By Jim Martin
Erie Times-News, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Wei-Shin Lai, M.D., came up with the idea for her company when she was having trouble getting to sleep, and her husband suggested she listen to some soft music. Their inability to find comfortable, cloth-covered headphones led to designing and making their own. It was the beginning of what would become AcousticSheep.
Wei-Shin Lai, M.D., and AcousticSheep, her Millcreek Township-based company, have been stacking up the honors and accolades.
Lai, who was honored in May as Pennsylvania Small Business Person of the Year by the Pennsylvania Small Business Network, was recently named a finalist for the 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
The idea for her company was born in 2007 when she and her husband, Jason Wolfe, a Cambridge Springs native, lived near State College.
The story is that she was having trouble getting to sleep, and her husband suggested she listen to some soft music. Their inability to find comfortable, cloth-covered headphones led to designing and making their own. It was the beginning of what would become AcousticSheep.
Lai agreed last week to respond by email to some questions about all the awards she’s been receiving, the growth of her company, and where it might be going. A few of her responses have been edited for brevity.
Q: What do you make of all the recognition that you and the company have been getting? Does it come as a surprise?
A: It’s always a happy surprise to win an award, but at the same time, I’m always confident in the success of our business, whether or not we receive outside recognition. It’s important to understand even though awards are won, they must first be earned. We continue to focus on the business, innovate, and give back to the community.
When we won the Small Business Administration State award, I asked various people I respect around town why we won. Some of the answers include the inspiration to other businesses, our overall sales successes, the fact that we appreciate people and organizations who help us, that we have something that tangibly helps people, and our pretty cool startup story.
Q: Where is the company right now in terms of its growth?
A: For the past 4 years, we’ve grossed $1 million more each year, and I expect that to pick up even more this year. We now have 25 employees, and we hire 5-6 new people each year.
Question: What do your projections for the future look like?
A: Our goal is to become a known brand in the sleep industry, so instead of turning to sleeping pills, everyone knows that they have the option of relaxing to music or other soothing sounds with SleepPhones. We want to be a safe, natural brand that offers a full spectrum of value in the sleep space. We innovate, not just to use the latest in tech, but to make your life easier and happier.
Q: A lot of companies start with great ideas but are forced eventually to evolve and even move into other areas as the competition catches up. Are you worried about that next phase in the development of the company?
A: Yes and no. There are lots of companies out there. Some are really small, smart, and disruptive. But many aren’t mature and aren’t organized, despite funding. Large companies aren’t as agile, so we can roll out new products far more quickly. I think we are in a spectacular position to grow and outcompete anything that comes along.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 years from today?
A: It’s so hard to predict where the company will be in 3 years, let alone 10 years. But I do believe that by hiring the right people in upper management, I will be able to get back to product development as my day-to-day work. I will probably also continue to be the face of the company.
Q: Do you have a philosophy that guides your actions and those of the company?
A: Our philosophy is to create a world of happier, healthier, well-rested people. I believe that some themes in our company include making processes simple, using technology effectively, and mutual respect. As founders, we respect our employees and expect excellence. We treat them like adults and trust them.
That doesn’t work for every personality though, so we take care to hire people who can thrive with our management style. I believe that the positive management philosophy permeates throughout the work of our employees who then go the extra mile for customers, feel empowered to move forward without fear, and try new things without micromanagement. We get so much more done when we are allowed to think for ourselves.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever been given or the most important lesson you’ve learned?
A: There are always tough situations in business. It’s almost always possible to be honest and realistic without being mean. I think that having been a family doctor dealing with a variety of personalities under tremendous stress and very little sleep trained me to keep my cool in most situations. The book Crucial Conversations taught me how to confront difficult situations with confidence.
Q: How often do you wear your SleepPhones to bed at night?
A: I use SleepPhones for various situations like trying to sleep before a big event, taking naps during the day (to block out noises), staying in hotels, and air travel. Occasionally, I will do some new product testing.
Q: What is the key to being a successful entrepreneur?
A: Some traits I find helpful for myself are being flexible, realistic, and a quick-learner, but there are no magic keys. I’ve met many wildly successful entrepreneurs who are very different from me.
Q: What made you want to become a medical doctor in the first place? Do you miss it?
A: Becoming a doctor was about helping people, contributing to the betterment of society. While I miss the ability to connect with people one-on-one, I am helping more people than I ever could as a doctor. I know that the hundreds of products we sell each day are helping most of those people with their sleep. That’s the most gratifying part of running this business.
Q: How do you and your husband define your roles within the company?
A: My husband and I founded the company together. We both have our day-to-day work. Mine is in marketing, human resources, and procurement, and his is in sales, technology, and new product development. But we definitely cross over a lot, and together we manage general business administration and define company direction.
We like to discuss business, so it works out well. He is more of the out-of-box thinker, whereas I figure out how to do things. Together, we have a good balance for directing the company.
Q: What’s your take on the community of entrepreneurs in Erie? Is the environment for innovation healthy or do you see cause for concern?
A: Erie has lots of large, established businesses, long-standing small business, and a dynamic group of entrepreneurs. All parties understand that to make Erie a better place, we need to work together and support each other. It’s incredible to see the number of very busy, important business executives take time out to volunteer to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
The new co-working spaces, incubators, and government-sponsored business services are also fabulous. Some possible threats include over-protecting turf and a bandwagon mentality. Overall, there are plenty of great ideas in Erie, and there are many structures here to support the entrepreneurs who ask for help.
Some of the honors received by Wei-Shin Lai, AcousticSheep:
– 2016 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist
– 2016 Small Business Association Pennsylvania Small Business Person of the Year
– 2015 Consumer Technology Associate Small Business of the Year
– 2015 Ben Franklin Technology Partners, grand prize winner of the Big Idea Contest
– 2015 TEDxErie speaker
– 2015 Commitment to Erie Award, New Business of the Year
– 2015 Disrupt Erie Award, Woman Entrepreneur of the Year