This Family-Run Startup Is Turning the Hat Industry On Its head
This father-entrepreneur is on a mission to show others what people with developmental disabilities can accomplish.
Bridget Hilton is on a mission to change the world through the power of music. To realize her dream, for every pair of reclaimed exotic wood headphones the young social entrepreneur sells from her West Hollywood, Calif. premium audio startup, LSTN Sound Co., she helps to restore hearing to someone in need through the Starkey Hearing Foundation (SHF).
“These people have never heard someone say ‘I love you,’ to them,” Hilton said in an interview. “They’ve never heard music, and to me that’s one of the most incredible feelings in the world… to be able to change that for somebody.”
Since launching her mission-driven enterprise from the famed Sunset Strip with co-founder Joe Huff in 2012, her company has given away thousands of hearing aids across the globe.
Hilton launched her specialty audio startup — now staffed by five employees, with a warehouse in Kentucky — specifically to benefit SHF after realizing that some 360 million people around the world suffer from hearing loss.
The idea for LSTN — a combination of Hilton’s “love of travel, music and helping others” — came to her while she worked as a marketing and artist development specialist at Universal Music Group. She was watching a particularly moving viral YouTube video of a young woman hearing for the first time when it hit her.
“It was the catalyst that made me think, ‘What am I doing with my life? Why am I working for someone else? Why am I not doing something to help other people?’” she said. “It got me thinking about how my entire life has revolved around music and there are people who have never had the opportunity to hear it.”
We recently caught up with Hilton to learn more about LSTN’s inspiring social mission, what it’s like to start a purpose-driven for-profit and what’s next for her budding business. Check out our conversation below.
How do you weave giving back into your business?
“We make premium quality, vintage-inspired audio products, including headphones, earbuds and speakers. Every purchase of a LSTN product helps someone hear for the first time through our partnership with the Starkey Hearing Foundation.
We travel with Starkey to help fit people with those hearing aids. We film those hearing missions so people can see exactly how it works. So far, LSTN has helped over 25,000 people hear in nine countries around the world, including Peru, Uganda, Kenya, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and, of course, right here in the USA.”
What drives you to spread awareness about hearing loss as a social entrepreneur, and how does LSTN’s brand identity factor into that mission?
“We believe that what’s good for business should be good for the world. When we started LSTN, we didn’t just want to start another company, we wanted to start a business where we could change lives through the power of music. To do that, we combine premium audio, beautiful style and a powerful purpose. That’s what truly makes LSTN unique from other audio brands. It’s a win, win, win for everyone.”
What did you look forward to the most when launching LSTN, and what did you find the most intimidating about starting up and why?
“I had the idea for LSTN and subsequently met my co-founder Joe right after that. We shared the same values and passion for music and social enterprise, and we decided to partner up to launch the brand. I quit my job very early on, but I wasn’t very fearful, mostly because it was my first time starting a real company and I was just naive (and excited)!
The scariest part in starting a company is typically cash flow. To start, we bootstrapped for the first two years and then raised a seed round at the end of 2014.”
What is the inspiration behind the name LSTN?
“We thought LSTN was a good name since the consumer who purchases the product is listening to it and the end result is someone being able to listen through the hearing aids we provide.”
Why specifically sell speakers, headphones and earbuds, versus other types of consumer tech products you might have had your hands in as a retail entrepreneur?
“My history was in the music industry, so audio had a particular interest to me. Also, there was no one doing anything social in the audio space. I also liked that personal audio products are products that can be worn outside of the home and don’t have gender, age, size and season specificity, so they’re generally easier in terms of inventory and planning purposes.”
What’s next for LSTN?
“This summer, we’re partnering with a major airline to provide headphones for first-class passengers. Our goal is to become a globally known social enterprise and help as many people as possible through the sales of our products.”
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you first started out?
“You always need more money than you think!”
What’s one key piece of startup advice you can share with aspiring social entrepreneurs?
“Start small and test before you go big. That’s what we did. A lot of people want to start something, but never do because they think it’s too hard. People always get held up in the beginning. But there’s something to seeing your idea grow and getting excited every day working on something that you’re passionate about.
I’ve learned an exponential amount more in the last four years than I learned since I started working. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. Just get started. And be authentic. Having a cause you believe in is good for business, good for company morale, and good for personal reasons.”