We’ve heard of Bridget Hilton before. I’ve interviewed her before about starting Jack’s Soap, a social enterprise which works to eliminate preventable diseases like cholera through giving away a bar of soap for every one sold. It doesn’t stop there: It also teaches children in developing countries to form good handwashing habits and teaches locals to make soap for their own community.
Hilton recently launched her second social enterprise called LSTN (pronounced LISTEN). This time around, she married her passion for music, nature, and social impact to give hearing back to children whose families cannot afford proper treatment for hearing loss. She found a great partner in Sound Seekers who provides custom hearing aids, medical treatment, and prevention efforts through mobile clinics.
LSTN makes high-end headphones from upcycled wood scraps from furniture makers that otherwise end up in landfills. Every headphone that is sold will enable Sound Seekers to restore hearing for one person. I was taken by surprise to learn that malaria is the main cause of hearing loss, and I’m sure as the world keeps debating about the validity of climate change, malaria will quietly extend its tentacles of affliction.
Apparently, Hilton launched the social enterprise in just two months. I spoke to her to see what was different (and the same) the second time around.
Bridget, welcome back to Social Earth! For readers who haven’t heard of LSTN, could you briefly tell us about what it is?
Glad to be back! LSTN is a new social enterprise based out of LA. We make high quality wooden headphones. For every pair we sell, we give hearing to a child in a deaf school.
So this is your second act. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from launching Jack’s Soap that affected how you created LSTN? Were there any pitfalls you’ve faced the first time around that you wished you knew?
LSTN was created faster and was actually easier to start. I’ve made amazing contacts and friends that have helped things move very quickly. The second time around I knew how to easily incorporate, get a trademark, press, retail, make a website - tasks that took me awhile to learn before. My music background was obviously a huge asset as well. The most important lesson I learned with Jack’s was that retail margins are no joke and the pricing structure needs to be set up for retail in the beginning. Experience is a great teacher!
So let’s cut to the chase. You launched LSTN in two months. How did you do this? I don’t really believe that the idea popped into your head two months prior. Did you let the idea for LSTN marinate in your head first?
One of my favorite quotes is, “done is better than perfect”. I like the idea of launching and then figuring out some of the details later, not unlike a tech company. LSTN is a work in progress. I had the idea a few months before I started the work and research, but didn’t really believe I could pull it off. Every headphone maker I had ever heard of were giant electronics companies with millions in backing. However, I couldn’t get it out of my head - so at the end of May, I started doing major research and by the first week in June, had the two most important things - a manufacturer and a charity partner. From there, everything else is just details. I launched the site as a pre-order - in this day and age, you can launch a company with next to no money. If you are passionate about your idea, can discipline yourself and work efficiently, there’s no reason that you can’t launch quickly. Everyone has 24 hours in a day.
Why did you choose to focus on hearing impairment in developing countries?
I want to create the first big music-related social enterprise. Warby Parker, TOMS and Proof are giving sight, LSTN is the answer for hearing. Hearing is something that we take for granted, but to someone who doesn’t have it, it makes a world of difference to be able to hear music, laughter, nature, their family and friends. Ninety-five percent of children in deaf schools worldwide can be helped by the same process we are using - medical exams, custom hearing aids, medicine, and prevention via mosquito nets. Eighty percent of those people live in developing countries. We obviously are only going to be able to help a small fraction of those in need, but I’m very proud to even help one person. We are currently working on a partner within the U.S. as well. There is definitely a special place in my heart for sharing my biggest passion with those in need.
Not too long ago, a crop of critics casted doubt on whether TOMS is actually solving a social problem. Since you have a finger (or two) on the pulse of social entrepreneurship, how you see the one-for-one model evolving? How do you ward off some of the problems the critics point out in the their pieces? Or, do you not see them as problems or disagree with the degree to which they are made out to be?
TOMS greatest contribution to society has probably not been giving shoes, but rather inspiring so many entrepreneurs to build cause into their own business models. Is their model perfect? Of course not, but it is evolving and improving. TOMS is an easy target for critics since they are the most mainstream social enterprise. I particularly enjoy their efforts in giving sight - allowing someone to see or hear is an incredible and powerful act. I’m fully aware that all social enterprises are not doing the best job that they can, however, I’m not sure I could argue against restoring hearing or vision. It doesn’t matter if you are an affluent adult in New York City or a small child in a rural village in Uganda, your life will be forever changed by being able to hear or see. These are not your typical material possessions that will undercut the local economies - these are basic senses that everyone on earth should be able to experience if they wish to. Charitable and “one for one” companies will hopefully evolve to give less unimportant “stuff” and think more about long term solutions for individuals and communities.
But Lara Galinsky of Echoing Green wrote this article in Harvard Business Review about why everyone shouldn’t be a social entrepreneur. What is your take on her bird’s eye view?
Great article. I actually agree with Lara and love that Echoing Green has opened up a bit to encompass the entire SocEnt community, not just founders. Since social enterprise is exploding right now, there are so many people who want to start their own, but don’t know what or how. I would advise them to join the team of another social enterprise first and get behind the scenes.
You’ve partnered with Sound Seekers, who already has an established presence in the area. What is the one crucial thing to look for when searching for a charity partner?
For me, being responsive is the #1 thing I look for. Getting answers quickly is super important - along with the obvious - being legitimate! Don’t sign on with anyone that is simply dropping items off to developing countries and then leaving. Make sure they have a system and proof for everything they do. There are bigger charities for the deaf than Sound Seekers, but we chose to partner with them because they have a fantastic way of covering all the bases. They’re a relatively small organization which really helps since they can move quickly, they don’t have to jump through as many hoops as a huge charity in terms of partnerships. LSTN is a small company so it makes sense. We love Sound Seekers!
What is one specific step you recommend someone take to move an idea forward?
Surround yourself with people you want to be like - online and in real life. They will inspire you to get your company or idea off of the ground. I am lucky to live in Los Angeles where we have an amazing social entrepreneur community that I have learned so much from. If you don’t personally know any entrepreneurs that you admire, find a few through LinkedIn or Twitter. Offer to buy them lunch, or even intern for them. Attend panels and public speaking engagements. This community is pretty open. Also, do extensive research on your idea and read as much as possible!
I know that you’re a prolific reader. What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Before that I read Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday - fantastic and interesting look into the blog world. If anyone has book recommendations, I’d love to hear about them!
Thanks Bridget for sharing your thoughts!