Conquer the world with earplugs. It sounds as banal as it is unlikely. But Antwerp residents Dimitri O and Maarten Bodewes prove that it is possible. Barely six years after the childhood friends first launched their trendy designer earplugs on the market with Loop Earplugs, 7.8 million sets have already been sold – of which 5.2 million in 2023 alone. The growth of the company makes your head spin: turnover tripled last year, to 126.5 million euros. And after the US, Europe and Australia, China is now also falling for the trendy, reusable earplugs from Antwerp with the characteristic ring that nestles in the ear cup. But corona almost put an early end to the Antwerp success story.
Passion and frustration. According to O, these were the two motivations for founding Loop Earplugs together with Bodewes 7 years ago. The childhood friends shared a passion for nightlife. “We already went to Tomorrowland when it was still one day away,” says O. But that passion for loud bass came at a price: both suffered from tinnitus, and in their search for better protection, frustration followed.
“We were very disappointed with the products that were on the market,” says O. The foam earplugs – often given out for free at festivals – may be good for dampening the noise of thunderous machinery in a factory, but they are not made for listening to music, says O. “We were left wanting in terms of comfort, sound quality and looks. When you are young and you want to overcome social barriers, it doesn’t help if there are two fluorescent lights tjoop put it in your ears.”
Gap in the market
O and Bodewes started experimenting with hearing protection that does not simply block the sound, but filters it. Prototypes in all shapes were 3D printed and then tested. “We put them on toothpicks, spray-painted them in our garden and tested them on friends and family,” Bodewes recalled in an interview with the American news channel CNBC. With a clear focus on nightlife, they eventually came up with a fashionable design for earplugs, in a variety of colors, that can be worn as jewelry – this year they won the Henry van de Velde Prize for design.
It soon became clear that the people of Antwerp had discovered a gap in the market. The trendy earplugs were particularly popular in the Anglo-Saxon world, partly after a favorable review The New York Times. Deals with pharmaceutical chain CVS and e-commerce giant Amazon proved to be the flywheel to get sales going. “The future looked bright,” says O.
Corona pulls the handbrake
But then the corona pandemic hit hard. Lockdowns brought nightlife to a standstill overnight, and in one week sales of Loop Earplugs plummeted by 80 percent. The company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. “And in just a few weeks we were forced to completely rethink our strategy,” says O. “The nightlife was gone, but we still believed in our product.” While an investment round from, among others, the Akiles fund of Immoweb founder Christophe Rousseaux brought financial salvation, Antwerp entrepreneurs started looking for new applications. “By engaging directly with our customers, we understood that apart from the demand for hearing protection, there was also a strong desire among our customers to have control over unwanted noise.”
With the development of new models, each of which filters the sound in a different way and to a greater or lesser extent, O and Bodewes managed to respond to the questions of difficult sleepers, parents with loudly playing children or employees who had to return to work after corona. a busy and noisy workplace. At the end of 2020, Loop Earplugs was able to stop the bleeding and write a profit again.
Since then, growth has not stopped. “We will never know whether things would have happened as quickly without corona,” says O, “But the pandemic has at least forced us to make the turn faster.” Today, the earplugs are available in 150 countries, and the company employs 245 full-time employees in its hubs in Antwerp (the head office), Amsterdam, New York and Shanghai.
Like the ski helmet
Moreover, Loop Earplugs can achieve that rapid growth with a profit (10.5 percent EBITDA in 2023, ed.). “That makes us extra proud,” says O. It distinguishes the company from many other start-ups and scale-ups, and makes O and Bodewes not dependent on external financiers to finance their further growth. By producing the earplugs in Shenzen, China and with sales prices of 20 to 50 euros for a set of earplugs, the company also has enough margin to invest more than 20 million euros this year in further research into new models and more high-tech applications. “The biggest obstacle is being able to attract the right people,” says O.
Because the product is as small as the ambitions are. With the company – achieving unicorn status and therefore a valuation of 1 billion euros is a stated objective – but also on a social level there is the challenge of giving protective equipment a hip image and increasing its impact. “Whereas twenty years ago someone was sometimes labeled as a loser for wearing a helmet on the ski slope, this has become cool thanks to brands such as Red Bull and Go Pro,” says O. “We also want to change that perception for hearing protection.”