War Zone Start-up
Go to the website where a portable iPhone charger called the 3GPower2 is for sale, and you will find tips on extending an iPhone's battery life. What you won't see is any hint that Bill McNeely, the man behind the product and the website, is working from a dorm-style room on a police-training base in one of the world's most dangerous corners: Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan mired in battle with the Taliban.
For now, McNeely earns his living managing the logistical operations at the camp, run by an American company that the U.S. government has hired to help train the fledgling Afghan National Police. (McNeely requested that the name of his employer not be printed.) When night falls, though, McNeely gets busy running his Web business. The inspiration to market an iPhone battery booster came to McNeely last summer. Immersed in his usual routine of nighttime online reading (despite what he calls a 1999-level connection to the Internet), McNeely came across articles citing the iPhone's short battery life. "I saw a big market," he says, "and not that many players."
Though he has no technical knowledge, McNeely had a simple idea: Create a sleek-looking external battery that snaps on to the bottom of an iPhone, giving it hours of new life. He went to Alibaba.com, and within a few weeks, he was able to land a Chinese manufacturer. He turned to the freelancer site Elance to find a graphic designer; his packaging was created by a Bulgarian. McNeely also used the Web to find and hire a Harvard Business School-educated consultant to help craft his business plan. And a New York Times article led McNeely to a Web designer, who helped him set up his site. After an investment of about $6,000, McNeely got 3GPower2.com up and running in less than three months, and his site opened for business last September.
McNeely's personal war-zone exit strategy is to build his iPhone battery charging business to the point where he can give up the overseas life and get back home to his family. And the sooner the better. His days are filled with reminders of the war around him: There are the crowds of Afghan men who have come to receive police training -- and the crackle of gunfire from the base's shooting range. Recently, a rocket launched by the Taliban landed a few hundred feet from the base.
It's hardly an ideal environment in which to start an entrepreneurial venture, but McNeely had few options. His stint in Afghanistan began in 2008, after he had been out of work in Texas for three months. A former Army logistics officer who served in Iraq, McNeely found a job with a defense contractor managing a crew of local mechanics responsible for maintaining trucks and tractors used in a poppy-eradication mission in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
The work was dangerous. McNeely survived an attack on his convoy, but several drivers were killed, and his SUV was destroyed. "I've been through some pretty rough stuff," he says, "but I was really scared that day." McNeely needed the work, though, so when that job ended, he signed up for his current job with the same company.
So far, business is slow for 3GPower2. McNeely, who earlier tried and failed to start a defense contracting business, has sold just over 250 chargers, at $29.95 each. He's spending his evenings and weekends on the business and making Skype calls to his wife, who handles shipping from their house in Temple, Texas.
To get sales moving, McNeely is applying search-engine-optimization techniques to his company website. He's also counting on boosting sales with a discount promotion offered through the coupon site Groupon.com. (See "Four Tips for Using Groupon Coupons").
If the strategy works, McNeely figures he will be able to head home well before the end of the year with a full-time job waiting for him -- running his own business. "He promised that this will be the last year," says his wife, Suzy. That means a lot more iPhone battery booster sales, but McNeely intends to keep his promise.