Power up

Power up

In today’s always-connected world, there may be nothing more frustrating than holding a phone that’s out of juice. That panicky, powerless feeling is nearly universal these days, but the dread of a dead battery could soon disappear thanks to Ottawabased entrepreneur Nigel Harris and the PowerStick, his line of portable mobile chargers.

In 2011, the 69-year-old Britishborn CEO of PowerStick.com Inc. bought his company’s namesake product from a group of Ottawa engineers who had created the portable charging technology, but hadn’t done much else. The buy was a no-brainer. “It’s something that everyone needs,” he says. “Everyone has a cell phone. Everybody relies on it more and more. When you leave the house in the morning, you leave with your phone, your keys and your charger.”

Now in its fourth incarnation as the PowerStick+, the company’s flagship offering is slightly bigger than a pack of gum and can power up a phone the moment it’s plugged into the device. What sets it apart from other portable power products on the market is its eight or 16 gigabytes of builtin flash memory. Users can save documents, photos and other files on it, like they would with a USB key – a feature that caught the attention of the Consumer Electronics Association. It awarded the PowerStick+ its coveted CES Innovations and Engineering Award at 2013’s show in Las Vegas. “When you’ve got that CES award in there, it gives instant credibility to your product,” says Harris.

The PowerStick has caught on with consumers. The company sells about 200,000 units a year and its revenues have jumped from $1.5-million in 2011 to about $7-million today. It’s also been a hit with corporations, organizations and even the military. In 2012, the U.S. Army called and ordered a number of devices (how many, Harris isn’t allowed to say) and has since made the PowerStick+ an integral tool in its Special Forces programs. Today, the army is Harris’ biggest customer. Soldiers use it to power up their mobile devices, but they also use it to store and share critical information with each other.

As useful as this product is, PowerStick’s success relies more on its innovative business model than its phone-charging technology, notes Harris. He’s built a thriving company on corporate sales, offering what he calls “branding solutions” to big-name clients such as Google, Ford and GM, to name a few. They buy PowerStick chargers en masse to use as promotional items or gifts for their prestige customers. “Instead of just looking at this as a piece of electronics,” he explains, “we wanted to dress it up, brand the sticks and put them into packaging that reflects the corporation’s identity.”

Ultimately, the PowerStick works because it solves a problem that plagues every smartphone user today, including Harris. Since buying the company, though, there hasn’t been a day when his cell phone has been without power. “I keep one in my car, my bicycle bag and wherever I bring my wallet,” he says. “Everyone needs four or five of these things kicking around.”

— Daniel Merick