Entrepreneurs create ear-saving inventions

Products are designed to be kind on the pressure points of all-day mask wearers.
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The Headband Aid is a headband with buttons sewn onto the side over which mask straps can be looped securely. Courtesy Kat Samardzija, Locker Lifestyle

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Wearing a face mask all day can be a pain in the ears.

After hearing about this problem from frontline workers such as grocery store employees, hospital staff, first responders and other members of the in-person essential workforce, a pair of local businesses got to work producing irritant-free solutions that are currently available to order online.

Alex and Kayla Benda are husband-and-wife co-founders of Byron Center-based Oh, Hello Co. — a retail and marketing company with three divisions: Oh Hello, Paper & Gifts; Oh, Hello Stationery; and Oh, Hello Branding Group, all of which can be found online at ohhelloco.com.

Alex Benda spoke to the Business Journal this month about his “aha moment” that led to the creation of the Ear Savers, a pair of laser-cut acrylic pieces connected with a hair tie and designed to be hooked to the straps of a face mask, so that the straps fasten at the back of the head instead of behind the ears.

Benda said he started looking into a new solution in March after noticing some common patterns for ear-saving devices on the internet and in the local maker community seemed needlessly complex and took forever to produce using 3D printers.

While chatting on the phone with his mom one night, brainstorming solutions, the idea for the Ear Savers suddenly came to Benda as a design that could be laser cut from the Oh, Hello Co.’s existing stock of materials and donated to anyone that needed them.

The company already had its own laser cutter, and so Benda quickly cut a prototype and gave it to a neighbor who works as a nurse at Metro Health, so she could test it out. After some back and forth, Benda made tweaks and listed the product on the company’s website, along with instructions and a cut file, for people with home laser cutters who want to make it themselves.

Benda said the product launch was not without challenges.

“We put it online and shared it on social media, then fast-forward seven days, I didn’t sleep a full night, because every 40 minutes the machine needed to be changed to get more on there,” he said. “And then finally, about three days in, we got it to where I could change it every three hours. I literally slept on a hammock in our garage (in the ice-cold weather), and it was terrible. But we got them going, and then we got other people to jump in and help crank these out, so in one week, we had shipped just shy of 100,000 (units).”

Those “other” helpers he referred to? They were his neighbors. The Bendas live on a small lake with about 100 homes. One of the neighbors found out Benda was sleeping in the garage to keep the laser machine running all night, and that person spread the word among the other neighbors, and soon, people were coming to Benda to ask, “How can we help?”

He pointed those with access to a laser cutter to the online pattern, and for the rest of the volunteers, the Bendas developed a contact-free system where they place the products on the front porch, and people come and help stuff envelopes and ship the orders.

“I would say more than half (our neighbors) have gotten involved,” Benda said.

The porch system requires the Bendas to sterilize the Ear Savers, mark the number of units needed per order on a pre-labeled shipping envelope, and then the neighbors use a scoop to put the products in the envelopes, seal them and take them with them to drop in a mailbox.

“It’s just been absolutely amazing, the help from neighbors doing that,” Benda said.

Although the Bendas were initially fronting all the costs of materials and labor and donating the products, the Ear Savers are now listed online for 30 cents apiece, to cover the cost of materials. People ordering the products also pay shipping.

Oh, Hello Co. had shipped about 130,000 units all over the U.S. to a wide variety of customers as of the beginning of May.

Benda said although Oh, Hello Co.’s regular business has slowed to a trickle during the pandemic, the Ear Saver has been a true passion project.

“We’re in some very dark times, and I’m someone who loves helping,” he said. “If I can help, I need to … and here was a way we could help.”

Around the same time but independently of the Bendas, Kat Samardzija, a 2019 Grand Valley graduate and founder and owner of the Grand Rapids-based startup Locker Lifestyle, lockerlifestyle.com, began to notice the same need in the marketplace for a pain-free solution for mask wearers. Locker Lifestyle is a retail company that sells “wearable lockers” such as wristbands and headbands with built-in compartments to store personal items such as IDs, credit cards and keys while working out.

In early April, Samardzija developed and launched the Headband Aid, which is a headband with buttons sewn onto the side over which mask straps can be looped securely. 

Samardzija and her helpers — consisting of her grandmother and mother (the latter of whom she hired as her manager and refers to as “momager”) — added the buttons to Locker Lifestyle’s existing inventory of headbands, which are “non-slip” with gel gripper dots, stretchy, lightweight, dry-wicking and easily washable, with a Velcro-sealed pocket at the back of the headband to hold an extra clean mask, keys, ID, lip balm, etc.

Samardzija said the headbands were originally tested and verified by marathon runners as staying on all day, so they are well-suited to being worn during long work shifts. She added the headbands have been ordered by and proved popular among persons of any gender, with or without long hair.

Although Locker Lifestyle has done and continues to do some donations, the Headband Aid retails on the company’s website for $18.50 — the value of the original Locker Lifestyle headband locker and its storage capabilities, combined with the costs of buttons, thread and labor. It comes in black and hot pink, with other colors in the pipeline.

From the time of product launch in mid-April to May 1, Samardzija had sold about 500 units, which is in addition to the continuing orders the business has been getting for its existing products after Runners World magazine named Locker Lifestyle products the “top gear to have in 2020,” she said.

Samardzija and her four part-time employees also are working to launch a new product line, which was to be announced in mid-May.

The Headband Aid project is a labor of love, Samardzija said.

“We’re doing this to provide a more comfortable solution to frontline workers who are required to wear masks for long periods of time. We want people to feel safe and confident about what they need to do and where they need to go,” she said.

“We’ve been sewing and filling orders nonstop. Most days, we work from 8 a.m.-11 p.m., including weekends. … We’re developing additional products to make wearing masks more comfortable and accessible.”

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