Unique, handcrafted smartphone and digital device cases are the specialty of diffr3nt, a startup based in Fairfield, Connecticut and founded by Jason Maloney and Mark Donne, graduates of Fairfield University. We’ve been following their progress for a while. They’ve been faithful supporters of the growing startup community in our state, participating in Startup Weekend and being great cheerleaders for other Connecticut startups.
As a part of our Startup Roadshow spotlight of Bridgeport and Fairfield, we asked Jason to catch us up on diff3nt’s progress, and to let us in on what’s next. Jason and Mark also participated in our “Meet the Founders” event on 7/29 at the B:Hive in Bridgeport.
You and Mark started diff3rnt to create an unconventional product. Do you feel like you’ve done that? How have things evolved and changed — with the products and the business — since you started?
I think that we absolutely created something that was unconventional and different. When we look at the cases available, even today, most of them are bulky and plastic. We don’t like that. We feel there is not a ton of character in hard plastic cases.
So we made something slim and from canvas, and gave people the ability to use their case as a small wallet. When we came out with our sleeves, we looked at all the products out there. They claimed to add “protection” but it was just extra bulk that really does not protect your devices, at all. So we crafted something slim, that was minimal and beautiful, and stopped your devices from being scratched when they are in your bag or on the table not being used.
Our new products are going to reflect the same values that we hold. We want to look at the way current products are made and do something different. We want to zig when everyone else zags, we want to look at a product that is done the same by multiple manufacturers and put the diffr3nt spin on it.
Things really have evolved. We started making these in a workshop in Torrington and working out of my apartment in Orange. Since then we have bought our own machinery in Bridgeport, and have an office at the Fairfield University Accelerator and Mentoring Enterprise (FAME) which has treated us really well. We have built a tiny, efficient company over the past two years and we are proud to say that we are slowly but surely growing.
You did a Kickstarter campaign for the iPhone 5 case. Have you done more since? Overall, what has been your experiences on crowdfunding and working with investors in Connecticut?
We have not done any other kickstarter campaigns but you may want to keep your eyes open in August! We fully intend on launching one of our new products on Kickstarter to crowdfund again. As you can tell, since we are going back to Kickstarter, we had an incredible time doing it. Kickstarter was also much smaller when we launched our campaign, and not yet a household name. We think that crowdfunding is an outstanding way of reaching new markets without having to get funding from an investor. It’s not for everyone, as some products and services just would not work on a crowdfunding platform, but for what we are doing it’s great.
When it comes to facing the daily challenges of running a startup, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received that you can share with other entrepreneurs?
Stay strong and surround yourself with great people that can help! Running a startup is hard, there will be bumps and roadblocks trying to stop you from getting to where you need to be. Starting your own business is extremely difficult, if it wasn’t, everyone would do it. Build a team around you that you trust and can rely on and get ready for a crazy, but fun ride. I would not be where I am today if I did not have my team of advisors and mentors along for the ride.
What has it been like for you to launch a startup in Fairfield, and in Connecticut? What advice can you offer supporters of entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs who are just about to take the plunge in this state?
We love Connecticut, seriously love it. The support that is available in this state is incredible, from investors, to advisors, to state innovation grants, there is no place we would rather be. We found that there is a tremendous workforce that is ready to work, and that is why we chose to have everything we sell be manufactured right here in Connecticut. Almost no one thinks of Connecticut when they think about manufacturing, and we want to change that. Bridgeport, Waterbury, and Torrington were at one point industrial powerhouses and in some ways still are. We are proud of that and want to make sure those cities are getting the recognition they deserve.
My point is that just because you don’t think of Fairfield as a town to start a manufacturing company does not mean that it cannot be done. A big piece of advice I would give entrepreneurs is do something in your own backyard. See if it’s possible to do something local even if it sounds crazy. You may find that the town next door could be the perfect town to launch the next big thing!
Five years from now, where would you like to see the company? And, where would you like to see yourself?
I see ourselves as a major contender in the accessories market in 5 years. I see us in at least one nationwide retailer with a number of unique products in our portfolio. I see diffr3nt remaining in Connecticut and hopefully recognized as a company that is aiding manufacturing efforts in state. I see us having a small agile workforce that is truly passionate about the products that we create, and I hope a number of Connecticut storefronts not only carrying our products, but other products that are handcrafted in Connecticut.