Matt Murphy just wanted a better earbud. The Secret Service had other plans.
When clinical audiologist Matt Murphy has an idea, he just can’t let it go.
Twelve years ago, while on vacation in Sun Valley, Matt was skiing with friends and putting his brand new iPod to use on the slopes, only to realize how frustrating it was. While skiing, his earbuds kept falling out, and when he wanted to talk to friends, he had to take them out, only to put them back in again moments later.
Matt’s friends joked about a magical earbud that would allow them to hear their surroundings while still rocking out to The Rolling Stones. For Matt, it was more than a joke… he couldn’t stop thinking about it. “It just kept coming back,” Matt said.
He began to tinker with hearing aid parts and pieces lying around from his day job, which was testing and fitting people for hearing aids at his audiologist practice, House of Hearing.
Matt stitched together a prototype. Like a hearing aid, the prototype’s speaker sits in the ear canal, but doesn’t block the canal from outside noises. “I can still have a full conversation while listening to AC/DC in the background,” Matt says.
Prototype in hand, he needed buyers.
“A few people were interested mostly for the safety aspect of it — being able to run and hear cars or dogs barking,” Matt said. The earbud market was pushing into noise cancelling technology and tighter, closed ear canal buds for a bassy-er sound… conflicting with the direction of Matt’s EarHero.
Overall, interest in the product as an earbud replacement was lukewarm.
That all changed when an unlikely contact gave it a try.
“It was just one connection, a lieutenant colonel [and friend] in the Air Force … who took a prototype and showed it to two or three people who picked up on it.”
Coincidentally, the open-ear design of the EarHero is perfect for military units, law enforcement and security details to hear audio messages while still being able to hear their surroundings. Matt stumbled on an industry longing for something better.
Unlike the old coil-tubed earpiece, EarHero is comfortable. “Most of the time these guys wear them all day, every day,” Matt says.
Matt also designed an adapter — the cherry on top — that made EarHero compatible with any new or old radio system on the market. Potential buyers wouldn’t have to upgrade their entire system just to take advantage of Matt’s new earpiece.
Through word of mouth in the security and enforcement industries, a chain reaction began.
“We’ve got about four or five thousand Secret Service agents wearing them.”
Police departments across the United States have been adopting the EarHero. There is an ongoing test run with Scotland Yard in the UK. Private security teams for Microsoft and SnapChat purchased EarHero for their teams. Even Southern megachurches and the security team escorting the Pope during his 2015 U.S. requested the EarHero.
Those working in security do it undercover, in everyday dress and need a low-profile option. “When the president comes through town, for every one or two of those [Secret Service] guys wearing the coil-tubed earpiece and the black shades, there are ten other guys in normal dress, hidden in the crowds. They still need to be able to communicate.”
Matt is baffled by the road his joke idea has taken.
“It’s kind of weird, we hadn’t really planned on [this] happening.”
Even with success so far, Matt’s looking for a more consistent outlet to sell EarHero. “The tricky part is, I can’t market to them.” There isn’t an email marketing list of Secret Service agents — for obvious reasons. The best sales channel is still word of mouth. If he can get one officer or agent to use EarHero, Matt will get orders from their colleagues a few months later.
Matt has plans for the future of his side project. He’s been toying with the idea of a wireless version of EarHero. “Imagine getting a message ping that your next meeting is in twenty minutes,” Matt says.
But Matt wants EarHero to grow slow — keep it a side project for as long as possible — to make time for everything else in his life.
“I hope it doesn’t blow up and instead it keeps progressing the way it has been over the last three years.”