March 16, 2015 02:00 PM

Michael Walker, left, and Christopher Sharplin
Photo by Robin May

A cell phone dying during a night on the town is high on the list of First-World Problems. All those missed selfie opportunities ... I mean, like, gah!

Christopher Sharplin and Michael Walker plan to remedy that.

The 30-something friends, neighbors and entrepreneurs formed an LLC, Oaklawn Investment Group, and inked a deal last year with Brightbox, a New York company that manufactures cell phone-charging kiosks.

Sharplin says the pair got the idea to get into the phone-charging business during a weekend getaway to New Orleans last year.

“We saw it at Harrah’s [Casino] in the VIP Lounge,” he recalls. “We’re sitting there and basically [Michael] goes, ‘We got to do that.’” So they did. After some research into the handful of companies currently manufacturing the technology, they settled on Brightbox and traveled to the company’s New York headquarters where, they recall, they were put under pretty intense scrutiny by the Brightbox folks, who aren’t yet at the franchising stage of their company’s growth and try to ensure that their distributors are capable and business savvy. (Walker, a Lafayette native, is a land man by day; Sharplin hails from North Louisiana and works as a commercial/residential contractor. Both are UL Lafayette alumni.)

Now, about six months later, Oaklawn Investment Group has two Brightbox units in Lafayette — at Event Rental and City Bar Downtown — and a third at the City Bar location in Baton Rouge. But the pair’s territory covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. They focus their sales efforts on bars, casinos and hospitals. Venues that install the units get 30 percent of the fee charged to a user’s credit card. (The fee, $2.95 typically, is a fl at rate, whether the user’s phone is dead or just needs an insurance boost.)

“It’ll charge 95 percent of the phones on the market — compatible with almost all smart phones,” Walker says.

“And it’s made for the future,” Sharplin adds, explaining that the units have extra USB ports and can be adapted to advancing technology.

Using a Brightbox charger is simple: swipe just about any credit card and follow the simple instructions on the touch-screen menu; one of six small doors will pop open, giving the user access to one of three USB cords (depending on phone model); plug in the phone, close the secure door and walk away. Users can open the door to check phones for texts or emails (or photos of their friends’ stupid pets on Facebook and Instagram) during the charging pe riod

without affecting the fee by simply re-swiping their credit card. Unplugging the phone, however, ends the charging session.

“It’s just like plugging in your phone at home,” Walker says. “It’s not a rapid charge. We’re not trying to blow up anybody’s batteries.”

The business partners explain that use of charging kiosks became a thing in bars due to liability issues: patrons asking bartenders to charge their dying phones behind the bar then holding the bar responsible if some cocktail mixer gets sloshed on their phone.

The pair declines to disclose how much a Brightbox unit costs, but they do say that they purchase them from the company.

“That puts some skin in the game for us,” Sharplin says.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to phonecharging units catching on with the general public is concerns about data security.

“That’s the No. 1 concern we get asked about all the time,” Sharplin says. “We can assure this isn’t a scam to steal your info; that’s what the ones in the kiosks at the airports are.”

“They have FCC-compliant card readers and data-encrypted transmission,” Walker adds, explaining that the only interaction the units have with the Internet is processing the credit card charge.

According to their business model, the units should begin paying for themselves within 1.5 to three years, depending on foot traffi c at each location. After that, it’s all profit.

In the meantime, the pair says, the Brightbox units are low maintenance and won’t require many, if any at all, service calls.

“And that’s the key; that’s why we went with them,” Sharplin notes. “They’re high tech, but [Brightbox] got the tech right.”

Interested in placing a Brightbox phone charger in your business?

Contact Oaklawn Investment Group at rmwalker94510@yahoo.com or call (337) 739-0535.

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