Sleep comes easier to Wei-Shin Lai now that she wears SleepPhones to bed. The profit comes easier, too, because the “headphones in a headband” that she invented with her husband, Jason Wolfe, have become a big seller online.
The couple put their innovative heads together when Lai had trouble sleeping but couldn’t get comfortable in traditional headphones while lying down. Their brainstorm ended with SleepPhones, a bed-friendly headband with ultrathin speakers built into it. They built a website in 2007 to sell their invention and bought Google AdWords to drive traffic to it.
Sleep-deprived consumers flocked to the site, keeping Lai and Wolfe busy sewing and soldering SleepPhones as they also worked their day jobs (her a family doctor, he a game developer). “If we didn’t see that response immediately, we may not have kept up with it,” Lai said.
Five years into their side gig, they hit the $1 million mark in revenue and made it their only gig and hired their first full-time employee. SleepPhones has continued to grow since then, with plenty of new products like customer-requested RunPhones for runners. Based in Erie, Pennsylvania, the company has 16 full-time employees and six interns.
Technology is at the heart of the business, both in the products themselves and the marketing and selling of them, and SleepPhones is constantly evolving.
For instance, the company used a machine-learning system to find the optimum way for people to sleep, initially through Amazon Web Services and then through Google. SleepPhones also developed new hardware five years into its existence and invested in artificial intelligence research to learn what helps people sleep.
The company’s marketing and sales tactics have evolved, too. The first SleepPhones website used Google Checkout to process online payments, and the company sold products to consumers directly through Amazon; now SleepPhones sells directly through their Shopify e-commerce platform.
Lai and Wolfe hope their company — and its use of technology to excel — will bring “West Coast thinking” to their Rust Belt home. “As the world keeps moving, we need to make sure our workforce is familiar with digital,” Lai said. “Maybe because we’re in a city that’s not at the early adoption of tech, it’s important for these tools to be easy to use.”