Former UT student starts cellphone charging company Brightbox, plans to go national

Miles Hutson

Adam Johnson, a radio-television-film alumnus, had an idea that led him to found a company called Brightbox with more than 100 installations in the New York tri-state area. 

Johnson said when he was tending bar in New York, customers asked him to charge their phone constantly. Taking their phone behind the bar is a source of stress for bartenders, who must worry about theft, accidental spills and the serving time it takes away from them.

Johnson would sometimes refuse customers’ requests, something company co-founder Janice Chan, a marketing and law alumna, said led Johnson to an idea when one customer was persistent.

“Adam can be sarcastic, so he says, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that for $200,’” Chan said. “[The customer] puts down two crisp hundreds, puts the iPhone on them as a paperweight, and walks away.”

Chan said Johnson was dumbfounded, and realized there is a real market for charging people’s smartphones. Johnson joined with three friends — Jack Phelps, Pete Harrison and Janice Chan — in order to start Brightbox. The company has since hired Bill Gridley, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, as its CEO, and has 15 employees.

At the company’s heart is a device that looks like a locker with multiple compartments and a screen on top. Customers swipe their credit card as a form of identification and payment, place their smartphone in the compartment, plug in a charging cable and close the compartment, locking their phone inside until they return and swipe their card again.

Chan said the company plans to have its devices launched on a national scale by the end of 2013, and she hopes to include Austin.

“I still have lots of friends there who tell me it might be popular on 6th Street and lots of restaurants,” Chan said.

This expansion began in the fall of 2010, when Johnson first began discussing his idea with friends. 

Johnson said his experience organizing short film projects in the radio-telivision-film program, which he left uncompleted by two credits, helped him to expand the company.

“A lot of it is just motivating, organizing, fundraising, getting people to work for free,” Johnson said.

Chan said she thought part of founding the company came down to the unique situation of Johnson having a good network in New York when he came up with the idea.

“It honestly was just a bunch of friends who were lucky enough to have the skill sets and see the need in the market at the right time,” she said.

Published on February 20, 2013 as "Alumni develop idea for bright company".