Wireless earbuds are incredibly popular, with nearly 77 million pairs sold in just the third quarter of 2022, and for lots of good reasons. They’re convenient, sound great, and most models also block out background noise. But they have drawbacks as well.
They fall out. They’re uncomfortable, especially when worn for long periods of time. Used at too high a volume level, they can contribute to hearing loss. And while their noise-cancelling capabilities are welcome in some situations, such as when flying, they also make earbuds unsafe to use at other times, like when driving.
Frustrated with the discomfort and other drawbacks of earbuds, a Minneapolis-based engineer thought to herself: lots of people wear earrings. Why not combine the functionality of earbuds with the style of earrings, creating a product that would be fashionable as well as functional, while being safer and more comfortable than earbuds?
So, in 2016, Rama Prasad founded Teqnizan to design and produce Bluetooth audio earrings, combing advanced sound technology with artisan design. Here’s her story.
Tom: Hello everybody, and welcome to another “Founder’s Interview” on Webbiquity. Today I’m joined by Rama Prasad, Founder and CEO at Teqnizan. I saw Rama and her team present at a MinneDemo event last fall, and I was just intrigued by the product. We recently crossed paths again at a BETA event, and I’m excited to have her here today to share her story with everyone.
Hi, Rama, thanks for joining me. How are you doing?
Rama: I’m doing really great. Thank you, Tom, for inviting me. Always happy to talk about our journey, what inspired us, and why we are working on this. I’m looking forward to discussing that with you and the audience.
Wired earbuds were great for enabling hands-free calling without wearing something bulky, but they provided a false sense of mobility. It was easy to forget you were tethered to your phone, leading to snagging accidents and shattered phones.
They were also uncomfortable, especially when worn for long periods of time, and the foam used in the ear pieces caused skin reactions with some users. Wireless earbuds solved the snagging problem, but were still uncomfortable, and prevented users from hearing potentially important sounds around them.
As Rama describes it, “Putting devices into our ears wasn’t a natural or comfortable feeling. But as females, we wear earrings. I thought: why not build the functionality of earbuds into earrings?
“I’m an electromechanical engineer. I had worked at large global corporations on some fairly complicated electronic devices and consumer electronics products, sectors where innovation is extremely important. So, it just made sense to me to build the wireless audio functionality into an earring. That’s what got me excited, combining the capabilities of wireless earbuds with jewelry.
“Ear buds are uncomfortable, they fall out, they interfere with earrings—designs like the AirPods stem that sticks out, that kind of restricts the earring—and there is concern, especially for younger people who listen to lots of music, about the risk of hearing damage.
“Earbuds seal into the ear canal and all of the sound waves are directed toward the eardrum and the delicate organs behind that. Hearing loss is progressive, affects communication, and can be debilitating later in life. So, the motivation for us was to make a safer device that is also comfortable and stays in place.”
Teqnizan’s audio earrings are safer and more comfortable than earbuds, and also permit the wearer to hear sounds around them, such as when commuting–cars, trains, emergency vehicles, even bikes. “Those advantages,” says Rama, “make this just a better solution. That’s what drove us to develop this product and take it to market.”
Year founded: 2016
Funding rounds: Self-funded, friends and family, plus “some angel investment.”
Company size: Currently two full-time and two part-time employees.
Tom: We’ve talked about your inspiration for tackling this problem: your personal experience on phone calls, the comfort and safety concerns with earbuds…you’ve clearly identified a very real problem. Is there anyone else out there trying to do something similar to Teqnizan?
Rama: Yes, beyond my own personal experience, we’ve validated these problems and our solution approach through surveys, through a study with Augsburg College, talking with individual customers, and focus groups. We’ve done a lot of validation to prove our solution is very viable. In our studies, right away we get compared to AirPods, which are the best-selling earbuds on the market.
We’re not the only company thinking along these lines. There are jewelry brands that have created holders for earbuds (but those earbuds are, of course, designed for in-ear use).
As far as other companies that are integrating the circuit into the earring, we’re aware of two, one based in New York, and one in Germany whose product looks more like a pearl earring that’s clipped onto the ear lobe. Those are our two main competitors: both startups, both very early stage, like in pre-order phase. We are selling and shipping.
Tom: As you’ve launched this product into the market, what have been your most effective channels or methods to get the word out about your audio earrings?
Rama: It’s very early for us, so we haven’t really made a concerted marketing effort yet. Sales right now are primarily to friends and family, basically people who know us and our company through various channels or forums. People have tried out the earrings and are wearing them. Other people have heard about us and want to try them out.
So, we haven’t really done aggressive marketing. Just some email outreach, and of course some of the local forums here in the Twin Cities, like our Minnestar demo. We also participate with a couple of local startup accelerators and have gotten some PR through them. We’re working towards doing a well-planned, full-scale advertising effort.
