CLEMSON, SC (INDEPENDENT MAIL) - Asher Smiley-Swinney will bet a grand on the fact that you'll like Zipbuds. No, really — he says he's yet to meet someone who doesn't love them.
"There's a $1,000 bet of how if I can find somebody on campus who can't find a perfect fit with these headphones, they'll get $1,000," Smiley-Swinney said. "I still haven't found someone."
Smiley-Swinney, 21, and Ryan Heil, 35, both work with Zipbuds, a nearly decade-old company based in Charlotte that designs in-ear headphones. Just a little under a month ago, Zipbuds released "26" — a line of earbuds engineered for durability and performance for everyday use and intense workout sessions. They sell for $149.99 and come in two color schemes: black and space gray, and white and rose gold.
Both Smiley-Swinney and Heil are pursuing degrees at Clemson University. Heil, a doctoral candidate studying leadership and organizational culture at Clemson, joined the Zipbuds team a few years ago to streamline their branding and help design and launch their new earbud line, 26.
"I got hired by Zipbuds to come in and do kind of a brand evaluation and a marketing 360, essentially," Heil said. "We looked at a lot of different things. ...The wireless market has grown 12 percent in one year's time, it's growing faster than anybody had ever anticipated — what are we going to do from a wireless perspective?"
Shortly after he was brought on, Heil met Smiley-Swinney at Clemson through a mutual, football-coaching friend (yes, we're talking about Dabo Swinney, who's Smiley-Swinney's uncle and a friend of Heil's) and was immediately struck by his positive, can-do attitude.
"He's a smart kid — he's hungry, he's a worker, he's going to grind," Heil said. "There are so many kids that are hungry and you meet someone like Asher, who's hungry and smart, and you give him a crack in the door and he's going to blow that thing open."
Smiley-Swinney, intrigued by the project, quickly jumped on board. The two have spent countless hours doing research and talking to people at races, events and on college campuses to figure out what the biggest needs are in terms of headphones when it comes to their millennial target demographic.
"Five themes emerged from our interviews. We asked people, you know, what do you like about earbuds? What are you using for wireless earbuds? Why do you not use them?" Heil said. "Understanding their experience from using wireless earbuds, five things clearly started to emerge."
With those five themes in mind — fit, sound quality, battery life, waterproofing and appearance — they began seeking people with expertise in each category.
"For fit, we went and sourced an expert that's made hearing aids out of the Midwest for 50 years. And then we got a couple of fashion bloggers that I knew from the Northeast, and went, 'Alright, how do we make these things attractive?'" Heil said. "It's been a fun process in getting these experts together."
The two work well together, Heil said, and he knows they'll always have a relationship regardless of whether they're both still in Clemson after they finish their degrees.
Smiley-Swinney, as a rising senior marketing major, said he's thrilled to have had such an exhaustive real-world experience early in his college career. From using the campus to shoot promotional videos to speaking with countless students to gain research insight, Clemson's been influential in developing his relationship with Zipbuds both inside and outside of the classroom.
"This whole thing has been a huge, huge learning experience — just being able to take what I'm learning in the classroom and tie it into my actual work," Smiley-Swinney said. "All the work that we put into this, and how we created these not only for the customers but for us, too — we put everything we had into it."
For both of them, 26 is something they're truly proud of. It's a culmination of the years they've spent listening to feedback, understanding needs and developing a product no other company has the ability to produce, Heil said.
"A great set of earbuds can make all the difference in the world," Heil said. "There's so many places where music makes a difference, so if we can create a product that's awesome and can make people's lives better — it's pretty fulfilling."
Follow Georgie Silvarole on Twitter @gsilvarole.