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By Corrie M. Anders
Thirty-five-year-old Mike Simmons doesn't look much different from many other young high-tech entrepreneurs. The founder of a startup company, based in Noe Valley, comes to the door for his interview dressed in black sneakers, jeans, and a V-neck sweater pulled over an open-collar shirt.
His corporate headquarters is unpretentious. It's a small sunroom off the upstairs bedroom of his 29th Street Victorian-style home. The cramped workspace, which also doubles as his wife's office, is where Simmons conceived and designed Earbud Jack, a simple gadget for digital music listeners that keeps the long cords of earbud headphones from tangling.
But Simmons' company, What If Widgets, breaks the mold of most businesses--especially those like his that are in their vulnerable first year of existence. He is giving 5 percent of each Earbud Jack sale to charity. The device costs $9.
The first donations were recently delivered, fittingly enough, to two organizations that promote hearing health: the San Francisco-based Hearing and Speech Center of Northern California and the American Hearing Research Foundation, located in Chicago.
Because the private company's sales are proprietary information, Simmons would not disclose how much he donated to the groups. He pointed out, however, that his earbud holder "sold like crazy" at the Macworld Expo in January at the Moscone Center and that he expects to send even larger donations in the future as sales of the product grow.
Simmons is the only employee of his company, and Earbud Jack is its only product so far. The blue three-inch plastic widget resembles a stick man with splayed arms and legs. It's fairly easy to use. Merely throw the earbuds over the figure's shoulders, draw the cords between his legs, loop the remainder several times around his head and feet, then tuck the earjack plug into one of his hands.
The idea was born out of Simmons' exasperation at finding the cords snarled or in knots when he was ready to listen to music on his MP3 player. His friends and colleagues also complained about the same kinky problem.
"Everyone I knew who had an iPod would pull it out of their pocket, and inevitably would have to spend a couple of minutes untangling the headphones," he says. "In this day and age with the Internet, people want things instantaneously, so that 30 seconds or a minute or however long it might take to unfurl your headphones can be frustrating."
Of course, Simmons thinks he's got a hit on his hands. Market analysts estimate music lovers own 80 million MP3 players, he says, with the ubiquitous iPod and iPhone accounting for 53 million of the total.
"So each one of those is a potential customer," he says. "I certainly don't believe every one of those people is going to buy Earbud Jack, but I think it creates a large market opportunity."
What If Widgets does not have a CEO, chairman of the board, or other formal executive title. Simmons calls himself the firm's Chief Tinkerer. The whimsical description personifies his talents for helping to design or develop new electronic products for companies as varied as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and SanDisk.
A business design degree from Stanford University and an MBA from MIT helped hone his entrepreneurial side. But he's not a total geek. He loves cooking, swing dancing, running, and once, in his Stanford days, was on a team that set a world record for leap-frogging 996.2 miles to help raise money for a tutoring center in East Palo Alto.
Until last year, Simmons lived in a loft in the trendy South of Market district with his wife Diana, a business development manager with Clif Bar, the organic energy bar company. The birth of son Logan in May last year prompted the couple to rethink their living arrangement and move to Noe Valley.
"A loft is not necessarily the ideal place for having a baby," says Simmons. "We decided we needed to move to a little more family-friendly environment."
Simmons started sketching his Earbud Jack design in late 2006 and continued into early 2007. By the summer, Simmons had put his Internet consulting business "on a back burner" and turned full-time toward the launch of what he calls his "little blue man."
He initially toyed with naming the product "Ear Buddy." But Earbud Jack was an even better wordplay: jack is the location where headphones plug in and, as a person's name, gives the product a personality.
Donating a portion of his revenue was a key feature of his business plan from the start. Simmons says he followed the paradigm of "really good" companies such as Newman's Own, Patagonia clothing, and Clif Bar. "They believe in their employees and have strong convictions" about helping good causes.
His vision was not a marketing gimmick or ploy to boost sales. "If it helps create sales, that's great, but that's not the purpose," he says. "In addition to creating fun products, I wanted to create a company that gave back to the community."
The 5 percent donation pledge is printed directly on the packaging of each Earbud Jack, which is sold on Amazon.com and MacFriends.com, and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art museum store. The pledge is meant to hold the company publicly accountable.
"I think a lot of companies have good intentions about giving back. But when it comes to the end of a quarter, there's a lot of leeway they have as far as determining 'Well okay, things were a little tighter this quarter, and so we're going to cut back on what we're giving,'" Simmons says. "I wanted to build [the donation] into each product so that I didn't allow myself that hedge."
The donations struck a chord with the San Francisco beneficiary. "By contributing a portion of their profits, What If Widgets helps our organization promote hearing health and assist people of all ages with hearing loss to get hearing aids, education, and counseling," says Leslie Castellanos, an executive with the hearing and speech center. The Chicago recipient expresses similar sentiments.
Simmons hasn't designed any other widgets for his new company. "As soon as sales grow to a point where I can fund more research and development, then I'll develop future projects."
Still, don't be surprised to soon see a variation of Earbud Jack. It'll be called Earbud Jill.