There’s something to be said for tech companies with goofy names: Google, Yahoo!—the list goes on. “Some of the biggest companies have names that make no sense, but they stick out,” Michael Orth, the 24-year-old CEO of Widget Wah Cases says. “I knew right away I wanted that.”
Choosing the name, however, has been the easiest part of launching Edina native Orth’s company, which produces and sells custom-logo cases for cell phones, tablets and other devices. His tale begins in 2012 when he and friend Collin Kearney considered the viability of phone cases with a University of St. Thomas logo on the back. A quick search online proved no such item existed, so the college juniors set out to create them.
“It’s been a long process, but now we’re licensed to carry a lot of different logos,” Orth says. Kearney opted out when he got a job in Baltimore, and Orth spent the remainder of his college time mixing homework with manufacturing research, ultimately investing a couple of thousand dollars into a specialized printer that digitally places clients’ images on the appropriate plastic, silicon or metal case, adhering to them through a heat-transfer process.
After graduating in 2013 with dual degrees in political science and environmental studies, Orth moved back in with his parents in Edina to save money; he also employed his father and older sister to help with production of the cases. But Widget Wah needed a windfall to keep going. “I love soccer ... I was so excited for the World Cup [in 2014] that I wanted nothing more than to sell cases for the teams,” he says, but again licensing was a major hurdle. It led to his first self-designed cases focusing on a generic World Cup theme. “I submitted them to various retail stores, thinking maybe, just maybe, one of them would want to carry the cases.” The gamble paid off when online retailer fanatics.com expressed interest in Orth’s designs, which also led to partnerships with the National Lacrosse League. “We went from just a small business with this big idea to something legitimate. The fact that I love soccer so much made it even sweeter.”
Orth’s parents, Tom and Joan, confirm he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. “Mike loves working tirelessly at his business,” Tom says. “[But also] he likes to read, watch sports, work out, and hang out with friends and family. Mike just loves life, and being busy and caring for those he loves.”
Tom and Joan are semi-retired, which allows them to continue helping with the business; Tom makes most of the cases, packaging them himself, and Joan is looking into the prospects of developing partnerships with artists. Retail is up 15 percent over last year, though the majority of sales are still wholesale to colleges and sports teams. The newest option is the ability to personalize cases right from his website.
The next step is expanding beyond the Midwest; by working with artists to develop cases with their designs that they can market as part of their brand. “It’s a market that’s exploding, because everyone wants something specific on their phone cases that tells something about their personality,” Orth says, but he notes he’s not going to be tied into phone cases, which brings him back to the name—intentionally ambiguous, inclusive and universal.