Innovative local startup SquidCam hopes to ride iPhone 6 to next level
They’ve sold more than 2,000 units so far
Charles Mercader is busting his ass. As the creator of and everything guy for SquidCam—a Lego-looking modular iPhone case with snap-on camera lenses—the Sacramento-based entrepreneur is trying to make his dream work.
Lots of people have lots of ideas. What makes Mercader’s story different is that he actually followed through, and quickly. In 2011, he and graphics guru Sam Dominguez, who met during their freshman year at Sacramento State University, split the $1,200 cost of a small MakerBot 3D printer. They started prototyping designs, and in three weeks SquidCam was born.
They sourced some parts, but Mercader designed the adapter to hold the lenses and attach them to the case. “Once we got the fit dialed in snug, we knew it could work!” Dominguez said via email.
The cute name for the product came from the suction-cup-looking underside of the case, which reminded Mercader of a cephalopod’s tentacles. The kit includes a wide-angle lens, which unscrews to reveal a separate macro lens, and a fisheye lens with its own macro capabilities. With the two bulbous lenses attached side-by-side and colorful coordinating blocks, SquidCam looks a bit like a character you’d find ambling around the Krusty Krab.
When Mercader first started selling his camera-phone cases, he met orders one-by-one, manufacturing them using pourable heat-activated plastics. In fact, any cases more than a year old were probably molded by hand in his kitchen or garage. He still fills every order himself, packaging and labeling cases at the kitchen table he shares with three roommates.
The team tried crowdfunding on all the usual sites, but couldn’t get the support to really blast SquidCam into the retail stratosphere. It’s taken more than $10,000 to keep SquidCam going, he says, and even now—with more than 2,000 units sold and licensed retailers in Honolulu and San Jose, and an Indonesia-based distributor in Asia—Mercader’s just breaking even.
“It’s a hustle,” he said. “No joke about it, it’s a start-up.”
But it’s also a community. Mercader grew up in a Bay Area Filipino home, where family and friends created a culture with lots of food and socializing. “I definitely liked that atmosphere,” he said.
He wants to re-create that sense of family with SquidCam’s more than 16,000 Instagram followers and contributors, who share photos via the mobile app. Users share SquidCam images on Instagram with the hashtags #squidcam and #squidcamfam.
“They will continue to help me develop great products; I value their input greatly,” he wrote. “All things being equal. People tend to choose the business they have a connection with.” Mercader manages all of the social media connected with SquidCam himself, so every customer gets a personal connection from someone invested in the product.
Over the years, he has developed or co-developed several other product lines, from custom car parts to auto-inspired air fresheners to iPod docks made from recycled vinyl records. But he’s focusing all of his energies on SquidCam from here on out, with new sports-team-themed cases due out later this year, and a Samsung Galaxy case scheduled for spring 2015.
“This is the year I’m going to go all in,” he said. “This is a make it or break it year.”
The big question for Mercader right now, though, is: Which case should come out first, iPhone 6 or 6 Plus?
Apple launched the new iPhone models last month, and Mercader’s still deciding which to go after. “Designing a product around another product’s design is difficult,” he said. It’s especially challenging when you’re going at it alone. But SquidCam cases for the new iPhones should be available in early November.
That’s a bit of a wait, considering several cases are already on the market. But bigger companies can afford to take a leap of faith and pre-sell cases based on leaked designs and photos. Mercader can’t, and he’s counting on the SquidCam community to have his back.
“I’m not in a huge hurry,” he wrote, “since my customers are willing to wait for a properly built product.”
Dominguez, an iPhone app creator also based in Sacramento, agrees this is a pivotal year for the company. He’s confident the iPhone 6 will establish an unseen demand for SquidCam—if Mercader can just hold on.
“I fell in love with the hustle,” said Mercader, plowing full steam ahead. “It’s been a crazy ride.”