There has to be something better than this.
That’s the thought that led entrepreneur and COCO member Jackson Mann to invent Vibes: high-fidelity earplugs designed to enhance the live music experience by lowering decibel levels without sacrificing sound quality. From a ruptured eardrum to an appearance on Shark Tank, Jackson walks us through his wild entrepreneurial ride of the past three years.
“I’ve had a passion for music from day one—attending concerts, doing promotion, or working on the production side. In 2014, I ruptured an eardrum at a concert. My doctor suggested I get foam earplugs, so I tried some out. They totally destroyed the sound quality, and I thought there has to be something better than this.
Then I tried out a pair of specialized earplugs geared toward musicians—they’re designed to help maintain sound quality—and I was wowed by them.
This should have been marketed to me.
“I’ve worked in the music industry from booking to production to promotion, and no one ever told me about the dangers of loud sound. I thought, why wasn’t this product ever marketed to me?
But musician earplugs aren’t marketed to the concert-going crowd. You have five people onstage taking care of their eardrums, and 50,000 in the crowd getting hit with way more decibels than the musicians themselves. And the products that were out there were almost medical in their display and packaging.
I saw the gap in the market, took a leap, and went all in.
“I had some savings, a bit of a nest egg, and I had a bit of side income from hosting private events and parties, so I knew I wasn’t going to go hungry. My life is pretty lean. I live in an attic, with a rent payment of $500/month, my car was paid for… It was a perfect time in that way, I didn’t have too much to lose.
I was able to self-fund all the R&D, and borrowed money from friends and family for the first production run. Outside of that, I haven’t done fundraising of any kind.
But I had a rocky start, emotionally and logistically.
“After the product had been developed but before launch, I’d been working with a partner in the music industry. He had national contacts, was a well-versed business guy, and he was coming on as an investor. His investment was going to be our marketing budget.
Then, about two weeks before our launch, he unexpectedly passed away. I lost my business partner, my close friend, and my company’s marketing budget just like that.
Manufacturing and development was a complete learning curve.
“I did most of the R&D at the University of Minnesota’s Audiology department, which took it on as a bit of project. Their grad students were looking for projects that were less theoretical and actually tangible, something that was going to be turned into a product.
Vibes wouldn’t have happened without 3D printing. We were able to print and test all our prototypes. Once we settled on a design, we had to figure out how to make it. I shopped around in different parts of Asia, got quotes, narrowed it down, and took a trip. I went to Hong Kong, China, and Malaysia, and I’m so glad I did.
I tried to do vetting over email but found that I was basing my impressions on things like their response time and level of English, but you go there and it can be night and day from your expectations. Some of these places were not up to par, some had incredible operations, and you couldn’t tell at all based just on that level of digital interface.
Shark Tank was one of the most intense experiences of my life.
“When I got the email from the Shark Tank producer/headhunter, I thought it was spam. He said, ‘We saw your product on a blog and thought it was interesting, call us and tell us about it.’ After many rounds of an intensive application process, in May 2016, I was confirmed to be on the show.
I had one month to prep for the filming in June. I know now that that’s a really short timeline—some contestants have almost a year. It took over my life for that month, and I flew out and did the pitch.
[Kevin O’Leary was the only shark to bite, offering Jackson $100,000 with a royalty of $2 for every pair sold until he got his money back, plus 35 percent equity in the company. Jackson declined the offer.]
I couldn’t be happier I said no, or with how it’s gone since.
“I was up there for an hour, but on TV you only see seven minutes—you miss a lot of the negotiations. It was a deal I knew I didn’t want, so it was easy to say no to it. He was asking for too much equity, and I didn’t want to draw royalty money out of that company that early in the life of the business. It was just too early to make that kind of decision.
Within six hours of the show’s airing, we did as much in net revenue as I was asking for with the initial investment, and it kept going from there. I was able to retain full ownership of my company, and get the money I was looking for without giving up any equity or control.
It’s crazy how your mission can grow.
“In doing all this research on hearing health and issues, I learned that in the developing world people with hearing disabilities get lumped in with people with mental disabilities, so they’re not properly educated or cared for. So Vibes is partnering with Hear the World Foundation, and each pair of earplugs we sell helps give someone in the developing world access to hearing aids or surgery.
We’ve also found that there are other uses for Vibes outside of music: occupational uses for photographers, bar staff, security, anywhere it’s loud and people need to be able to communicate.
And we’ve had tons of people write in and tell us that their kids with autism or sound sensitivity are using Vibes. Often the only solution they have is foam earplugs or earmuffs, and if you already feel different or out of place, wearing earmuffs doesn’t exactly help. The discrete nature of our product lets them communicate and talk, while tuning down their environment. We’ve had some incredible responses, people saying ‘You’ve changed my child’s life.’ You can’t not keep going down that path when you get emails like that.
Little did I ever think when I said I want to make earplugs for concerts, that it would spin into helping kids with sensory sensitivity, and help solve a world health problem.”