a firm called adverCar, which places advertising decals on cars. The Greater New Orleans, Inc., economic development group and New Orleans Startup Fund lured adverCar to New Orleans in 2011, and Carrigan came with it.
Soon, though, investors based in the San Francisco area pressured the company to move there. That’s a kind of pull emerging companies sometimes feel in New Orleans. Carrigan, however, said he thinks the city’s landscape for startups is maturing to become less susceptible to such outbound influences.
“It’s a tough thing with New Orleans startups because you need to follow the money,” he said. “I think that’s something that will evolve down here.”
For his part, he stayed in New Orleans when adverCar left in 2012 and started working on his next venture.
Carrigan studied economics and communications in college before embarking on his career in business, and he needed help developing the technology he envisioned for the phone charging stations.
Through a friend he found Jason Palmer, 31, whose background is in bioengineering. Palmer was working as a field engineer for the Abbott Laboratories medical technology firm and pursuing a doctorate in biomedical engineering, but tiring of academia.
Carrigan and Palmer, now the chief technology officer for MobileQubes, began studying the market and how their system would work.
A missing piece, Carrigan said, was someone with industry expertise.
Then they found Mike Melito, 52, who has built a career catching technology waves.
Melito was one of the first people to sell fax machines for the Sharp electronics company starting in the mid-1980s, he said. Then in the late 1990s he connected with the Nextel communications company, selling mobile phones as an independent dealer as that market was about to explode and building a network of stores.
He attempted retirement. “Retirement is not for entrepreneurs,” Melito said.
So he became an investor, joining the South Coast Angel Fund. It was in that role that Melito first met Carrigan at adverCar. Later, drawing on his years in the mobile phone business, Melito was intrigued by Carrigan’s portable charging idea.
“I instantly liked it and I immediately wanted to be a part of it,” Melito said.
Melito now serves as executive vice president of MobileQubes. In reality, though, the three of them perform all kinds of jobs for the company.
In deciding what to create, they thought about systems where users dock their phones inside lock boxes. Such systems exist, they said. But owners can’t use their phones while they’re charging. It’s a “bad customer experience,” Carrigan said. “We let the customer hold on to their phone. They’re always in control.”
They considered that some venues, such as airports, have hubs where people can plug in devices. But they noted people must remember to bring their power cords, and phone users have to stay tethered to an outlet in a wall.
The partners also weighed the fact that backup battery packs for phones are available for purchase at retail. But Carrigan said those come at a “high pain price point” of $60 to $130.
Melito said only 5 percent of mobile phone customers have such an “ancillary charging brick.” He said conversations with people he knows at airport electronics stores indicate about half the people who buy the bricks pick them up in one airport and return them in the next, seeming to validate demand for a rent and return model.
MobileQubes participated in the most recent business accelerator program at The Idea Village, the organization that produces Entrepreneur Week. While there, the founders worked with Mike Eckert, an angel investor recently moved to New Orleans who co-founded the Weather Channel, served as its chief executive officer and led the latest class of startups in training.
Eckert said the trio impressed him. Carrigan’s startup experience, Palmer’s technical skills and Melito’s industry background are a formidable mix, he said.
“I have a lot of confidence in them,” Eckert said. “It’s a good team. There’s a good chemistry between the team.”
It was a sign of maturity for Carrigan and Palmer to seek out Melito, he said. Company founders often show reluctance to inviting senior partners, or don’t know how to lure advanced professionals to high-risk, high-commitment roles, Eckert said.
“They were wise in bringing in a seasoned veteran,” Eckert said. “The wise, wise, wiser of these startups will go out and put together an advisory board of seasoned people.”
So far one of the company’s greatest challenges has been developing the kiosks that automate multiple functions, Eckert said.
“The MobileQubes kiosk is a complicated piece of technology with a lot of moving parts,” he said. “It’s been very impressive the way Jason is sourcing the different pieces.”
The company now faces the task of testing and validating its system, but that is a natural step, Eckert said.
“The business is evolving on a positive curve,” he said. “It’s a basic curve, a go-to-market curve.”
But the appearance of charging posts at airports demonstrates the need for this kind of solution, Eckert said. Options that currently in place seem to be stopgaps, he said. Meanwhile, mobile technology in general continues a steep rise.
“The phones are getting better and better,” Carrigan said. “The services are getting better and better. But the batteries, they’re not developing on the same path.”
While researchers are working to improve the built-in battery technology in phones, no breakthroughs appear imminent, Palmer said. Even when battery life does dramatically improve, many people will hold older phones for years, needing a technological bridge, Carrigan said.
Carrigan and his partners said they feel an urgency to move quickly, to win the advantage of being first to launch this type of product.
“We’re a first mover,” Carrigan said. “There’s no one else out there doing this.”
They’ve filed patents. They need results from kiosks in the field to confirm and refine their approach. Then, the partners said, they can attract investors and begin spreading their network of MobileQubes across the country.