How I Made It: How two college friends rejected corporate careers to launch a start-up that makes anti-radiation cases
Cary Subel and Alaey Kumar, both 28, are the founders of SafeSleeve, a start-up that makes laptop and smartphone cases to protect users from electromagnetic radiation. The two got the idea as engineering students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Seven years later, SafeSleeve employs 10 people in its Carlsbad offices plus a growing network of contractors. Kumar and Subel have sold 100,000 of their products in 80 countries since they began shipping cases in early 2014. Their cases can be purchased on their website and Amazon.com, as well as from foreign partners.
Subel grew up in San Diego, where his family moved from South Africa when he was 2. Subel remembers how they had little in those early years and had to find ways to make a living. Subel’s parents began by selling ties out of their trunk at local county fairs and trade shows. Eventually, they were able to invest in a kiosk, and when the World Cup came to the U.S. in 1994, they decided to open a World Cup store. The money from the soccer-themed business later enabled them to open a jewelry store. “I watched that progression, and that’s what I learned growing up,” Subel said. “That’s what sparked my interest in being my own boss.”
Five hundred miles north, in California’s wine country, Kumar was similarly learning about entrepreneurism. His parents owned a deli business, and Kumar would always take deli sandwiches to school. By the time he was 12, he understood that his schoolmates were ready to pay money for an exciting variation on the typical peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so he started selling them “or trading them for Nintendo 64 games,” he said.
During a summer internship at a company that produced turbines, Subel realized that the traditional corporate way of doing things didn’t work for him. “It wasn’t necessarily that they did it wrong or they didn’t do it well,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be in an environment where one little change needed 10 people’s approval.” Getting an idea and having the ability to quickly run with it became a priority for him. “It just further confirmed that I needed to be in a start-up.”
Kumar saw how difficult it was for an employee to create change in a corporate environment during internships at Disneyland and an aerospace company. “There are a lot of cogs in the system, and the influence that any one individual has is minimal, especially in the low ranks,” he said. Watching his uncle leave his corporate job to join a start-up and move quickly up the ranks showed him that there was a more dynamic way of doing things.
Finding the idea
Subel and Kumar became friends after transitioning, separately and coincidentally, from electrical engineering to industrial engineering in search of a major that would also allow them to pursue their interest in business. In lectures, they’d seen other students take their laptops out of their neoprene cases and use the sleeves as improvised stands for their devices. It reminded Subel of a time in high school when a friend, whose dad was a urologist, had told him that laptop radiation could cause cancer and infertility, a much-debated topic in scientific circles. The idea began to take shape of a case that would also serve as a workstation and block extremely low frequencies, radio frequencies and thermal radiation.
“We knew people wouldn’t spend a lot of money to protect themselves from a type of radiation there’s not much awareness of,” Subel said, “so we thought, ‘Why not just make something that looks better and that also shields users from radiation?’”
From the crowd
In true millennial style, aside from a few personal loans, SafeSleeve received much of its financial resources from crowdfunding. In 2013 and 2014, the two friends raised more than $40,000 on Indiegogo and Kickstarter for their laptop and iPhone cases. Although they knew little about digital marketing at the time, they believed it was the most effective way to make people care about their products, and they decided to give it a try. Their two campaigns exceeded their respective targets, but it took them awhile to understand what they were doing.
“Now we’re way more prepared,” Subel said. “The analogy I use for that is the Ikea furniture. You buy two bookshelves, and the first one you make is supposed to take you 20 minutes, but it takes you two hours. By the time you get to the end, you’ve got a few leftover screws and it was a complete pain. But then you make the second one, it takes you 20 minutes, and it’s perfect and sturdy.”
Kumar and Subel don’t believe in micromanagement. They interview potential employees rigorously to understand if they’re the right fit. Once the choice has been made, the two co-founders aim to offer training and stay involved, but also back away, letting employees do their jobs and intervening only if needed.
Even as the company grows, Subel would like to see this management model stick and become a working alternative to the “traditional, corporate, large company environment.” That’s why SafeSleeve has chosen to expand its network of external contractors while keeping its in-house team as lean as possible, to let creativity flow and allow employees to create change rapidly. “The more people you add, the longer it just seems to take,” Subel said.
After college, Kumar worked for an aerospace company in Orange County. For five years, Kumar worked 16-hour days to be able to continue developing the SafeSleeve idea with Subel. He’d get to work at 5 a.m., get off about 1 p.m. then work for his start-up until 9 p.m. every day as well as on weekends. “When you’re working on something you truly enjoy and you can make a difference, it’s exciting. It doesn’t feel like a job.”
Subel and Kumar want their business to embrace ideals of fairness and social responsibility. One of Kumar’s main influences is his father because “he’s very hardworking, but also ethical.” For the same reason, Subel counts Steve Jobs, Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins as sources of inspiration alongside his parents, as well as “anyone who’s doing things differently, pursuing their passion and doing something that’s not just about their bottom line, but actually contributing to society, to the community.”
Kumar and Subel live in Carlsbad — a place they chose for its burgeoning start-up scene and the reasonable cost of property — Kumar with his wife and Subel with his fiancée. In his spare time, Kumar practices meditation, which has taught him how to remove himself from situations and reach decisions that are more thought out and less emotional. Whenever he feels the need to overcome any negative emotion, Subel plays guitar. “It’s a great way to be alone with my thoughts and produce something creative,” he said.
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