I like Bluetooth speakers (and I like headphones) but most Bluetooth speakers I've tried... well, they suck. The sound is thin and boxy, they struggle to sound good at higher volumes or even achieve higher volumes. (I have at least four or five different speakers stuck in a drawer somewhere.)

So when I found a Bluetooth speaker that sounded great -- and looks cool -- I decided to talk to the founder of NIMA Sports, Nima Saati.

NIMA makes wireless portable speakers that look like football helmets -- real football helmets, through licensing deals with the NFL and 50 major colleges. (NIMA will soon launch soccer ball shaped speakers wth Real Madrid and Juventus branding, as well as MLB-team baseball speakers and NBA basketball speakers.)

Licensing deals are great, but first Nima had to build a great-sounding speaker -- one that sounds great in different physical configurations.

You don't make something that sounds this good without really knowing what you're doing.

I started in retail electronics, working with companies like Sony, Kenwood, etc. Then in 2004 I started a sister company, manufacturing acoustic audio solutions. We created a new niche in the market; we were the first to hand-fabricate fiberglass enclosures and take them to market. Then Lamborghini asked us to make speakers for their cars.

They said, "We don't sell as many cars as Ford sells F-150s, but we would love for you to make 20 a month for our cars."

That was a great opportunity for us. The space allowed was small, ergonomically it was hard to resonate sound well... so we made an enclosure, were the first to work with carbon fiber... and they loved it.

That opened doors for us to create applications for companies like Ferrari.

And that showed us that if we could build a great acoustic solution for a $500,000 car, we definitely know what we're doing with the science of speakers and sound." (Laughs.)

Still, it's a big jump from car audio to portable speakers.

You're right. We make applications for just about every car on the road, but portable speakers are different.

Three or four years ago we saw the home theater space start to move to portability. We know the science of coils and speakers and how sound travels... and we looked at some mobile electronics and thought, "If I walk three feet away, I can't hear them." Sure, they were portable... but as far as sound, they weren't a solution.

So we shaped our first forms and then put the technology inside. And then I thought, "Let's do something disruptive, but let's also connect with fans." Hats, coolers, t-shirts... a speaker system you could take with you was the missing piece.

Making it is one thing -- selling it is another.

We took our first helmet to the Cowboys three years ago. They wanted to put them in their stadium stores.

That level of interest from the Cowboys proved that we were onto something. And now we have licenses with approximately 54 college, 32 NFL teams, we're inside Cowboy Stadium, Seattle, the Raiders... and about 25 college bookstores, too.

And we're building 900 displays for Bed Bath & Beyond stores. We're growing like crazy. Every day, people ask for our product.

We'll talk about growth in a second. The design is what people see, but getting the sound right matters more.

You're right. In the beginning, people thought what we were doing was just putting a speaker in a helmet, but everything we've done is patented.

Add to that the fact we have a 130-watt portable speaker; that's never been done in Bluetooth history.

Plus we're like the Tesla of portable speakers: We use the same type of battery, we double-pack that battery for our life-size helmet -- that defines our sound. And we have the lab testing results to prove it.

How hard has it been to acquire licensing rights?

Licensing is extremely difficult. Major sports properties can be extremely selective.

Our advantage is our technology. We're working with Major League Baseball, and they appreciate the fact it looks like a real baseball. We're stitching them by hand. We cut no corners.

But there is always a lot of back and forth. The stickers have to be right, stamping has to be right, colors have to be right, face masks have to be right... but we've gotten really good at it. Repetition is a great way to learn. (Laughs.)

Speaking of repetition, let's go back to growth. Growing quickly can be as big a challenge as struggling to grow.

That is our biggest challenge. We have more demand than supply, but that is the best problem to have. (Laughs.) Fortunately, because of my background, because this is part of my journey... I'm in the business of making specific applications and making x amount of this or that.

But now we're going to the masses. Not only is the volume much higher, often when a product lands, it sells out.

It's fun because all the R & D went into putting a stereo system and microphone into a branded helmet. I knew it would be disruptive, but I have been surprised by how quickly fans have connected with our product. I didn't know the growth would be this fast.

That's the challenge, but it's the most fun journey ever. We expect demand to be huge by the holiday season, and we'll be loaded up to handle it.

You're growing quickly, but not by just flooding the market with ads.

We want to provide the sports fan with something that has never been done, and our PR approach isn't an everyday approach, either.

We're partners with two of the biggest agencies that represent athletes. Everyone gifts products to athletes. They see plenty of stuff. Our approach is different. We customize the helmet. Say it's a helmet for Dak Prescott. We put his number 4 on it, we customize it to his taste... we give him something different that he hasn't seen before.

And when one guy in the locker room sees it... they want it too.

We also have a formal relationship with the Rich Eisen Show starting soon. Guests will walk away with our product, our product will be on set, there will be traditional live reads and integration.... we get a footprint on his set and three hours of access to his viewers. It's a great partnership and a great way to reach highly engaged fans.

Success naturally breeds competition.

True, but we're not just staying in our lane, we've created our own lane. For example, we won't touch the world of headphones. (Laughs.)

Our competition is just with ourselves. We're always working on what's next. We're launching new products in CES in January so we're already in generation two of our helmets.

The core has been built. It took a lot of time to build it. Next will be 140-watt speakers. And the ability to sync two helmets to play the same song, which people love... next year we want it to be up to five helmets.

Market trends, technology, consumer tastes... we always want to be a leap ahead of everyone else.

If we keep doing that, we won't have competition.

Published on: Jul 7, 2017
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