Answering the Call with The Phone Box’s TJ Therrien
For TJ Therrien, entrepreneurial success is a life or death situation.
TJ is a founder of The Phone Box, a new product and movement that is dedicated to cutting down on deadly distracted driving. People using their phones while on the road cause more accidents that drunk driving and TJ is out to change those statistics by raising awareness and encouraging people to put down their phones while at the wheel!
I talked to TJ about his drive to change the world, the learning curve involved in starting a business, and why you sometimes need to ignore other people’s opinions about your goals.
Tell us about your business in as much detail as you can. What is it that you do and who are your customers?
We recently launched The Phone Box Movement. It’s a simple solution to a big problem. Our purpose is to keep phones out of drivers’ hands and keep people safe, while also creating a movement across our communities to be better drivers. Our customers are primarily people like us who can’t keep their hands off their phones. We’re addicted to our phones and, sadly, when we’re in the car, that doesn’t change. Despite “Don’t Text and Drive” ads, hands-free laws, and pleas from people who have lost loved ones; people still use their phones in the car. The Phone Box Movement was created to help people kick their life-threatening habit to the curb.
Simply put, it’s a box. It’s intentionally designed to put your phone in while you drive. But more than a box, its purpose is to spark change and prevent people from becoming a heartbreaking statistic. It’s our hope that the more people take this stand with us, the movement will become a reality and our roads will be a lot safer for all of us.
Here’s our story: A couple of months ago, our son called us out for texting and driving. He’s 4 years old and was wondering why his parents weren’t keeping their eyes on the road. Wow. It finally hit us. We were dumb and reckless, putting our family in danger for absolutely nothing. (How dumb, you ask? We found out distracted driving is SIX TIMES more likely to get you in a crash than DRUNK driving.) Then, we started realizing that we weren’t the only reckless ones on the road. Everyone around us seemed to be looking down, then up, then down again. So we had an idea: When we drive, let’s put our phones in a box. Yep, a box. On our dashboard. It was crazy how simple it was, but it worked. And we’re hoping it might work for others, too.
Several prototypes later, we launched a Kickstarter campaign so that people can help make The Phone Box Movement a reality. Within the first 24 hours, we reached more than half of our goal. We’re now three days in and nearly 90 percent funded. Once the Kickstarter campaign ends, we’ll order our first production run and get these boxes in people’s cars for their New Year’s resolutions in January 2017.
What made you choose this path? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer? Did you go to school for it or are you learning as you go?
I have always had a knack for creativity and entrepreneurship. In high school, my friend and I sold bottles of water out of our lockers. We came up with a brand name for ourselves and built a cooler that could hold ice and stuffed it full of bottled water in our lockers, then sold them for three times what we paid. Looking back, “starting something” has always been my thing.
I’ve always wanted to do something bigger than myself and I found a problem of my own that needed to be solved. But, for eight years, I have been on staff at an amazing church working on our production and media teams. So here I am, learning a whole lot of things as I go.
This specific idea was created because we were addicted to our phones, even while driving. So we decided to do something about it. We’re from the Twin Cities, have three little kids (4 years, 2 years, and 8 months) and want nothing more than to help people (like us) with their phone addictions.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t something that was passed down to me. In fact, I’m the son of a potato chip salesman who has worked for the same company for 35 years. But my parents paved a way for me to get an education and create the future I envision for myself, and I’m grateful.
They say that to be successful you have to be passionate, so share what drives you every day. Why do you love what you do?
I’m passionate about helping other people who share the same problems with me. I care about kids immensely and it breaks my heart when bad things happen to them—especially when they are preventable. And, on an operational level, I’m passionate about solving problems, taking risks, and just straight-up going for it. You gotta DO SOMETHING. I’m tired of people having brilliant (or dumb) ideas and doing nothing about it. This journey has been thrilling to me because I get to wake up every day, hustle, and just figure things out. And the one thing I’ve learned so far, albeit early in my journey, is that it’s all about persistence. Remind yourself what you’re aiming for, every day, and the passion will come right out.
Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?
Believe me, if I could go back and do things over again, I’d be much more efficient. I have never worked with manufacturers overseas, so that was an entire learning process. I think I have logged 400 emails in 60 days with different suppliers, just trying to nail down the product details.
Another type of adversity are the people who like to poke holes in everything you do: “Why wouldn’t you … people won’t buy that … are you sure …” Feedback is SO important, especially from those you trust. But, when it feels like someone is trying to end your dream, you need to remind yourself that some people just won’t see the vision. And that’s okay. Every idea isn’t for everyone.
What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?
I have a job, my new business (Kickstarter project, which is a full-time job, by the way), and three kids who need my attention. I’m beyond grateful for all of it! Since beginning this business, I can’t remember what time off feels like. But I’ll tell you what—priorities are vital to anyone’s success. And, for me, that means putting my family ahead of anything else I do. It just means I end up skipping some sleep to work!
This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?
Social media is the top revenue source for our campaign, hands down. We spent a lot of time prepping our website, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts, and we’re glad we did. Our posts on Facebook alone have given us a potential reach of 61k people in the first five days of the launch.
Creating shareable content has been the key to the success of The Phone Box Movement, and with that, it’s all about telling our story. People connect when they hear other people’s stories. It’s less about our product, it’s less about what we can do for you. It’s about what we’re all doing together. I think a good social media plan is one where your audience connects with the people BEHIND the brand, and that’s what we always aim for. We’re not salespeople. We’re just normal people trying to cure our own phone addictions.
How are you involved in your community?
Personally, I’m a coach for my son’s baseball team and very involved with our local church. As a company, we’re still early, but our dream is to partner with non-profits who advocate against distracted driving. Through financial donations and volunteering our time and energy, we hope to solve the problem in more ways than one.
What does supporting local mean to you?
I was born and raised in the same city, so I’m all for supporting the people in your own community. As a business owner, it’s the people in my neighborhoods that I wish supported me the most!
What does the future look like for you and your business?
After being successfully funded (and most likely surpassing our goal), we will continue to build upon our brand and raise awareness about distracted driving. As we continue to help people make the conscious choice to not text and drive AHEAD of time (by using the box), we will be pursuing schools, organizations, driving programs, and even police departments to get our products in more drivers’ hands.
Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?
Make sure you have an idea worth sacrificing for. Get feedback from others but, at the end of the day, if you believe in the vision, you have to go for it. Be calculated in your approach. When you’re old and gray, you’ll never look back and say, “I wish I didn’t go for it.” Life is short. GO GET IT.