Consider Square. The pocket-sized, cube-shaped credit card reader invented by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey redefined the means of taking and making payments for businesses and individuals through a simple innovation: mobility. Square started small. In a matter of two years, it grew from three users to more than a million. Its success is a product of graceful ingenuity.
Consider Charles Mercader and Sam Dominguez. The two recent California State University of Sacramento engineering graduates-turned-entrepreneurs wanted to devise a product that solved a problem. They believe Square is the future of mobile payments. They saw only one hiccup: Square’s lack of easy transportation. So they gave it a hoodie.
More precisely, they gave it a silicon holder–one fashioned with a loop that attaches to key chains, purses, belt-loops–so Square now goes where its owner goes. Its flexible material allows one to simply peel back the case when a card needs to be swiped. No removal necessary. Square Hoodie, as the product is aptly christened, presented Square users with a simple solution: mobility.
It’s starting small. Charles and Sam grew up in San Ramon Valley, not far from where Square’s headquarters occupy offices in the San Francisco Chronicle Building in downtown San Francisco. Here, in the Silicon Valley area, they were raised with the same entrepreneurial spirit that bred Apple and Google and Facebook, where optimism is inherent and innovation commonplace. It is with this enthusiasm they are introducing Square Hoodie. They have a few prototypes. They’re hoping to bring it to millions.
Charles and Sam need $4,000 to reach their goal. If it’s met, production of Square Hoodie will begin immediately–they’ve already gotten their designs approved by manufacturers. Show their Kickstarter page some love, and then read how the two engineers dreamt up their own product of graceful ingenuity.
BANGSTYLE: How did you come up with Square Hoodie?
Sam: We wanted something that makes Square easy to carry, but at the same time we didn’t want people to have to take it out of the case to make transactions.
Charles: My girlfriend has a key chain, and on it we saw this hand sanitizer with a silicon-style holder. That was the biggest inspiration for [Square Hoodie]. We decided to use silicon; we took the idea of keeping it in one piece and making it fashionable, with different colors.
BANGSTYLE: What sparked choosing to make a product for Square?
Sam: We met at Sacramento State engineering and spent five years studying together for various classes. [Charles] and I both were inspired by product design, whether that was hardware–he’s into cars and automotive designer things–or software. Once we graduated, we decided we should take a shot at really putting our own idea out there trying to solve a problem like the Square problem we just talked about.
Charles: We’ve both always known we wanted to produce a product eventually. Our engineering background definitely helped. Out of anyone else out there doing product design on Kickstarter, the most successful typically have a design or engineering background which is an inspiration. It helps knowing the ins and outs of what it takes to produce a product.
BANGSTLYE: What made you decide to start so early?
Charles: We did start right out of college. For us, having and putting your own design to life would be amazing. It’s the greatest skill in the world. We have just over 35% of our funding, so we’re not quite their yet … but it is comforting people want your product. In the U.S., unemployment among undergrads is pretty high. A lot of people take a chance and try to start a product, and we’re glad Kickstarter is around to help people start.
BANGSTYLE: Tell me how it works.
Sam: We like to think of it as a smart case for the Square device with a loop. You can connect it to a bag, a keychain, or a lanyard so you can keep it with you on the go. The silicon case keeps it protected so certain debris stays out of the card reader portion. Everything is smooth. It’s water resistant and the design is durable. [To use Square] it’s as simple as keeping the reader within the case and peeling the case back to take credit cards when needed.
Charles: We wanted to keep the case very intuitive, very self explanatory. You can take it on and off, just like a hoodie, and you’re on your way.
BANGSTYLE: Is that how you came up with the name?
Sam: Yeah we did. We were trying to explain to Charles’ friends and roommates how it works and how to peel it back for the credit card reader portion and we said ‘Yeah, just like your hoodie jacket.’ The name stuck. It’s a great way to explain to a stranger or an audience how it might work.
BANGSTYLE: You mentioned you think Square is the future of mobile payments. Why?
Sam: For its entrepreneurial aspect, meaning that because of the lack of contract whether service or product driven, an individual can now take credit card payments. And the app and the device in combination is super simple. My dad is brand new to iPhone and smart phones in general. He just self-published a book, and he himself uses it. If it were any other type of product, he probably wouldn’t be taking credit cards. That was the tipping point where Charles and I noticed and thought it will be mainstream–if even my dad who isn’t tech savvy can use it.
BANGSTYLE: I saw you tried to fund Square Hoodie on Kickstarter last December. Did you get close? What changes did you make, if any?
Charles: Even though we didn’t get the funding then, we continued to reach out to manufacturers to find ones who were willing to work with us. We were able to do that, and we got the price to go down tremendously. Another issue [with the December campaign] was timing. If you looked at the product design section in December, there was a lot of noise. Plus, people don’t have a lot of money to spend on goods. They’re out purchasing Christmas gift and not spending time on Kickstarter. It definitely affected us … it’s been a roller-coaster ride and great experience. Whatever happens [this time] we’re not going to stop. Kickstarter is basically a feasibility study … we have nothing to lose, and we’re enjoying every minute of it.
