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Will people pick headphones with a charitable mission instead of celebrity endorsements?

Lstn is a socially conscious startup that uses the proceeds from headphone sales to distribute hearing aids

Hello and welcome back to another season of Small Empires, a series dedicated to profiling the entrepreneurs and innovation paving the way to a new and different future. In the past Alexis Ohanian has been your host, but this season we're just going to let the founders do their own talking, starting with a young company named Lstn.

Headphones have become the most prominent fashion accessory in music videos and locker rooms, a way for athletes and musicians to strap on a brand without looking like a walking billboard. Beats perfected this approach, and rode it to a multi-billion-dollar acquisition by Apple. Amid all that expensive marketing, is there room for a small startup that does little advertising, uses real wood parts, and puts part of every purchase toward a hearing aid for someone who can't afford it?

Inspired by Warby Parker and TOMS

Lstn is trying to find out. Founder Bridget Hilton was inspired by other social entrepreneurs like Toms Shoes and Warby Parker, who sell one pair and give another away. In this case proceeds from every pair of headphones purchased goes toward getting hearing aids into the ears of people who can't afford them.

Hilton started the company with a $10,000 loan from a friend and traveled to China to learn first hand how the manufacturing process works. Kickstarter seemed like a good option, but Lstn was denied because the crowdfunding platform doesn't support charitable causes.

Suddenly Lstn had lots of demand no product to move

She cooked up a website and was spotted by a producer from the Today Show. That exposure led to tons of sales. The only problem was they didn't yet have any product. Luckily she met Joe Huff, who had a background in logistics and social enterprise, including helping to launch Tom's Shoes.

Getting into big box retail has been a struggle for Lstn so far. This is a $11 billion industry, and finding shelf space requires big volume and connections. They managed to find a unique retailer, Whole Foods, who had never carried electronics before, but whose mission matched that of Lstn. Since then, they have added high-end retailers like Nordstrom and online vendors like Birchbox.

Hilton says she's used to the criticism that social enterprise is just a marketing ploy itself. But she insists that's not the case. Running a business this way makes everything much tougher. The company works with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which is its own charity independent of Lstn and its brand.

Having survived, and even thrived, selling headphones, LST is now branching out into other audio products, hoping to find a wider range of customers that believe you can combine commerce and caring. It means another set of massive corporations to take on, but LSTN has heard all that before.