The founder and CEO, 24-year old Jeremy Abend, uses the word “we” a lot. But it seems that he is the company’s sole employee, doing everything from handling product design to photography for the website to finding new distribution channels.
Abend, who grew up in Hopkinton, launched his first audio product while he was earning his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis. “You sit in all these marketing classes in school, and they are very theoretical,” he says. But in “actually bringing a product to market, there’s so much you have to think about.”
One of the first steps was traveling to Asia to walk the aisles of major trade shows such as the Canton Fair, where manufacturers display the products they can make. (He earned money for the trip as a campus rep for a T-shirt company.) Abend says that he did a lot of research in advance, and was able to converse in Mandarin with some of the manufacturing reps, since he’d minored in the language in college.
The first set of wireless headphones Abend sold, which he dubbed the American EQ-20, relied on molds and electronics that his manufacturing partner had already created, with some customization of the audio software “to create a much more rich sound signature,” Abend says. He began selling them on Amazon in the summer of 2016, for $35.
They sold well on the site, he says, but there were problems with durability. “When you get these small electronics in the cold of a Wisconsin winter or the heat of Texas, sometimes they fry,” he says. What he learned from that project was that “there’s serious opportunity here” in selling low-priced headphones that sounded good — but that he’d need to do his own “torture chamber” testing to make sure products could withstand temperature extremes and sweaty workouts.
He switched from one Chinese contract manufacturer to another. He also decided he wanted to make the product look more unique, which meant having the manufacturing firm create custom molds for the plastic elements of the headphones. Abend learned how to use Fusion 360, Web-based modeling software, so that he could make those design changes himself. ($60 per month.)
To adjust the way that the next generation of headphones would sound, Abend sought input at gatherings of audiophiles in Boston — the kind of people who own $3,000 headphones, he says, and would never listen to a garden-variety MP3, since they prefer their digital music uncompressed.
“I played them a bunch of prototypes and got feedback to refine the sound,” he says. “They can hear things you and I can’t.” His goal: to “charge the price of the junky Amazon earbud, but perform on par with the higher-end audio brands.”
I bought a pair of Back Bay’s Duet 50 wireless earbuds directly from Abend for $45. They’re the kind that have a rubber tip that fits into each ear, so they don’t need a headband to stay on. They’ve also got a pill-size charging case that has its own battery, so that you charge the case, and the case can recharge the earbuds. While I’m not the sort of person who goes to audiophile meetups, the sound quality is crisp and nicely balanced, even though the resonance and richness don’t really rival a good over-the-ear headphone. But the Duet 50’s aren’t noticeably shabbier than a $130 pair of Bose SoundSport headphones that I’ve used regularly for the last few years.
My biggest gripe: You can do things like raise or lower the volume, or summon the Siri intelligent assistant, by pressing buttons on the outside of the earbuds. But you need to press fairly hard, which jams the earbud into your ear canal.
David Laituri, a Framingham product designer who has built audio products, notes that “headphones are super profitable,” and estimates the earbuds I purchased cost less than $10 to manufacture. With contract manufacturers in China that are capable of doing everything from electronics engineering to package design, Laituri says, “Welcome to 2019. You could launch Kirsner Audio tomorrow.”
But Doug Marsden, chief technology officer at Eleven, a Boston product development firm, says that Back Bay “has a nice line of products and what feels like the basis of a good brand story,” adding that “a younger startup is probably already in tune with what customers want to see from a brand online as it launches and grows.” Eleven has worked with clients such as Boston Acoustics and Procter & Gamble.
Back Bay sells eight products. Ninety-nine percent of the company’s sales happen on Amazon, Abend says. (Back Bay pays Amazon a referral fee for every sale, and a shipping fee for anything that gets sent quickly through Amazon Prime. “It’s like having a storefront in the world’s biggest mall,” he says.) Software from Fetcher ($19 a month) helps Abend analyze the profitability of the sales.
Last month, the company started selling its products on Walmart.com. Another goal for 2019 is to start selling in international markets, including Canada and Mexico.
As for marketing, Abend says, “so far we’ve just relied on word-of-mouth and advertising on Amazon. We’re still figuring out the most cost-effective way to spread the message.”
Two options for increasing his marketing budget would be to jack up the price of Back Bay’s products, or bring in more outside funding.
Abend is not yet sure he’ll pursue either path. For now, he says, sales are “growing enough based on word-of-mouth, so the plan is to keep growing, and keep making better products.”
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