BANGSTYLE: Have you gotten people to buy Square Hoodie?
Charles: We’ve made prototypes, but it’s not affordable to create [the real item]. It’s very expensive to make. The prototype is printed up layer by layer on a 3D printer, so it’s not durable. It gives you an idea of what the product will be like and the function is the same. The real product will be more durable, more vibrant, and stronger. There won’t be any lines like you see in the Kickstarter photos. It’s going to be sharper and smoother.
BANGSTYLE: You said your Kickstarter budget will go towards production?
Sam: Yes. The budget for Kickstarter goes into tooling to mold the sillicon. Kickstarter is there for our initial batch of hundreds of Square Hoodies created.
Charles: What people don’t know is that the biggest thing that sets us apart is that our design for Square Hoodie is ready to be produced. With some products, there’s a lot of delays in production because [their creators] don’t have engineering experience. Square Hoodie is already approved by manufacturers. We’ve gone out and done all of our homework, and the product is ready to go; we don’t expect too many delays … We’d like to make that clear for people because Kickstarter has a background for that.
BANGSTYLE: What made you want to bring Square Hoodie to everyone?
Sam: Solving a problem, even for a niche market of Square users. This is our first fully accessible product. We wanted to start with something simple that we could get our head around and market well. From here, I think this is just the beginning. We will tap into larger markets and larger margins and identify needs for that larger market.
BANGSTYLE: What do you do when you’re not doing Square Hoodie?
Sam: I’ve been developing software for iPhone for the past three and a half years, since the App Store was launched. I have another partner, Bobby Cronkhite (bobbysoftware.com), and I spend my free time developing apps that way. I see my retail job as a way to pay the bills, as an interim job until the project is launched.
Charles: Yeah my job is also just to pay the bills. I’m really into cars. I spend a lot of time making products for discontinued rims. They’re pretty expensive before they were discontinued, and they no longer make the center caps. I make plastic replicas in my house, and I sell them at 4 for $80. I needed them for my car and posted [selling them] for fun, and I keep selling them. I’ve always sold things on the side. Even throughout high school, I knew I’d like to eventually do a product en masse.
BANGSTYLE: What’s the first thing you sold in high school?
Charles: I used to do repairs for mopeds. A lot of people had them in the neighborhood–the California Go-Ped was created 20 miles away from the region where I lived. I’ve seen these little companies come from nothing and create something big, and I sell parts for them … I’d make really simple things, small knick-knack parts, parking gauges. I’ve had my fair share of experience messing around with plastic materials.
Sam: It’s cool Charles focused on manufacturing technologies and materials. He’s an awesome resource for what you can make affordably. He knew what questions to ask when it came time to talking to manufacturers. We were very much self-taught in many regards; it’s the way we were taught to think and while higher education helped, it wasn’t a requirement.
BANGSTYLE: What other start-ups or tech companies inspire you?
Sam: Apple is a pretty big inspiration. The DODOcase is another San Francisco company we really like. They use an old-world bookbinding technique to make cases for tablets or smart phones. We like something like that. As for software companies, we like a company like Facebook which has an idea and builds a great team and an awesome product customers love. Anything that is consumer-oriented we think is really good.
Charles: For the biggest up-and-comer, it’s DODOcase hands down. They took an industry that was thought to be dying–bookbinding–and brought it back to life at least locally. There’s self-fulfillment on the customer aspect, and they’re giving back to industry. Besides using green technology, they’ve made a product that’s very useful and high quality. You combine green technology with that and people love that. It’s this self-fulfilling, high-end product.
BANGSTYLE: Ultimately, would you like to create your own technology or continue to improve it through innovations like your own Square Hoodie and DODOcase?
Charles: Products change all the time. You always have to roll out new products. People always ask how you keep coming up with ideas–but when new ideas come out, a new one will always sprout. Different products roll out, and you can always think of something. We’re not going to be an Apple, but I don’t have to be an Apple to make new innovations. Apple has been able to provide companies with a product, and you have to backpack on a product and be inspired. You can make an awesome case for an iPhone or an iPad that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. That doesn’t mean you’re not an innovative company. In the long run, we would love to basically create a company with a long line of products.
Sam: I’m going to echo that, especially when we get better partnerships with manufacturers who can help streamline products, fund-raise for them, and tip it. If we can take one idea and add a twist to it, to make a unique product or a hybrid of multiple ideas, I think a company itself could help us realize our dreams of making awesome products that solve problems, and we’re hoping for that for the next project on the horizon.
BANGSTYLE: What else would you like people to know about Square Hoodie?
Charles: We get a lot of messages from up-and-coming businesses asking about how to create their own product. Feel free to give us a ring–we have no problems answering questions. We get that a lot of people think we, as entrepreneurs, wouldn’t be able to share information. We’re obviously starting out as well, and we don’t have a problem sharing what we have learned. I don’t think any person should be afraid of that; that person could be your age.