Do you struggle to get to sleep? Maybe your partner snores, you are used to sleeping pills, or are too tense or nervous? SleepPhones® could solve it.
AccousticSheep LLC and their SleepPhones® are the brainchild of the husband-and-wife entrepreneur team, Dr. Wei-Shin Lai and Jason Wolfe, based in Erie, Pennsylvania.
From Medicine to SleepPhones®
Wei-Shin was born in Taiwan but arrived in the USA at only seven years old while her father was completing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Texas. She was encouraged to fast-track her learning by her mother, learning algebra by ten years old and BASIC computer programming by eleven. She attained a B.S. with distinction at the University of Michigan in Cellular Molecular Biology, intending to study Ebola.
She continued to study, attending the University of Virginia Medical School and went into family medicine. She was offered the CDC U.S. Military position she had wanted but decided it wasn’t for her after much thought.
Meanwhile, Jason was growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania. He, too, was dreaming of making a difference in the world. Jason studied computing at Bowling Green State University graduated with honors. From there, he joined the start-up scene, both in education and video games. Jason was aware that he could do something with impact and had a plan that one day he would give back to the poor community in which he had grown up and hopefully provide employment for people there.
The pair met online while Wei-Shin was still in residency. They discovered that they only lived an hour or so apart and had many shared interests. Jason, Wei-Shin says, knows a bit of everything, including medicine. Meanwhile, her own family are all engineers, and she had progressed her tech background as acting webmaster and doing programming at Medical Centre. But, of course, they found that connected on a deeper level too.
After they were married, Wei-Shin continued to work as a doctor, which inevitably meant broken sleep patterns. One night after a 3 am call from the emergency room, she had so much trouble getting back to sleep that she made up her mind something had to give. She was on duty one night in four, continually exhausted, both of which are usual in medicine. Jason suggested relaxing music, saying that binaural beats could help with insomnia, but she found she couldn’t sleep with headphones on.
They were just too uncomfortable. He bought her some fabric and some speakers, and they started to play around with designs. They had several false starts but would experiment of an evening, getting better results all the time. Jason bought her a sewing machine while she bought him a state-of-the-art soldering iron.
Between them, they designed the first of the SleepPhones®. Not only did they find it worked, but as a doctor, Wei-Shin was also prescribing sleeping pills and started to offer SleepPhones® as an alternative. After work, Wei-Shin would be sewing more headbands while Jason soldered the speakers.
Jason recorded and mastered all of the music that features on the website. He also wrote the SleepPhones® program for iPhones and deals with all the tech side of the company. He even built a tiny computer that yells “we got one” every time an order came in. The website was easy to construct between them, and they plugged in a check-out system. With word of mouth and a little advertising, they were selling as many as they could feasibly make themselves.
Developing the idea
In June 2007, they founded AccousticSheep LLC, and by 2009, they moved to a new area from Connecticut back to Pennsylvania to be closer to family. They signed up with a local business center who told them they needed a business plan to produce the SleepPhones®.
Forced into a corner by this, they wrote down: “we will make a million dollars in five years.” Not surprisingly, the pair were grilled on quite how they were going to do it, so they slowly started to map out how to grow a supply chain, how they would need to hire more people and get a factory. They took the first step of moving the business out of their house and hiring their first employees.
By five years in, they were inundated by grateful feedback for the effects of the SleepPhones®. People were writing to say they had “saved a marriage” with one snoring partner leaving the other sleepless or helped a woman from Canada come off ten years of taking sleeping pills. They realized what they were doing with SleepPhones® was not a hobby but a positive force in the world for doing good.
They decided to focus entirely on the business and exhibited at their first big tech trade show in Las Vegas. They had enthusiastic buyers for the SleepPhones® from all over the world wanting their products, and they knew it was time to move away from their jobs, go back to where Jason had grown up and provide the work for that area he had always dreamed of doing.
The SleepPhones® and RunPhones®
AccousticSheep products consist of a comfortable and washable headband with thin, high-quality audio speakers inside them. They have both corded and wireless versions in a selection of different fabrics and colors. They have solved an age-old problem for vast numbers of people with difficulty sleeping, with a snoring partner, or suffering from stress and worry.
Since those early days, the company has also developed RunPhones®, which are comfortable to wear while working out, exercising, or commuting and stay in place in the same way.
Successes and Challenges
Within a year of setting up in Erie, AccousticSheep LLC and their SleepPhones® were winning many business awards for both products and entrepreneurship. This success attracted a wide variety of people, including advisors keen to offer their services. Wei-Shin says they were certainly lucky at the start and winged a lot of it, but equally, they came to learn the hard way that outside advisors are not always a good thing and don’t necessarily have your interest at heart.
They became mesmerized by one particular advisor who had been hugely successful and convinced them to go in one specific direction with the business, entirely against their gut feelings. He wouldn’t listen to their concerns or issues. Wei-Shin says that they needed someone to help walk them through a deal or spell out what figures were required to meet targets, but not to tell them where their business should be in the market. It turned out he was very wrong, and they spent two years in debt, turning things around.
Despite this, they have managed to bootstrap the business the whole way, albeit helped with financial gains from awards. They have also learned to do things their way. They take care, for example, to hire “really nice people” in customer service rather than the hardened, seasoned people they were advised to.
Another hurdle to overcome has been copycats. They were the first people to make SleepPhones®, so others inevitably had to follow with variations. They have taken out all sorts of I.P. protection and patents, which are hugely expensive but meant they have been able to pursue and recoup money from some of the most blatant copycat offenders. Others, however, are just into the grey area, which makes it not worthwhile to pursue.
Instead, they don’t try and compete with cheaper imitations on price but concentrate on their supply chain, ensuring they have great relationships, use first-rate materials and have everything clearly documented. They also work on their brand, ensuring it is established as the market leader with the excellent reputation and goodwill it has, which comes from professional staff who know what the consumer wants and ensures they get it.
They have continued to win numerous awards, including Exporter of the Year by the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM).
Currently and the future:
Their hardware is all established and just needs updating to ensure they always have the best Bluetooth and wireless and so on.
Jason has returned to his roots as a software developer and is now working with a small team to build software for the SleepPhones® via iPhones and android that has computer-generated music.
Wei-Shin laughs at this point and says this sounds horrendous but isn’t at all. They are combining background sounds that help you sleep better with music that people like using A.I. to do it. They are getting feedback world-wise to ensure the very best product that people will enjoy the most, the principle that has brought AccousticSheep and their SleepPhones® their continued decade of success.