“I try to be a leader every day, which can be a challenge.”
Eric Griffin, co-founder of Mobile Outfitters
Eric Griffin and Dennis O’Donnell are the co-founders of Mobile Outfitters, a company revolutionizing the phone accessory and device protection space. Here, Eric and Dennis share insights into their entrepreneurial journey, including how their relationship grew from a childhood friendship into a fruitful business partnership.
What was your initial vision for Mobile Outfitters?
ERIC: We didn’t have a vision. It’s a long story but we segued from another business into this business. We were really focused on getting out of debt from the previous business. The vision was just to make this thing work.
DENNIS: We re-focused in 2014, and we did set a vision. It took us seven years to know we needed one and to understand what that even means. The vision we have today we could have formed in 2007. We knew people wanted a personal experience when it comes to mobile accessories. We wanted people to love everything about it.
ERIC: We started a business that sold cell phones in 2004. We were good friends before high school and through college, where we continued our own entrepreneurial endeavors. We decided to team up and sell phones, so we opened the DC office, and then also had our Philadelphia location. Before the iPhone was around, we would import phones — flip phones. Europe had the coolest phones.
Then we started thinking: What products can we bolt on to the phones to make more sales — chargers, screen protectors? The turnover of models is pretty fast, so we made screen protectors in-house, put them on the phones — We were doing it all on demand. At check-out, we’d suggest adding the custom screen protector for 10 or 15 bucks, and realized around 90% of people bought it. No one was doing this, but at the time we didn’t even realize we were building a business; hindsight is 20/20, but we had no idea at the time. It was great until it sucked.
We were know-it-all 20-year-olds making a lot of money — in college, it was all disposable. We came out of college, had our own company, were doing $3 million in sales, and we thought we knew everything. We were on top of the world — kings of business.
Then the iPhone came out. We’re in the industry, so we kinda knew it was coming, but we always thought we would figure it out. The iPhone dropped and it felt like it happened overnight, but it was really over a six to 12 month period. It was a big blow. Business began to decline month over month. There was a two-year period before it really bottomed out. We laid one or two people off, and it was just two of us in this tiny office with no heat. We’re sitting there in sweats, one quarter of a million dollars in debt, thinking: “What are we doing?”
DENNIS: This was in 2008 when the economy tanked. Then the bank called. That felt like rock bottom.
ERIC: For me, rock bottom was starting my resume. I’d never needed one before.
DENNIS: At this point, we decided to open a kiosk in the King of Prussia mall. I was 26 years old. I had now been working at my own business after trying to do the startup thing for five years, and we’d already tanked once. We needed to make this work. And I think Griff hit on something: We were both young and arrogant. We split time between the office and covering the kiosk and, as a result, we were working 9- and 12-hour shifts seven days a week.
ERIC: The kiosk was making hundreds of dollars a month but the effort versus the payoff was hard. It felt like being on a treadmill.
DENNIS: It’s not a good feeling. For me, that was rock bottom: driving home one day after a 12-hour shift at the mall. I’m a product guy. It was never my vision to be a retailer. It was tough.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur? If so, what were they?
DENNIS: At 10 years old, I bought a shoe shine kit and started shining shoes at my dad’s office. So, no, there isn’t really any fear there because being entrepreneurial is the only thing we’ve ever known.
ERIC: The first dollar I earned was from selling baseball cards; I sold them to other kids in the neighborhood. I always enjoyed doing that kind of thing, it felt natural.
What has been your greatest struggle in founding the company?
DENNIS: For me, the biggest struggle is defining my personal limits. There’s a lot of different aspects to that. We always say, because we are a growing company, “Every day I’m running the largest company I’ve ever run, and every day I’m slightly incompetent for the role I’m in.” So I look at it like I’ve always gotta level up and get better at it. And I’m still trying to figure out that personal limit. It feels a bit like swimming in the deep end. I’ve got to be very mindful of burnout. I’ll take on a lot, which leads me to working long hours, which leads to burnout. It’s important to find the right balance.
ERIC: I try to be a leader every day, which can be a challenge. For me, it has less to do with business struggles or challenges and more about personal ones. When you’re leading a company, and when you’re personally stuck, everyone — customers, staff, partners — is waiting on you to get unstuck. That’s a confusing journey. When you first start a business, your greatest skill is the ability to do everything. Very few people know what they were put on this earth to do. It often takes 20 or 30 years to figure that out, answering questions like, “What am I actually good at? What should I delegate? Not delegate? Does that jive with my core competencies?” It’s confusing, but peeling back those layers to get to the core of things is also fun, difficult, and exciting. We’ve been working on that for each other for years and are still discovering who we are and what we’re good at.
“When the team and our
employees can excel
without us — when
they feel proud, happy,
and fulfilled — they feel like
it’s their company, too.”
Dennis O’Donnell, co-founder of Mobile Outfitters
What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey thus far?
ERIC: Like any major moment, it’s a collection of things that have happened in a short amount of time that feel like a single, big moment. We grew, grew, grew: It felt aimless, chaotic, and we were winging it. Then we hit a point two years in a row where we stopped growing. We did $3 million one year, then $3 million the next and thought: Okay, something’s broken, but this is not the first time this has happened. Let’s learn how that works and how to scale. In 2013, we embarked on that learning experience.
In period of 12 months, we learned our core values, wrote them down, and set our vision for where we were going by 2022. We knew who we were and where we’re going. We changed the company name from Clear-Coat to Mobile Outfitters and essentially re-tooled everything. We were relentless about it. Out of that came product innovation, and we started firing customers that didn’t align with our core principles. We let some people on the team go and initiated hiring practices rooted more in values than what’s on someone’s resume. We finally knew what we had to do and it felt inspiring. The next year, we doubled our revenue. That was a huge moment, or collection of moments, that changed everything.
DENNIS: I do get a deep satisfaction when I think about how much the company has grown up. When the team and our employees can excel without us — when they feel proud, happy, and fulfilled — they feel like it’s their company, too. Witnessing that is awesome. For whatever reason, I can’t explain why this is, my biggest hope is that this company grows up. I look forward to it growing up from being a teenager in my basement into something everyone can enjoy.
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
DENNIS: My dad was an entrepreneur and started and ran a great company. He grew the company from the ground up to the point where there’s 200 employees running the show; it runs without him now. When we got started [with our business], he told me it was going to be hard. He never said, “Don’t do it,” or that it wouldn’t work, but he wanted me to be sure it was the right path for me. To make a business work, you have to really want it. He wanted to make sure I wanted it.
Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
DENNIS: My dad was our first mentor. We called him all the time in the beginning to ask for advice and we leaned on him for the very tactical stuff.
ERIC: We’ve had lots of advisors over the years, including Dennis’ wife and my girlfriend who have stood by us while we worked our tails off. My dad also played a very supportive role; both of my parents were always like, “You can do it!”
Did you ever come close to giving up?
DENNIS: Yes! There was a point when I actually applied for two jobs — this was around 2008 or 2009. I made a resume and even went on an interview, but the guy called me the next day and said no. I asked why, and he said, “I gotta tell you, this job is Dilbert-ian. You are not a Dilbert.” That just reinforced what I already knew: that I was meant to be an entrepreneur.
ERIC: I had a similar moment when I fired up a Microsoft Word document and started to work on a resume. Luckily, I never needed to finish it.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.