Tom: Yes, again, I first saw your product at MinneDemo during Twin Cities Startup Week last fall, and it was very intriguing, very impressive. It seems like this would be a natural fit for Facebook ads, possibly Twitter ads…?
Rama: Yes, as I dig into it, absolutely. It’s interesting, with startups, the brand is always new and unknown. Additionally in our case, the product category itself is unknown.
One of the first questions we get is, is it heavy? Because it looks big. But the cores are actually hollow. It’s not like a big rock you are wearing with regular jewelry, like a large emerald or other stone. Our inserts are hollow, with very lightweight electronics inside.
It’s a mid-sized earring, weighing four grams. Large, heavy, dressy earrings weigh seven grams. So ours are half that weight.
Other questions relate to loudness: can the person wearing them hear the sound clearly? Can a person sitting next to them hear it? We try to answer all of those questions on our website and in our presentations. We have to communicate to people who wear AirPods why our earrings are better.
Tom: If you would, finish this sentence: Knowing what I know now, if I were starting over today, what I would do differently is…
Rama: I know, hindsight is 2020. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I made that dumb mistake. I did this, I didn’t do that.” But honestly, because it’s a new direction, new territory, we try things, right? We guess at things, we form hypotheses, we try new things, and some are dead ends. We discover what works and what doesn’t.
The question is around what didn’t work, what I wouldn’t do, or would do differently. So, the one conundrum for me is around funding. Should I have tried to find outside investment right away? Should I have said, “Here’s my vision, yes there is risk around it. But the vision is amazing, so I’m raising funding”?
I’m very experienced, at mid-career, I could have said, “I’ll assemble a dedicated team and go at this hard from the get-go.” I didn’t do that. Instead, I chose to experiment with this in the lab, call in favors, get people helping me figure out how this could happen and bootstrap it to the point of revenue, certainly to patent issued.
It’s been kind of slow going. I’ve been bootstrapping this for a few years. Maybe other companies have moved faster. So, if I were able to go back and do it again, now with my higher level of confidence, and knowing that we have a solution, I would have raised money sooner and gone faster.
Tom: Understood. So, based on your experience, what’s the most important advice you could offer to a would-be entrepreneur just starting out today? Would you advise them to raise money earlier, or…?
Rama: No, I don’t know if I would. It’s not one-size-fits-all. What I learned about entrepreneurship…
This is my first rodeo. I’ve worked for large corporations like Hewlett Packard and Honeywell. Not only was I stepping out from the safety of a well-established corporation to build my own business, I was also new to the Minneapolis area. I didn’t know the local ecosystem. I was a first-time entrepreneur.
There were a lot of “first” things, compounding the risk. But regardless, I was highly motivated, so I kept going. What I have learned about entrepreneurship is that perseverance is extremely important. There will be times when the temptation to give up, close, shut it down, to try something else, is very high. It’s easy to question why you are doing this.
So, I think it’s vital to be clear about why you are doing this. Are you truly motivated? Are you going to go the full distance? For me, there was no reason not to go back and get a job, a really good-paying job. But I kept saying no, I ‘m not going back to the traditional workforce, with the much better paycheck. I’m going to keep doing this and building this, even when it’s difficult.
To me, that’s what an entrepreneur needs to decide when they take this on. Of course, there are many different types of entrepreneurs; there are some who come from entrepreneurial families, their father or mother or other family members owned businesses, or they got started very early in their careers, that’s a different track for them altogether. They’ve already learned.
Tom: It sounds like your key lesson though is “perseverance.”
Rama: Yes, to keep going. To take the successes, traction, and forward progress along with the failures and disappointments, which will be there. Answer the question of why you are doing it. How will you be better off after everything is said and done?
Tom: Well, I’m glad you stuck with it. Thank you Rama, this has been a great discussion. Final question: how can people connect with you and learn more about Teqnizan?
Rama: Yes, I’m super excited to say we are selling. The product is very robust. We are getting five-star reviews. Obviously, my friends and family love me. But they wouldn’t write fake reviews, they just wouldn’t. The product is robust. It’s a new experience.
We’ve talked a lot about the product on our social media pages. We are Teqnizanearings, all one word, on Facebook. We have a page on Instagram, we’re on TikTok, and we have a company page on LinkedIn. People can reach us on any of those platforms.
And then, of course, we have an ecommerce website at Teqnizan.com where we are selling our earrings. We usually ship within two days of the order. The product is robust, it works. You can wear it, then tell us about the experience. Also, tell us how we can improve it. It’s a new category, so customer input is very, very valuable for us.
Tom: Got it. Thank you, Rama!
Rama: Thank you, Tom, for hosting us.
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