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Two childhood friends wanted better, cooler earplugs—their startup brought in $44 million last year

Source: Loop Earplugs

If you've attended a concert this year — like a record-breaking Taylor Swift or Beyoncé tour show — you might have noticed a hot new accessory in the crowd: earplugs that are also a fashion statement.

They're probably made by Loop Earplugs, a Belgian startup that launched in 2016. The company's earplugs, designed to look like jewelry, have a distinctive circle design — a loop — in colors and finishes from solid black and shiny silver to orange, pink or purple.

The company specifically exists to buck your view of earplugs: Traditional ones typically conjure images of "ugly Christmas trees sticking out your ears, or those ugly foamies," Loop co-founder Maarten Bodewes tells CNBC Make It.

"You had people wearing Beats headphones around their neck" as a fashion statement, says Bodewes. "But earplugs and hearing protection were still kind of boring."

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Loop's sales exploded over the past two-plus years — roughly $44.1 million in U.S. dollars in 2022, a 350% year-over-year increase, according to documents reviewed by Make It — as pandemic-era restrictions on large gatherings lifted. This year, the startup is on track to triple that figure, Bodewes says.

The earplugs range in price from $24.95 to $59.95, and due to relatively low production costs, Loop has posted a profit every year since 2020, says Bodewes. Rave reviews help: Wired said the earplugs are "affordable and stylish," and Wirecutter has called them one of "the best things we bought" since 2019.

Here's how Bodewes and co-founder Dimitri O turned a two-year side hustle into a profitable startup that brings in millions annually.

Going 'as far as I could on my money'

Bodewes and O, both 38, are longtime friends with a love of nightlife and backgrounds in commercial and civil engineering, respectively. In their late 20s, they noticed a ringing in their ears after loud concerts that could last for days, a common tinnitus symptom.

"We asked ourselves, 'Why don't more people wear earplugs or hearing protection?'" Bodewes says.

Most products on the market were ugly, ineffective or uncomfortable. Shoddy acoustics hampered your enjoyment of the music, says Bodewes. Custom earplugs were great, but could cost a couple hundred dollars per person.

At the time, Bodewes was an account manager at Microsoft. O ran a startup he founded called TariefChecker, which analyzes energy prices. For roughly two years, they spent their free time researching earplug acoustics and designs, testing prototypes on electronic dummies in rented echo-free chambers.

Each co-founder spent roughly $40,000 to get Loop off the ground — "as far as I could go on my money," says Bodewes.

"[We] 3D printed different prototypes, different shapes, different lengths of canals, sound entries, different filters that we tested," he adds. The duo placed earplugs "on little toothpicks, we spray-painted them in our backyard and then tested them on friends and family."

"Food-grade" silicone rubber helped O and Bodewes find a middle ground between cheap, foam earplugs and pricey custom designs. In 2016, their prototypes got Loop accepted to Start It @KBC, a startup accelerator in Brussels.

"We were accepted on Friday, and I think I quit my job on Monday," Bodewes says.

Loop makes stylish earplugs in a variety of colors and finishes.
Source: Loop Earplugs
Loop makes stylish earplugs in a variety of colors and finishes.

'A huge uptick' in sales as concerts returned

Boosted by loans and "small rounds" of funding from angel investors, Loop's earplugs hit the market in 2018, landing in retail chains like CVS in the U.S. and Saturn in Europe.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, monthly sales dropped from roughly $100,000 to under $20,000, says Bodewes: At one point, Loop was "two weeks away from not having any money."

To survive, Loop switched to a direct-to-consumer business model and cut down on packaging and shipping costs, swapping bulky plastic cases for simple envelopes. The company started marketing earplugs as everyday products, for focusing while working or drowning out loud noises to relax or sleep.

The startup cleared $1.2 million in 2020 revenue, and raised $1 million in seed funding that year, led by Belgian investment firm Akiles. The strategy proved temporary: Loop still sells earplug models meant for daily use, but the world's resumption of nightlife is largely responsible for its post-Covid revenue.

"The nightlife part is still driving a lot of our sales," Bodewes says. "And it's still where a lot of our heart lies, for me."

Today, the company has 200 employees, with headquarters in Antwerp and offices in Amsterdam, New York and Shanghai. Next year, Loop will dedicate $26.5 million to its research and development team, says Bodewes — an effort to stay ahead of U.S. rivals like Eargasm and European competitors like Vibes.

Loop has unveiled its new Switch earplugs, which can toggle between different audio settings depending on the level of nearby noise.
Source: Loop Earplugs
Loop has unveiled its new Switch earplugs, which can toggle between different audio settings depending on the level of nearby noise.

The company intends to keep studying acoustics, and Bodewes says he wants to make earplugs more high-tech. On Tuesday, the company unveiled a new product, the Loop Switch, that wearers can adjust for different experiences based on the sounds nearby.

"It's pretty intense," Bodewes says. "But you have to innovate fast. You have to create strong brands. That's how you stay ahead."

Conversions from EUR to USD were done using the OANDA conversion rate of 1 EUR to 1.05814 USD on October 9, 2023. All amounts are rounded to the nearest dollar.

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