It has happened before. In 2003 Skullcandy introduced colorful, stylish headphones to a dull, monochrome market and topped $80 million in revenue within five years. Many imitators entered the fray, creating a roaring industry for headphones that Futuresource Consulting valued at $6 billion in 2012. Now, Keir Dillon and his six-person team at Frends are on a mission to seize a large swath of the market with premium headphones for women that are treated more like designer handbags than the "shrink-it-and-pink-it" products that had plagued the category to that point.
The Disruptors: 2013
Big idea: Headphones as must-have women's fashion accessories
Frends' bestselling $149 Layla headphones, for instance, sport specially engineered audio drivers that allow for a thinner silhouette. Wrapped in soft leather, they're designed to prevent the dreaded hair-snagging of traditional models and are accented with hand-polished, antiqued metals. Instead of a plastic clamshell, Frends products are packaged in textured, cream-color boxes with magnetic closures and come with protective carrying pouches that resemble clutch purses.
"We have a humanized approach to design," Dillon says. "We want to use materials people can relate to, like leather, denim, cashmere, and then integrate vintage metalworking and jewelry-making techniques." In fact, the company sought out jewelry-makers to manufacture the intricate gold-metal detail that wraps along its Ella earbuds.
Frends products hit Apple stores and Best Buy in October 2012; by the end of the year, the Encinitas, Calif.-based company had revenue of $1.6 million. Sales are expected to skyrocket this year thanks to distribution at popular clothing stores such as Fred Segal, Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. The company also has inked a deal to sell its wares at upscale chain Intermix, including items to be created by fashion designers Barbara Bui and A.L.C.'s Andrea Lieberman.
"We're positioning it as a covetable accessory rather than a utilitarian tech device," says an Intermix spokesperson. "It's rare for women--especially in metropolitan cities--to navigate the streets without headphones. Frends saw a void in the market, and they capitalized on it by ensuring [women] do not have to compromise style for function."
Dillon himself seems a little awed by his firm's rapid ascent. "We're doing deals you should never be able to pull off with a six-person company, but I think people are very willing to help change a category," he says, noting that in December 2011--while in the midst of raising $1.5 million, mostly from friends and family--Frends scored a big break with Apple. Frends was pitching a line of denim-covered headphones (for men) but ended up showing assembled buyers "half-baked" drawings for a women's line.
"We were huddled around the computer … and you could tell instantly that they had been looking for this," Dillon recalls. Indeed, the Apple buyers fast-tracked the development process, introducing Frends to their recommended distributors to help bring the headphones to market in record time.
"We went from fighting every other company on earth to walking into Apple and Best Buy and fighting no one," Dillon says. "And we still haven't seen the complete fruits of our labor yet. I believe that once people see fashion and electronics in a new way, it will open up a massive category for growth in consumer electronics." And for once, he adds, that growth will be driven by women.