Thinking about creating a product specifically for the senior market? According to George Dennis, Founder and CEO of TV Ears, Inc., one of the keys to success in the market is solving a problem and creating a solution. Senior Housing News recently talked with the founder of TV Ears, Inc. that manufactures doctor-recommended TV listening solutions and was founded in 1998. The company has been named to 2009 Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 5,000 List, 2009 Deloitte Technology Fast 500 List and George Dennis was a 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Semi-Finalist.
SHN: How did the idea for TV Ears start?
GD: My father started losing his hearing and after looking around for solutions, we could only find hearing aids that would assist us in solving his loss of hearing. The problem was that hearing aids at the time cost thousands of dollars and there was no insurance coverage and it was very expensive. At that point, we decided to create a hearing aid for the television. The concept started out as how can we solve a personal problem and the concept grew from there. We knew the market was there as television is the number one past time in America and that we could provide a good product at a good price point.
SHN: Talk about the time line for the growth of TV Ears.
GD: We started in 1998 and it took approximately 2 years to get the product to a stage where we could distribute it on a broad basis to consumers. This included a substantial amount of testing with friends and family getting a good feedback loop during that time. For the first two years, I was very emotionally involved in the product development process and that enthusiasm helped keep me going during that time. The next two years involved implementing some of the feedback that we would get from our users and through our toll-free number. One of the big feedback points was the durability of the product. We needed to upgrade the product durability as people were using the product everyday and were experiencing higher than anticipated normal “wear and tear”. We’ve found that our product is one that if our end user loves it, they use it as part of their everyday lives which requires some industrial strength engineering.
SHN: What was your background prior to TV Ears?
GD: I was in the medical device field and product marketing industry.
SHN: How does the design and manufacturing process work?
GD: We source our materials from abroad and here in the US. All design and engineering work is handled in California and assembly and manufacturing is handled in Utah and California. We keep tight controls over our manufacturing process here in the US as we treat our product like a medical device and keep that focus to ensure the best quality possible.
SHN: What were some of the mistakes that you made in marketing the product? How did you learn from those?
GD: At the start, we though the infomercial was the way to go. We hired actors, spent a ton of money on the production and getting the spot out in the market. We failed miserably and it was a humbling experience. After that, we went back to the drawing board and started cold calling audiologists and marketing our product to the audiologist and hearing industry as a lower price point solution and began to build word-of-mouth and get industry credit. From there, we began a series of print ads that had a lot of information and directed consumers to seek out locations that carried our product. Our ads seem very similar to how the drug industry markets products by showing the product and the benefits and driving traffic to doctors and pharmacists. It was a slow and meticulous process but one that has been a key to getting respect within the industry.
One of the other key parts to our success was working with a good PR firm getting the name and brand out in a number of places where we can touch as many people through many different channels. Between the web, television, print ads, magazines, our toll-free support numbers and social media, our customers have many channels to access information about our product and provide use feedback to improve the product.
SHN: You’ve got some large retailers distributing your products. How did you establish those relationships and has that been a challenge as an entrepreneur?
GD: One of the largest challenges to overcome initially with Radio Shack was the thought that our product was not cool. We kept pitching and plugging and finally got an opportunity with the caveat that we’d guarantee to take the inventory back if it didn’t sell. Our pitch to them was that if you stock it, I’ll sell it and it worked much to their surprise. We began tailoring some of our print ads to direct consumers to the retail outlets that carried the product and things began to take off from there.
One of the biggest challenges for small businesses working with the large retailers is the amount of technological investment required to get into the supply chain. I think we were lucky as we got in just before the larger players began imposing things such as EDI and sophisticated supply chain inventory systems. This is definitely a challenge that new entrants will have when trying to bring elder targeted products to mainstream retailers.
SHN: Let’s talk about the High Definition Television you rolled out at CES this year. Is the world ready for a senior-friendly television set?
GD: Against the advice of almost everyone, we decided to launch the product. Everyone said that we were nuts to compete against Sony, Samsung and others. The idea for this came from feedback from our users on our customer support line. The senior market is not interested in 50+ inch plasmas or 3-D television from what we can tell right now. We are going to be distributing it directly and through retailers and offering a hands-on installation service as part of the offering. Besides our current channels, we are working with catalog retailers to expand our distribution.
SHN: How has been international appeal for the TV Ears products and brand?
GD: About two and a half years ago we decided to make the push into Europe. The process has taken longer than we anticipated but we’re happy with where we are at. We’ve have to customize the product for nine different languages that reach 80% of the people in the European Union. There have been some regulatory hurdles and technology channels for Europe and for Japan which has slowed us but we think that international market is a huge opportunity for us.
SHN: What’s next for you?
GD: We’re going to continue to build TV Ears and grow the brand. We’re thinking about other products but we’ve got enough opportunities right now. We’re exploring partnerships to share some of our knowledge that we’ve acquired over the last 12 years on launching and building TV Ears. Leveraging our experience with a partner is probably where we’re heading next with new products and services.