Q&A With Seth Burgett | Founder, Yurbuds

The inventors Yurbuds have become a global phenomenon, but the St. Louis native is just getting started.

 

Yurbuds founder Seth Burgett is one of the biggest success stories yet to come out of St. Louis’ innovation scene. Burgett’s ergonomically enhanced earbuds, known for their ability to stay put during physical activity, have become a mainstay for athletes across the globe. After Harman International Industries acquired the business in June 2014, the global company moved its headphone base to St. Louis, where Burgett continues to innovate with launches of new models from Yurbuds‘ Spruce Street headquarters.

ALIVE caught up with the tech-savvy inventor-CEO while he was in Asia to talk inspiration, St. Louis startup culture and what’s coming in the next generation of wearable tech.

ALIVE: Before you started pursuing the Yurbuds idea, what did you envision yourself doing?

Seth Burgett: The idea of starting a company in adulthood came as a child after I started a small business at age 12. In college, a 10-year plan was formed to prepare for the start of a venture-backed company. Part one of the plan: get involved in medical devices. Part two: get involved in a technology startup. I had no idea how either of those goals would happen. This was all in preparation for founding a company dedicated to improving the quality of life. Yurbuds provided an avenue to pursue a passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle, while founding a business that solves a profound need in the marketplace.

ALIVE: How did your previous engineering experience designing robots and devices for medical use lead you to engineering Yurbuds?

SB: First, ergonomics has been at the center of my engineering career in robotics and medical devices. Second, at the moment when the need for Yurbuds was discovered, my first thought was, “We can solve that.” Although the solution wasn’t obvious, it was clear that with an engineering background in ergonomics that the problem could be solved. It was—using a pizza pan, bakeable clay, a ruler, a digital camera and 40 straight hours of working on a design that would both stay in the ear and stay comfortable.

ALIVE: Describe the moment when you discovered the need for your invention.

SB: It was October 2007, when I was training for my first Ironman triathlon and putting in six-hour workouts each Saturday—four hours on the bike, two hours running—when I realized that my ears hurt worse than my legs after the workouts. I stopped on the trail and literally held out my hands and said out loud, “This is it.” This was the big problem that I had been searching for the past 15 years to start a company around. It was a fast-growing marketplace, a solvable problem and something I was passionate about solving.

ALIVE: Were there organizations and mentors in St. Louis who helped you in the early stages?

SB: Absolutely. Four primary groups provided mentoring: Washington University’s Skandalaris Center, the Center for Emerging Technologies (CET), Venture Mentoring Service (GVMS) and ITEN St. Louis. I relied on a few trusted personal mentors to provide early counsel on the big decisions. We used this mentoring to vet our business plan and solve big questions surrounding a market solution. “Focus is Power” became our mantra, concentrating on the important decisions.

ALIVE: What was the turning point for Yurbuds?

SB: The pivot we made to change our business model from a full custom earpiece created by scanning people’s ears to using a semi-custom model of five sizes to fit the population. That allowed us to be placed at retailers such as Apple, Best Buy and Target stores. This was a tough discussion with our board of directors, and we have not turned back. It’s the best decision we have made.

ALIVE: How does Yurbuds change or improve upon the way we think of athletics?

SB: Yurbuds allows the athlete to focus on their sport and enjoy their music, which has been proven to motivate. With the new Leap or Liberty wireless products, we provide patented ergonomics that does not fall out with the freedom of wireless headphones.  

ALIVE: How did the acquisition by Harman change how you approached the operation of Yurbuds?

SB: The business has changed from being the No. 1 sport headphone business in the US with international sales to becoming a truly global company. When we launch a product today, it is launched in eight regions globally with a powerful distribution network in each. It also now includes sport headphones, lifestyle headphones and wearables, so the operation is broader.

ALIVE: After the acquisition, Harman decided to bring its headphone division to St. Louis, to operate in Yurbuds’ hometown with those as the division’s leading product. What about the city do you think motivated Harman to bring its operations here?

SB: The people. The people of Yurbuds are a principle reason that Harman acquired the company. Moving the company to any other location was never discussed.

ALIVE: How did the acquisition by Harman change how you approached the operation of Yurbuds?

SB: The business has changed from being the No. 1 sport headphone business in the US with international sales to becoming a truly global company. When we launch a product today, it is launched in eight regions globally with a powerful distribution network in each. It also now includes sport headphones, lifestyle headphones and wearables, so the operation is broader than the previous business of Yurbuds.

ALIVE: This summer you announced that Yurbuds is going to explore more wearables, especially those focusing on quality of movement over quantity. What will those look like? To what extent are those being developed now? 

SB: The quickly evolving industry of wearables is taking many shapes: We now classify the general category of wearables into attachables, embeddables, as well as wearables. From devices that attach to baseball bats like Zepp, are embedded into basketballs like 9450 or wrist-based wearables commonly found at Apple or Best Buy, the industry is changing quickly.  Harman is partnering with the best in the industry as well as combining proprietary technology to create next-generation wearables. The center of development is located at Harman’s St. Louis site—look for devices that are relevant to the athlete’s needs and provide continued value to consumers.  

ALIVE: How does St. Louis rank among top innovative cities? What can we be doing right now to maximize our potential?

SB: The people of St. Louis are a key asset that helps rank St. Louis among top innovative cities. The Midwest is known to produce people of strong work ethic, integrity and a “#NeverStop” attitude required to become successful entrepreneurs. Combining great people with a world-class higher education system and well-established mentoring and incubation systems to promote entrepreneurs on their journey to success are likely key reasons. St. Louis is also a city that can raise capital readily for the right venture.

What can we be doing? Drive our current startups to provide a positive exit for shareholders. Once the entrepreneurs of St. Louis can show investors that they can receive a positive exit, it is my belief more capital outside the area will come to St. Louis looking for the next great venture.

 

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