Many recreational activities can be detrimental to the participant’s hearing. This is particularly the case with shooting no matter if it is done for hunting, competition, or occupational reasons. Electronic Shooters Protection (ESP) was created in 1994 by audiologist Don Northey to both allow shooters the ability to hear in their environment and protect their hearing at the same time. In 1996, the company changed hands, being purchased by Jack Homa, a 23-year veteran of the telecommunications industry where he specialized in customer service, a skill he brings to his role as owner of ESP. The company offers a variety of in-the-ear and behind-the-ear analog and digital protection instruments. The company’s most popular models are the ESP-ELITE—its number one product—and the ESP-Digital, and is in the process of developing several new products. ESP is currently located on Homa’s small ranch in Brighton, Colo, a suburb of Denver. Hearing Products Report recently spoke with Homa about the benefits and challenges of operating a niche company and how his company serves this large group of recreational and professional firearm enthusiasts.
Hearing Products Report: How are your hearing protection devices different than those available from other hearing protection companies?
Jack Homa: If we are comparing to the standard passive in-the-ear devices such as foam plugs or molded plugs, we are quite different. ESP starts with a custom-fit earplug and then we add a 20-db amplifier to replace the insertion loss of the plug. The amplifier then uses high-speed compression to limit the output to about 90 db.
If we are comparing to other in-the-ear electronic devices, we are not much different. ESP’s devices perform the same functions as those of other companies; however, we tend to be much more conservative with our specifications. Some of our competitor’s products claim up to 50 db in amplification and maximum output of up to 115 db, which, in our opinion, is much too high for the general population.
Also we are not convinced that non-custom-fit products provide an adequate fit for the general population in regard to “hearing protection.” A little “leakage” may be acceptable in a hearing enhancement product but can be very detrimental for protection.
HPR: What, if any, R & D do you do? How do you handle improvements to your products?
Homa: We do not have a formal “technical” R & D program. We depend on our customers to tell us what they want in a product—for instance, a soft shell, better quality sound processing—and then we go and find the components to meet their needs.
HPR: How and to whom do you market your hearing protection products? Are you a shooter and, if so, does this help with marketing?
Homa: ESP’s primary market is anyone involved with guns and gunfire. This includes competitive rifle, pistol, and shotgun shooters. Also included in this group are shooting instructors, military, and law enforcement personnel. A secondary market is industrial users, which include carpenters, dentists, firefighters, and industrial arts teachers.
I took up shooting after purchasing the company. Since customers generally like to do business with people they know who understand how they use firearms, it has been a benefit to participate in the sport.
HPR: What are the challenges and advantages of being a niche company?
Homa: First the advantages. When you are specialized in a product, you get to know its advantages and shortcomings better. This allows you to be closer to your customers and you can then provide them a better experience with your product or service.
The challenges: Keeping your focus on what you do best and not drifting off on some tangent because you might generate a little income. Also, as a small company, the cost of advertising is a challenge when your market is made up of a bunch of niches. For example, the shotgun shooter does not read the same magazines as the competitive pistol shooter.
HPR: Do you intend to remain as a niche company, or do you plan to expand into other product areas?
Homa: We plan on remaining a niche company but using the same or similar product to go after other niche markets. For example, ESPs can be used by dentists in their office to help prevent hearing damage from the drill noise.
HPR: How has the war in Iraq and increased homeland security affected your business?
Homa: We have seen an increase in inquiries from the military but not an increase in sales.
HPR: How do you help educate shooters to use hearing protection? How important is that for your business?
Homa: Education is fundamental to our marketing approach. Everyone that shoots “kinda knows” that they should wear hearing protection, but the typical comment from hunters is “I can’t hear what I’m hunting.” So we try to educate them on the importance of protection and how ESP can solve that problem.
The other area of education is in the hearing health care profession. We find that many of the professionals are unaware of the differences between industrial noise and gunfire and/or explosive noise. We try to educate on how the damage occurs and the reality of the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR).
HPR: How do you support your products?
Homa: We provide full mail in-service on all our products. We can make any repairs short of them being stepped on or lost. We have a 1-year warranty and a 30-day money back trial. We also work with our dealers on any special applications.
HPR: Do you have partnerships with any other companies?
Homa: We have partnered with Audina Hearing Instruments of Longwood, Fla, to design, build, and service our products. We also partner with Westone Laboratories for our passive products and dealer support supplies. N
Chris Wolski is associate editor of Hearing Products Report.