Patrick O’Neill: Bullet to the Head, Near Death Experience and..
The O’NielL Stor- Patrick O’Neill is not your typical entrepreneur. In fact, he’s not typical in any way. He has a certain energy about him that breeds creativity and action. I first met Patrick in November of 2012 at an event where he was being recognized as one of Orange County’s top 25 movers and shakers. Patrick is most known for inventing the Olloclip. I say inventing because the Olloclip is not really what it seems. You may have seen the futuristic looking lens attached to an iPhone and thought that it basically enhances the iPhone’s camera. Well, you’d be wrong.
The Olloclip is a game changer when it comes to mobile photography. It is an incredibly well made device that comes with three interchangeable lens configurations for the iPhone. But these aren’t your grandfather’s SLR lenses. This is the ultimate lens kit for the mobile photo enthusiast. Of the three lenses (Wide, Fisheye, and Macro), the macro lens is likely to really blow your mind. Today, the Olloclip is carried in Best Buy, Amazon, and every Apple store from Newport Beach to Shanghai not to mention several other retailers. But that level of success didn’t come over night and it certainly didn’t come from being typical.
To really understand the Olloclip and its astounding success, you have to know a bit more about Patrick. This OC native has had his share of variety. “As a kid we moved around a lot” Patrick says, “My dad was in the furniture business and every six months we’d pack up and move so he could open new locations around the country.” In 1978, at the age of 13, his grandmother sent him away to computer camp where he developed his love for technology, and later at Fountain Valley High School, he got to work on the Mainframe for the first time. He recalls the first time his uncle took him to a computer dealership somewhat dating him to the time when computers were sold by dealerships rather than stores. And then in 1983 his grandmother bought him his first Apple II+ personal computer and printer for Christmas. “If it wasn’t for that I probably would have failed High School,” He recalls. “Our teacher made us retype our paper every time there was a correction that needed to be made not knowing that I was the only kid in the class with a printer. Printers back then worked like automated typewriters.”
Patrick has an uncanny memory. He recalls the exact price of the printer and how his uncle would hog the Apple computer. He recalls dates, prices, people, and places better than anyone I have interviewed in the past and does so with certainty. He recalls the time the Tennessee school system deemed him learning disabled while his family was living in Tennessee for a short stint and how only a year later his IQ test score of 146 placed him in the gifted program in a California school. What a difference a year and a few thousand miles make.
After school, barely 20, Patrick moved to England to work for a company that assembled IBM Clones. He wasn’t permitted to work in the UK so everything had to be done under the table. His employer took advantage of his status and didn’t treat him well. “They told me that they would take care of all of my paperwork and do it correctly, it was only after I was there that I found out they had not done it.” He worked long hours, for lesser wages, and sometimes didn’t get paid at all. When he got a job offer from a hardware distributor, his employer threatened him that if he left they’d go to the authorities and turn him in. He eventually moved back to the states and started his first hardware distribution business with a friend in the UK for whom he sourced products.
At 25, he worked for a company that made hard drives here in the US. There “I learned what not to do, and how not to treat customers, and how not to treat your employees. It was all one-sided. I think it’s important for everybody to win, a more balanced approach.”
In 2001 he started working in the PDA and smartphone market, which is about when he came up with the idea for the Olloclip. It’s one of the ideas that just didn’t leave his head. “I have dozens of ideas every day.” He says as if it’s almost a problem. “I had to get waterproof crayons so I can take notes while I’m in the shower… But the idea of the Olloclip wasn’t as transient as the rest.”
He was committed to make it work. So in 2010, after a sizeable legal settlement, he directed his attention to the Olloclip. But this clarity didn’t come easy. He told me about a near death incident that really focused his attention. He was out in the desert shooting pistols with his ex-brother-in-law when his brother-in-law accidentally shot him in the head with one of the pistols.
“You get this clarity when you think you may die. When you think your life may be measured in minutes rather thanyears. When you think you might die, you have this time, when something has happened, and it’s bad, it’s the time between that, and when it passes, that you have a lot of time to think and make decisions. It helped me separate what was important from what wasn’t.” It’s one of the rare moments when talking about this incident that I find Patrick with a serious tone. In my two encounters with him, the recurring theme has been that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s in this to have fun and it shows even if you’re not paying attention. So when he does get a bit existential and philosophical it’s very sincere and enrolling. “Turns out the bullet had actually bounced off the base of my skull.” He then told me about some of his other close calls. Like the time he came face to face with a 12-foot tiger shark. Or the time his Lotus race car caught fire on the track and melted down with him narrowly escaping being burnt alive. “And those are just a few”. I hope he was joking, but something tells me that he wasn’t.
After this great moment of clarity, O’Neill got to work on making the Olloclip a reality. He worked with designers and got the tooling ready and right before starting production he launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign in June of 2011 that helped him raise $68,201 from 1300 backers. With customers in place, he began production and delivered the Olloclip to his backers in 30 days. One Thursday, soon after launch he got a call from a representative at Apple who said “We think your product is interesting”. By the following week O’Neill was working on logistics with Apple on how to get his product on the shelf and even more challenging, keeping it stocked.
Patrick comes from a great lineage of accomplished people. From Harvard professors to founders of the NFL and owners of the Chicago Bears, the gene pool has an impressive set of influencers. He’s a family man at heart and in almost every sentence mentions someone in his family who had a direct influence on him. I asked him about other people who influenced his career and his success. He was very quick with his answer: “Two people: Steve Jobs, and Colin Chapman. And for very simple and similar reasons.” He had a quote from each one that summed up why these two individuals have had a great impact on how he operates:
Steve Jobs : “Focusing is about saying NO.”
Colin Chapman: “Simplify, then add lightness.”
Focusing was by far the biggest change in what made the Olloclip a success. An idea-man by self-admission, O’Neill had to say NO to everything else that he came up with. It’s a very tight focus and it’s obvious when he talks about the evolution of his product. He doesn’t seem interested in creating similar products and other iPhone accessories. He has a laser focus on producing the best, simplest, and lightest version of the Olloclip. “I finally learned to say no.”
The thing that made the Olloclip a great product, however, was by far his deep belief in Chapman’s lightness philosophy. O’Neill, an avid Lotus enthusiast, holds Chapman in high regard and lives by his words. He explained to me with some passion this concept of lightness and removing weight from everything. Not just in a physical sense but in a very holistic sense. This is something very evident in the design of the Olloclip. It’s not only light to hold, but it’s overtly simple to use and very easy on the eyes. It reminds me immediately of Apple products.
“It’s hard to make a product really simple, and it doesn’t get any simpler than the Olloclip.”
Although he makes the success of Olloclip look easy, there’s more to it than meets the eye. First, the idea was just an idea for 10 years while he got the right footing to start working on it. And second, it’s been challenging in ways he had never imagined. When I ask him what keeps him up at night he tells me about the rampant amount of online piracy for products like his. He spends much of his time dealing with counterfeit versions of the Olloclip sprouting from Chinese manufacturers that copy his product packaging and brand to sell a cheap knockoff. Much of his profits find their way to protect his patents and the brand he has built. He worked for months to get Amazon to clean up their distribution network, which was unintentionally allowing counterfeits to be sold as the real thing.
A father of three and a local business man, O’Neill is just happy to be doing something he loves. He tells me “I used to tell people as a joke that “I’m living the dream” when they asked how I was. The difference is, now I mean it.”
When I asked what his secret to his success has been he replied:
“Oh. What keeps me going? Haha, I’m having fun.“