A good set of headphones allows you to sink back and forget about the world for a while. That's the opposite of what Bridget Hilton wants you to do.
As founder of the West Hollywood, California-based LSTN Headphones, Hilton hopes her product will prompt you to think about those who are hearing-impaired.
In 2012, Hilton, who started working for Universal Music while still a teenager, saw a YouTube video of a young woman who was hearing for the first time. Surprised, Hilton started thinking about her own life and the pervasive role music had had in it. When she discovered that 360 million people around the world are hearing-impaired, and that many of them simply needed a hearing aid, Hilton was sold.
Or rather, hoped others would be. Her idea? Get consumers to help fund hearing aids for those in need by starting a socially conscious business selling music-related products. At the time, thanks in large part to Beats, headphones were transitioning from something audio geeks wore in their basements to fashion accessories. But not everyone was enthralled with the statement these headphones made. "There was a lot out there, but nothing that spoke to me," says Hilton. "Nothing that had a cool look that wasn't cheesy. It was all plastic and neon. There was nothing that would fit more in a fashion magazine or at Nordstrom."
The answer: headphones with wooden ear cups. The wood is beautiful, and its grain means that each set of headphones is unique. Hilton doesn't need to chop down trees--she relies on scraps provided by furniture companies. And wood has a strong connection to music, having long been valued by musicians and luthiers, among others, for its ability to shape a tone. The way each set of headphones resonates depends on the species chosen by the customer--ebony, cherry, beech, or zebra wood. "Not only is it really cool and each piece unique," says Hilton, "but it sounds better too."
Plenty of customers agree: In 2014, LSTN grew to $2 million in sales, from $500,000 a year earlier. The company is projecting $5 million in sales for 2015, and has so far helped improve the hearing of 20,000 people.
To actually manufacture the headphones, Hilton borrowed $10,000 from a former colleague and scoured Alibaba looking for manufacturers. Then she got on a plane to China and met with manufacturers that made headphones. After listening to 20 sample pairs, Hilton and Joe Huff, now her business partner, had a pretty good idea of what theirs should sound like. "We wanted a really balanced sound," Hilton says. "Most that are out there are overly bass-y and tuned to one genre, which is usually hip-hop."
Soon they had a prototype. Hilton says Kickstarter wouldn't accept LSTN because it had a social cause associated with it. So she snapped a picture of her prototype and put it on her own site, seeking pre-orders. Before that could get going, a friend of Hilton's was talking to a producer for the Today show about socially responsible businesses, and mentioned LSTN. The producer asked for a demonstration. Hilton sent the prototype--the only pair she had--and asked the producer to please, please return them when she was done.
LSTN was on Today before the company actually had anything to sell, and Hilton had to tell each of the few hundred people who contacted her that they'd have to wait two months for their orders. "Luckily everyone was cool, and it was great," says Hilton.
While Hilton says one of the hardest things about selling headphones is that the market is so crowded, it's also a market that's grown tremendously. In 2011, U.S. headphone sales were just about $1 billion, according to IBIS; two years later the market was worth more than $1.5 billion.
In April 2014, Google approached LSTN and asked if the company would star in a small-business commercial. LSTN was crammed into a 600-square-foot office; Google showed up with "like 40 people" to shoot it, says Hilton. "Our landlord got pretty mad." So far, the video has racked up 26 million views. "If you don't have some sort of story, or purpose, you're not going to get that," says Hilton. The video is helpful both with consumers and in trying to negotiate marketing deals: "People can see that what we're doing is real," she says. LSTN raised $1.1 million in November, and counts retailers such as Nordstrom, Brookstone, and Abercrombie & Fitch among its partners. This summer, LSTN plans to introduce a wooden Bluetooth speaker.
Despite the recent headphone boom, IBIS expects growth to slow between now and 2019, to only about 0.8 percent a year. Hilton, not surprisingly, thinks LSTN will have staying power. "People with our product feel like they're part of something," she says. "It's not just about a pair of headphones. It's 'I got a cool product and I changed somebody's life.' I think that will sustain us."