At a recent Inc. event we met Billy Gridley, CEO, and Steve Palladino, EVP of sales and business development, of Brightbox, a New York-based start-up. These entrepreneurs offer some valuable insights about turning an interesting idea into a legitimate business.

Brightbox developed a phone charging station that hangs on the wall at your local hospitality venues such as hotels, restaurants and bars, event spaces, gyms, and malls.  There are six charging bays with three standard charging cords which together charge 95% of cell and smartphones. If you are out and about and your phone battery is running low, simply walk up to a Brightbox, swipe your credit card to authorize a small fee (typically $2-3) and a bay door pops open. Inside are adapters for Android, iPhone, Blackberry and other devices. Plug in your phone, close the bay door. You can make calls or check messages at any later point by re-swiping your credit card to open your bay, and for no extra cost you can put your phone back in to continue your charging session. Here is a video showing Brightbox in action.

This is a classic "why didn't I think of that?" idea. While smartphones have become exponentially more powerful, batteries have only seen modest improvements in the last decade. Because our smart devices have become integral to our professional and personal lives, we're acutely aware of our battery charge levels at all times.

We interviewed Billy and Steve, and our first questions were:

  • What was the inspiration that drove the creation of Brightbox? Where did the "lightbulb" idea come from?
  • How did you turn the idea into a start-up business?

The "Aha!" Moment

Behind every start-up there is an "aha!" moment, where an entrepreneur recognizes they can turn a challenge into an opportunity. Brightbox's moment came when Adam Johnson, a New York bartender, was asked if he could plug yet another customer's phone in the wall outlet behind the bar to charge. Adam saw that having five or more phones plugged into a wall outlet was a serious inconvenience and risk for both him and his customers:

  • An accidental spill of food or drink on the phones could cause real damage and create very angry customers
  • Adam had to keep an eye on the phones to make sure none were stolen
  • When the bar was busy, Adam had no real way to track the comings and goings of customers or ensure he was returning the right phone to the right customer
  • Customers still wanted occasional access to their phones while they were charging to check messages, taking Adam away from his duties to fetch and return phones to the outlet

Adam got together with three friends to design an alternative. They reasoned that customers might be willing to spend $2-3 for a secure, convenient charging solution which was aesthetically pleasing to venues. They built a prototype device they called "Brightbox."

Turning an Idea into a Business

In our experience, the "aha!" idea is only a small part of building a viable start-up. There are many questions to address and basic assumptions to test, such as:

  • Have we identified a problem worth solving, enough to justify investing time and energy to build the business?
  • Who is our target consumer? What are their needs?
  • What are our target venues? What are their owners' needs?
  • How will we reach the consumer? How will we provide them a great result that satisfies their needs?
  • What functions / capabilities should we outsource? With whom should we partner?
  • Where, when and how should they pitch themselves for outside investors to realize the start-up's full potential?
  • What skills and capabilities do we need on our team?

The Brightbox founders, to their credit, recognized they did not have all the skills to test their business model and scale the business. They brought in Billy as CEO. Billy raised a first round of investor funding and has begun building the Brightbox leadership team, including hiring Steve as executive vice president of sales and business development.  Billy has also begun signing the outsourcing partners the company needs to manufacture, install and service the product.

Learn First, Scale Second

Together, some of the founders and, Billy and Steve have begun placement at various venues in the New York tri-state area, focusing on bars and restaurants. With more than 50 locations, they are learning:

  • Which venues and consumers are the most attractive, and why.
  • How best to articulate their value proposition to a venue owner, and the needs and concerns of venue owners.
  • Where best to place a Brightbox within a venue, and the importance of location in attracting consumers.

In our view, this learning is critical. "Learn first, scale second" is the best way to ensure a start-up is using its limited resources wisely. Having started to build a knowledge base in bars and restaurants, the Brightbox team is also working to pilot in other locations (e.g., airports, malls, movie theaters). As they execute those pilots they will learn even more about the relative value of different venues and consumers.

In upcoming articles we will discuss the opportunities and challenges they face in scaling the business, and also Billy's and Steve's backgrounds as entrepreneurs.

How did you turn your idea into a start-up?  Please let us know your thoughts at