How I Launched: Happy Plugs
Hong Kong member Andreas Vural on founding his fashion-oriented headphone brand – which collaborates with industry powerhouses including Saint Laurent – and tapping into the crossover of sound and style
By Gavin Yeung Illustrations by Alva Skogg Tuesday 22 September, 2020 Long read
A mere nine years after it launched in 2011, Happy Plugs has become a multi-coloured fixture in the ears of younger consumers, and boasts distribution in 70 countries, as well as a rolling collaboration with fashion house Saint Laurent. Here, Vural recounts making the jump from tech to product design, and pushing the audio industry in new directions.
The big idea
‘It started with a why. When Facebook and Netflix came to Sweden, I realised that I wanted to [move out of tech and] create something physical, like an affordable fashion accessory that comes in different styles and colours. And instead of buying it once a year, you could [do so] every month or quarter.
‘Initially, the idea was to do traditional fashion accessories, like watches, sunglasses and jewellery. One day, my then-fiancée asked me: “Why don’t my headphones come in different colours like my smartphone?” When I went into the [consumer electronic stores] to look, I saw that everything was bulky, ugly and didn’t come in any colours. So, I took some wired headphones and spray-painted them, which she and her friends loved.
‘I realised there was a gap in the market for headphones that could be a fashion accessory that you would want to bring everywhere. And I knew this was something I could venture into. Just one and a half years after I had that idea, we had sold 150,000 units, and soon became one of the most popular brands in the country.’
Forming a plan
‘Coming from a digital background, I didn’t know how to manufacture anything. I looked up a plastic factory in Sweden to create a few dummies for me, which I took to a meeting with a major distributor. They loved them and asked if I could deliver 100,000 units before Christmas of 2011, just six months away.
‘That October, I flew to Hong Kong for the first time to meet with a consultant who helped me out with getting started, and we managed to deliver 35,000 headphones by December. The first batch kind of sucked, because we used sturdier, tangle-free wire casing, which would freeze in the Swedish winter and then snap once you went indoors. I took it in my stride – my motto has always been to try and fail, but never fail to try.’
‘The reason why we’re successful is because we’ve really been the first headphone brand to reach female customers. Our designs are unisex, but 70% of our customers are women.
‘Since the beginning, we built the brand with fashion and lifestyle influencers in mind. But I always had this vision that I wanted to collaborate with a brand under Kering or LVMH. That was my dream when I started. Everybody said I was so naive, but last year we ended up partnering with Saint Laurent.
‘Our first big collaboration was with MTV, who we reached out to. We created rainbow edition earphones, and most of the profits went to LGBTQ+ charities. We’ve also worked on some unique collections with [influential Paris boutique] Colette and [founder] Sarah Andelman, who we still work closely with today. Our collaboration with H&M was huge as well. They wanted to create a fashion tech department in their stores, so we really benefitted from that exposure.
‘We’ve been very fortunate with companies like H&M, Urban Outfitters and Saint Laurent reaching out to us. We could have been so much bigger by putting our products in Walmart, but we’ve been cutting down on a lot of those kinds of retailers, just because we want to be a more sustainable, long-term brand.’
‘I started the business with HK$500,000 and could have made myself the sole owner of the company, but everyone I met said it was the worst idea. So, instead of going all in, I had a few friends and family chipping in, which has become a very good investment for them today. That’s how we got the money for the first six years, but we were doubling or tripling the revenue year-on-year, which was really satisfying.
‘Two years ago, we decided to sell half of the company to a private equity fund, who injected us with more money to be able to take Happy Plugs to the level it’s at today and further.’
Growing a business
‘The majority of the business is wholesale, so we work mostly with distributors around the world. We’re selling to 70 countries and 10,000 retailers. We’re a small team, though – only 30 people spread across offices in Hong Kong, Vancouver, Barcelona, and our headquarters in Stockholm.’
Dealing with challenges
‘The biggest one is switching over to online, becoming a more digital brand, and not being reliant on bricks and mortar. People still want to buy stuff, but they are reluctant to go out now.
‘If you look at the US, which is our biggest market, they’ve been in and out of lockdowns. One major challenge on a global level is that all the colleges and airports are closed, which affects our main retail points. Schools aren’t opening anytime soon, either.
‘With online, you still need to treat it like a traditional offline store. In a few weeks, we will be implementing 24/7 live chat, so when customers come in, they can ask questions about their phone compatibility, the sizing of the earphones, and other details. That’s a move we all need to make.’
‘For more than 100 years, headphones have looked and functioned the same. Then, a few years back, we finally cut the cord completely, and now we even have noise cancellation that can filter out noise or let sound in. The next development will be biometrics. The ear canal is the best place on the body to measure your pulse and body heat. Since technology is getting better, the headphones will last longer because they don’t need as much power. Soon we’ll be wearing them 24/7 with a smart assistant in your ear constantly giving you feedback.
‘For us, we’ll switch from being a first mover when it comes to design, to looking at where the big guys are going and following them, because we can’t compete with their resources. We’ll deliver on the same specifications, but at half the price. Although, we’ll also beat them on design, of course. It all comes down to packaging technology into a really beautiful product.’