How Two Friends Built a Multi-Million Dollar Business Designing Affordable and Stylish Earplugs

How Two Friends Built a Multi-Million Dollar Business Designing Affordable and Stylish Earplugs
Image Source: Loopearplugs Instagram

If you've had the chance to attend a concert in recent times, especially one of those iconic shows like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé's record-breaking tours, you might have encountered a new trend. This emerging trend involves embracing earplugs as a fashionable statement. These earplugs are most likely manufactured by Loop Earplugs, a Belgian startup that was established in 2016.

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Image Source: Loop Earplugs Instagram
Image Source: Loop Earplugs Instagram

The company's earplugs are designed to resemble jewelry and feature a distinctive circular design, known as a "loop." They come in a variety of colors and finishes, ranging from solid black and shiny silver to vibrant shades of orange, pink, and purple. Loop Earplugs is specifically dedicated to changing the way people perceive earplugs. Conventional earplugs often evoke images of unattractive objects that protrude from your ears like "ugly Christmas trees" or plain foam earplugs, as explained by Loop co-founder Maarten Bodewes in an interview with CNBC Make It. Bodewes pointed out that people have been using Beats headphones as a fashion statement, wearing them around their neck while earplugs and hearing protection have remained relatively unexciting.


 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Loop Earplugs (@loopearplugs)


 

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Over the past couple of years, Loop Earplugs has experienced a tremendous surge in sales with a staggering $44.1 million in U.S. dollars generated in 2022, marking a remarkable 350% year-over-year increase, according to documents examined by Make It. This surge in sales comes as pandemic-related restrictions on large gatherings have been gradually lifted. According to Bodewes, the startup is projected to triple that figure this year.

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The pricing of Loop's earplugs varies, ranging from $24.95 to $59.95. Thanks to their relatively low production costs, Loop has managed to report a profit every year since 2020. The earplugs have received rave reviews, with Wired describing them as "affordable and stylish," and Wirecutter naming them one of the "best things we bought" since 2019.

Image Source: Loop Earplugs Website
Image Source: Loop Earplugs Website

In their late twenties, Bodewes and O, both 38 years old and close friends, experienced persistent ear ringing after attending loud concerts, a common tinnitus symptom. This prompted them to question why more people weren't using earplugs or hearing protection. They found that most available products were unattractive, ineffective, or uncomfortable with subpar acoustics that spoiled the music experience. Custom earplugs offered better performance but were costly, often exceeding a few hundred dollars per person.

At the time, Bodewes worked as an account manager at Microsoft while O ran his startup, TariefChecker, analyzing energy prices. Over about two years, they invested their free time researching earplug acoustics and designs and conducting prototype testing in rented soundproof chambers using electronic models.

Image Source: Loop Earplugs Website
Image Source: Loop Earplugs Website

To launch Loop, each co-founder put in roughly $40,000, utilizing all their available resources. They went through an extensive prototyping phase, experimenting with various shapes, canal lengths, sound entry configurations, and filters, all created through 3D printing. These prototypes were spray-painted in their backyard and tested on friends and family, leading to their refined design.

They found a cost-effective solution using "food-grade" silicone rubber, bridging the gap between budget foam earplugs and expensive custom alternatives. In 2016, Loop's prototypes earned them acceptance into Start It @KBC, a startup accelerator in Brussels. Bodewes recalls, "We received the acceptance on a Friday, and I believe I resigned from my job on the following Monday."

Loop Earplugs, launched in 2018 with financial backing from loans and angel investors, became available in major retail chains such as CVS in the U.S. and Saturn in Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant drop in monthly sales, declining from approximately $100,000 to under $20,000. To adapt, Loop shifted to a direct-to-consumer business model and reduced costs by using simple envelopes instead of bulky plastic packaging. They repositioned their earplugs as versatile tools for work and relaxation.

Image Source: Loop Earplugs Instagram
Image Source: Loop Earplugs Instagram

In 2020, Loop generated $1.2 million in revenue and secured $1 million in seed funding led by Belgian investment firm Akiles. While they continue to offer earplugs for daily use, a substantial part of their post-pandemic revenue is linked to the resurgence of nightlife activities. The company now boasts 200 employees with headquarters in Antwerp and offices in Amsterdam, New York, and Shanghai. Loop plans to allocate $26.5 million to its research and development team in the upcoming year to maintain a competitive edge in the industry.

The company plans to continue exploring acoustics, and Bodewes aims to incorporate more advanced technology into its earplugs. They recently unveiled a new product called the Loop Switch, enabling wearers to tailor their experience based on the surrounding sounds. Bodewes emphasizes the need for swift innovation and strong brand development to maintain a leading position in the market.

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