Action Mount turns every smartphone into a GoPro, only better
August Johnson wanted to take a selfie before he — and most of the world — even knew what a selfie was.
The full-time commercial real estate appraiser and some-time metal sculpturist welded a cellphone-sized metal box and used screws to attach suction cups. He then used those suction cups to attach his camera to a mirror, set the camera’s timer and take a selfie.
“I just got my first smart phone and knew instinctively that people were going to want to use their phones to take pictures of themselves and their experiences.”
The Cellfy, August’s first ever foray into product invention, was born. The year was 2012. As time went on, he added a range of products that allow you to capture action footage with the device you already own and use every day — your smartphone. Today, Action Mounts’ mounting system is essentially an alternative to expensive GoPro systems, with the added advantage of being able to shoot, edit and share all from the same device.
“In the beginning, I basically started making a bunch of different products with suction cups and straps [to hold cellphones],” he explains. “I even was trying to make a selfie stick using an extendable backscratcher. I had never heard of or seen one. I just knew as cameras got better, people would want to use them to record everything.”
Still relatively primitive, August managed to sell a few of his phone accessories, in large part because there was little, if any, alternatives on the market.
“Eventually I got with Steve Hatten at Boise State University’s TechHelp. He thought it was kinda cool, but suggested I come up to the lab and let him show me what they could do.”
TechHelp, part of Boise State University’s College of Business and Economics, works with companies to prototype, refine and commercialize new products. TechHelp helped August improve his designs and figure out cost-effective ways to manufacture.
During this same time, August sought the help of an attorney to file patents.
“Once I saw the cost, I thought I’d never have a patent,” he says. “[My attorney] was nice enough to suggest I try writing mine myself.”
So he did. He used Microsoft Excel — yes, that Excel — to do the drawings and went to work writing his patents, using his attorney simply to review the documents before they were submitted.
“I saved a ton of money,” August says. Instead of $10,000 or $15,000 for each patent, I paid $2,000 to $2,500.”
While August had learned to turn his ideas into patents and products, he was still struggling with the best way to validate them with the market.
“The tricky thing was, I was so excited about all these different product ideas,” he explains. “It was tough to focus. When you have 10 ideas you’re forced to go lean [as in Lean Startup] because there’s no other way.”
His solution? Develop products as quickly as possible and put them in front of customers immediately using Amazon.com as a place to test-market each product.
“I would create them and then I would put them out on Amazon right away,” he says. If sales weren’t good, I wouldn’t continue with the rest of the process. I didn’t understand at first that Amazon could be that tool. People are buying things all day long and I just figured I’d throw it out there and let the customer tell me what works.”
Even with this immediate, concrete feedback, August still must make difficult go/no-go decisions on bringing products to market.
“I came out with this suction cup zipper bag and there was one guy who bought it and thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” August remembers. “I told him it would be great, if there were only 10,000 more of you.”
That product was never brought to full-scale production.
For the first couple of years, though August was serious about Action Mount, it was clearly still a side project. He kept his day job and invested only his own money in developing and testing the products.
“Luckily I didn’t have much more money at that time, or I probably would have wasted it,” he says. “I would have spent a bunch on these shitty products that were never going to go anywhere.”
The further down the road August went, the more he expanded his interests from simply selfie-enabling devices to wearable photo and video products — gear that allowed users to capture themselves skiing, biking and generally goofing off.
His first breakthrough hit in this new category was a headmount system.
“I put all my products on Amazon and this headmount is outselling everything ten-to-one. Amazon is telling me that everyone wants to wear their phone.”
So August and Action Mount obliged, launching mounts for the head, chest and even handlebars.
Business grew. August, still working as a commercial real estate appraiser, took a hard look at how he was spending his time and energy.
“I had made my boss a ton of money,” he says. “I knew if I was going to make Action Mount work I was going to have to jump from my day job and give this all my effort. So I did.”
But it wasn’t easy. August had to develop and build a brand, create a new website, and figure out design, production, pricing and distribution — all as a team of one.
“The biggest hurdle was probably just doing it on my own,” August says. “Your family wants to believe in you, and other people will say it’s cool. But none of that necessarily means you will make any money.”
August’s full-time focus has allowed Action Mount to continue to grow. He’s already selling briskly on Amazon and his own website (action-mount.com), and is in talks with national distributors to push the products via retail stores.
It’s been a long road, filled with lots of hard work, sleepless nights and learning. But this Boise entrepreneur wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You’ve got to be in the trenches and fail miserably for a while while you figure it out,” he says. “I’m starting to figure it out.”
Photography by Shawn David