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How I Grew My Business Through Exporting

With help from the right partner, a sleep-aid startup went from budding domestic sales to selling in countries all over the world.

It's a dream for many aspiring entrepreneurs: To create a product that solves a real problem for people all over the world. But getting from prototype to delivering that product to people globally takes strategy, luck, and the right partners. No one knows this better than Dr. Wei-Shin Lai, co-founder of AcousticSheep.


As a practicing family doctor, Lai often had to answer patients’ calls in the middle of the night. While this was routine for the job, she found that it was upsetting another routine of hers: Getting a good night’s sleep. “It was really hard for me to relax and get back to sleep, and so I was complaining to my partner about it. He suggested that I listen to some relaxing music to try to get back to sleep,” Lai recalls.

Even though this was a great idea, it was difficult for Lai to get comfortable enough with traditional earbuds or headphones. Even more problematic, a stereo system would keep her partner, Jason Wolfe, awake.

One evening, Wolfe brought speakers home and suggested to Lai that they create their own solution to this problem. “We sat down with some fabric and hot-glue guns, and after a few iterations, we came up with the idea of putting thin speakers inside of a soft, stretchy headband 一 and it worked,” Lai says. This prototype stayed on her head all night, was remarkably comfortable, and allowed her to get back to sleep. The birth of this invention got the wheels turning for Lai and Wolfe.

It wasn’t long before they listed their product online, and the immediate demand was remarkable. “We essentially created a whole market category for what we were selling, and by naming the product SleepPhones, our keyword search online back in 2007 was off the charts. We were, and still are, pretty proud of how it all worked out,” Wolfe says.

Getting serious about the product.

Lai and Wolfe created the first 500 pairs of SleepPhones completely on their own, but as demand for the product and sales began to scale, they realized that it was time to start looking for external help, Lai says. They began to hire contractors to assist with the manual sewing and design of the product.

Lai and Wolfe also recognized that they were going to need help with the logistics of getting their product to customers worldwide. “We began to export our product almost immediately through our website, and very quickly we said to ourselves, ‘wait, how do we export to England?’” Lai laughs. “We would go to trade shows and consumer shows and so many distributors wanted to know how we could get the product into their country. We didn’t have an answer. So, that’s when we knew it was time to really get serious about the product and explore our exporting options.”

Taking the next step with the right partner to help.

Lai and Wolfe began to research contracts and processes to figure out how to work with international distributors on their own, but they began to run into issues. Because they didn’t have an exporting partner from the start, “we experienced a few upsetting incidents that forced us to take a look at structures that could protect our business,” Wolfe explains.

Lai and Wolfe discovered EXIM, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, through the Small Business Administration and decided to attend a seminar to learn more. “It all clicked, EXIM was exactly what we needed, so we signed up immediately,” Lai recalls.

EXIM is the official export credit agency of the U.S. When private-sector lenders are unable or unwilling to provide financing, that’s when EXIM steps in, providing American businesses with the financing tools necessary to compete for global sales. EXIM can also help businesses like AcousticSheep with services like export credit insurance, working capital guarantees, and guarantees of commercial loans to foreign buyers.

Today, thanks in part to the assistance from EXIM, SleepPhones are available in approximately 175 countries and territories around the world. Additionally, EXIM has provided AcousticSheep with protection from potential logistics- or payment-driven issues. “When you’re selling internationally, and you don’t have the backing of EXIM, you don’t have many options for collecting payments. You could send it to a collections agency or hire an attorney, but one option doesn’t really allow you to move forward, whereas the other will most likely cost you more than the initial payment itself,” Lai explains.

EXIM allows companies like AcousticSheep to financially protect themselves, grow their business, and export at an extremely affordable cost. “Our interests with EXIM are absolutely aligned, and we couldn’t imagine a better solution for our business,” Wolfe says. “We realized that any time you want to grow or scale, there is risk involved, and EXIM has allowed us to take on opportunities that we otherwise would have balked at.”

“EXIM has given us the chance to work with global distributors that we might not have had the confidence to do business with due to language barriers or potential due diligence issues,” Lai adds. “They really have our back!”

Click here to learn more about how EXIM can help your business safely and successfully export products overseas.

Export-Import Bank of the U.S.

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