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Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 13 years ago

Now Hear This

When hearing aid entrepreneur Mark Krywko couldn't find the kind of outside sound reduction headphones he wanted, he and his engineers created their own. Now that discovery is the basis of a bulging business.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Mark Krywko's startup technology company, Palmetto-based Sleek Audio, recently notched several milestones for its patented line of 'in ear' earphones.

First came the coveted “Best of What's New” award from Popular Science magazine, given for products that have the best combination of innovation, vision and execution. A few months after wining that award, the company quadrupled its office space: It went from 2,000 square feet of cramped digs in a Bradenton building it shared with Krywko's hearing aid company to 8,000 square feet in an office suite in downtown Palmetto recently vacated by the Manatee County Sheriff's department.

And then there were the attaboys the company received in local business circles earlier this year when it announced that by the middle of 2010 it planned on tripling sales, hiring as many as 10 more employees and moving its production line from China to the U.S. The company currently has 13 employees, including Krywko's son, Jason Krywko, Sleek Audio's chief operating officer.

It's a lot of noise from a family business whose main product isn't much wider than the width of a penny.

But Krywko says there is a lot of punch in his firm's products, which allow the user to customize the earphone's sound equalization characteristics by fine-tuning the treble and the base — something never done before. Krywko says he has spent about $500,000 of his own money on funding the product's development.

“There's nothing on the market that has this kind of clarity or sound level,” says Krywko. “It really is a marriage of loudspeaker technology and hearing aid science.”

But such sound power comes at a price.

Sleek Audio's core set of earphones, the SA6, goes for $250. It also sells a wireless version of the earphones for $320 — a price recently dropped from $400. Sleek Audio's earphones are currently sold online, on its own Web site and through other consumer electronics sites. The company also sells the earphones overseas, where it has several distribution contracts.

Krywko says the one area the company has yet to target for sales is U.S.-based brick and mortar retail — a potential goldmine for a consumer product such as earphones. Krywko says the firm is getting ready to hit that market later this year by introducing an $80 version of the earphones called the SA1.

Krywko declines to discuss what stores the company is aiming to be in with the SA1. He also declines to elaborate on sales projections or past sales figures.
A Michigan native, Krywko got into the audio business 30 years ago when he started his own hearing aid retail and manufacturing firm. He moved to Florida in the 1980s and founded Ear Tech, a Bradenton-based hearing aid company.

Krywko looked into the earphones side of the industry about three years ago, after failing to find a good product on the marketplace that could truly block out airplane noise while flying. Krywko and the Ear Tech engineers, after three years of testing and experiments, created the technology that's now inside the Sleek Audio product lines.

The company then partnered with a Chinese manufacturer to increase production. But Krywko says he is s seeking to end his relationships there in order to have more control of the production process.

Krywko also says he probably could have cut down on the company's research and development time, but he has always been a perfectionist with ear and sound products. “The worst thing we could have done,” says Krywko, “is to come out to the market before this product was ready.”

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