While New Zealand’s COVID-19 Level 4 “lockdown” was the beginning of the end for many Kiwi businesses, Palmerston North headphone startup earSHOTS used the time to both successfully raise money and launch their new range of magnetically-attaching Bluetooth headphones. Erin Westover got the low-down from founder James Bell-Booth.

A lover of mountain biking, earSHOTS founder James Bell-Booth lives in Palmerston North, home to one of New Zealand’s best mountain bike parks, Arapuke MTB Park in the Kahuterawa Valley.

Bell-Booth also trained for adventure races, requiring him to run and ride for long periods, sometimes for 6-7 hours. Like many athletes, Bell-Booth enjoys listening to music to motivate him. The only problem was that he found himself having to reposition his headphones nearly every 10 minutes.

earSHOTS close up.

“When you’re trying to be in the zone mentally for your performance, it’s incredibly disruptive,” Bell-Booth explains.

Bell-Booth switched from earbuds to sports headphones but still found issues with weight distribution around the ear. Headphones were also not taking into account different shapes of ears. The problem led to an idea: headphones that fit the way a watch does.

“When you put a watch on, you don’t look down at your wrist every 30 minutes wondering if it’s going to fall off or constantly repositioning it,” says Bell-Booth.

For five years, Bell-Booth and his co-founder, John Grayson, have ridden the entrepreneurial journey’s ups and downs. When hiring a consulting company for R&D didn’t lead to anything, Bell-Booth didn’t let the idea go. Instead, he decided to solve the problem himself. He began hand moulding shapes using various materials and experimenting with magnetic attachments.

“I knew how I wanted it to feel, I was letting that guide my decisions around design,” explains Bell-Booth.

Bell-Booth and Grayson spent 18-months around the kitchen table on nights and weekends, building one iteration after another. Once they figured out the shape, they began 3D printing moulds. They would rip apart old earbuds and rewire it to fit the moulds.

earSHOTS first prototype.

“We knew that most of our attention needed to be on the magnetic system because we were never going to be the best in the world at Bluetooth technology and that type of stuff. We were very clear in our development that we could be the best in the world at magnetic attachment, comfort, and action sport environments,” says Bell-Booth.

earSHOTS is the first company in the world to develop magnetic attachment for headphones.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Bell-Booth and Grayson met the right people at the right time who believed in what they were doing. Early on, they connected with angel investor Sharon Bryant and former CFO/COO of Xero, Ross Jenkins, who have provided critical advice, support, and funding.

Through Callaghan Innovation’s network, earSHOTS connected with a manufacturer in Shenzhen, China. Bell-Booth says earSHOTS wouldn’t have the product they do today if it weren’t for the support this partnership brought.

Even with New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown, earSHOTS continued with a funding round because Bell-Booth knew that the product was ready for the market. In April, now with enough funding behind them, they launched.

earSHOTS final product in case.

“[The launch] wasn’t a big thing. It was just, ‘Here’s our website, here’s how we want to bring people to it, here’s what we want to tell them about the product, let’s see if it works,’” says Bell-Booth.

It was a simple yet effective approach, a testament to the tight-knit community surrounding adventure sports. Yet, it is also a testament to a company naturally set up to work in lockdown conditions. The earSHOTS team is spread out around New Zealand, with Grayson living in London. The company sends direct to consumers, and with relatively low prices to ship, the company can more easily send products anywhere.

“Regardless of COVID, the business was always going to look like it is now,” Bell-Booth explains.

Almost three months after launch, earSHOTS already has customers in Australia, the US, Ireland, the UK, and Western Europe.

By leveraging partnerships and solving a problem faced by an entire global community, earSHOTS has quickly become a global company. The team is currently selling in New Zealand & Australia and plans to sell in the UK, Canada, and Europe by the end of the financial year.

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