Dave Copithorne had one of the most successful careers of anyone in technology PR. At Miller Communications, he was instrumental player in the meteoric successes of two startups, Lotus Development Corp. and Compaq Computer. When Miller was acquired in the late 80s, he and three other Miller colleagues founded Copithorne and Bellows, which became one of the most successful technology PR firms in history. When that agency was, in turn, acquired by Porter Novelli, Dave somehow ended up being president of the acquiring organization. He left this successful career to spend more time with his family and put his hand into helping start ups in the Boston area.
Then he woke up one morning to discover he had lost 80 percent of his hearing in one ear and 60 percent in the other, probably from an incurable ailment called Meniere’s Disease, mixed with an auto-immune reaction. He could no longer use a regular telephone. While he could understand a single speaker in a quiet room, he could not decipher conversations in a group. He gradually learned lip-reading and other coping skills, but the intensive phone calling and group meetings that had been a large part of his life as a consultant simply weren't possible anymore.
I’ve known Dave for the more than 20 years. He is extraordinarily a positive thinker. It takes someone like Dave to envision a business opportunity in a situation like the one he found himself facing. And it took blogging for that business to evolve a viable model. HearingMojo.com is a comprehensive site for the hard-of-hearing community and the industry—device makers, educators, medical practitioners who serves them. Dave provides frequent coverage and analysis of anything that happens to impact the community ranging from issues, advocacy and legislation to technology and medical innovations. It provides personal stories, coping information, business and general news, and a lot of product information. Dave writes with intelligence and passion, but in a decidedly unemotional style. This is a blog about what people can do about a problem, and you can’t find a trace of self-pity anywhere in his frequent and often lengthy postings.
The blog is emerging as the nexus of a marketplace between the manufacturers, medical practitioners, and resellers of goods and services on one side and the hearing impaired on the other. In some ways, it resembles Andrew Carton’s Treonauts , except Dave’s providing a platform for the buyers and sellers in the hard-of-hearing community instead of Treo mobile communicators. When we interviewed Carton for Naked Conversations , he told us he wanted “… to fill a void of what is lacking elsewhere and that he wanted to reflect not only his own views but those of an established community not being served elsewhere.” Carton has emerged from that point to be generally recognized as the most influential single member of the Treo community. Copithorne has just begun, having posted less than 70 times, but it seems to me that he’s headed into that same position of influence over his community.
Following is excerpted from our conversation with Dave. If we ever write a sequel, to Naked Conversations, HearingMojo will certainly be a bright example of a blog-based business that makes a big difference:
Q. Why did you start HearingMojo?
There's a terrible lack of useful information for people who need hearing assistance products. Hearing-aid and hearing-assistance companies historically have been terrible marketers. There are some typical trade publications for audiologists who control the distribution channel but almost zero information published for end users. There's a real need for a publishing service that meets the needs of all interested parties. The more interactive and searchable, the better; the more of a conversation it facilitates between buyers and sellers, the better.
Q. What’s your market opportunity?
The baby boom generation is losing its hearing at a predictable rate. The over-50 population bulge is now hitting and younger people are losing their hearing at unprecedented rates due to environmental noise. All this should result in the hearing assistance industry growing at a double-digit pace, but it isn’t. Lack of information, denial, products with the wrong features designed by people who don't understand what hard-of-hearing customers really need, and lingering stigma equating hearing aids with stupidity have resulted only in single digit growth. We need better products at lower prices. The good news is there is a wave of new manufacturers and distributors who see the opportunity. There’s a lot of cost-reducing activity underway to take advantage of new standards in digital technology and communications standards such as Bluetooth. We are starting to see more useful, attractive and interesting products that are increasing demand among young people and reducing stigma. HearingMojo wants to be an objective and independent source for people who need this information, thus serving needs on both sides of the vendor-buyer relationship.
Q. So, how big is this market ?
The global market for hearing aids and cochlear [inner ear] implants is currently about $3 billion annually, and the market for other kinds of hearing assistance products, such as amplified phones, portable microphones with RF transmitters and receivers, Bluetooth earpieces and the like, is probably another $3 billion. With healthy organic growth rates, I see a $10 billion global industry by early in the next decade.
Q. What made you decide to do this via a blog?
HearingMojo is addressing a true global market. Only two of the top seven hearing aid manufacturers are based in the U.S. Three are in Scandinavia and two are elsewhere in Europe. Several dozen other much smaller manufacturers are located all over the world. Technology and component suppliers (DSP chip makers, software makers, other component makers, etc.) are located all over the world. Little of the industry is located in Asia-Pacific right now but demand from that region is huge, making the opportunity clear. Standards are being globally adopted, making the customer base interested in the same products and information worldwide.
A blog is the cheapest and best way to reach a worldwide audience from my home office. Already HearingMojo has a global following, even though we’ve just started. I get nearly as many search-engine hits from Europe as I do from the Americas and a very healthy number from India and Asia/Pac. HearingMojo generates the most traffic when I post substantial product information, and the search engines make it amazingly fast and easy to find. For instance, yesterday I did a Yahoo search for "bluetooth hearing aid," and HearingMojo.com was hit #3.
I believe that if I can increase the number of entries tenfold and increase the number of links correspondingly, I will end up getting a ton of hits just from staying high up on the search engines. Then if I can facilitate a community dialogue, it will enhance the experience of manufacturers advertising and selling through the site, because readers will amplify the editorial and broaden the information about all products.
Q. It makes sense, but how will you scale?
As my community builds, I think it will attract repeat readers. The community of audiologists who recommend and fit assistive technology is especially eager to engage, and I expect to build a subscription email list of readers who want to see a digest of everything that gets posted, probably on a weekly basis. Combined with the search-engine hits, these readers should generate qualified traffic for hearing-aid companies and manufacturers and distributors of other hearing-assistance products. Matching up this global community and creating a dialogue between qualified buyers and sellers would not be possible to accomplish in anything but a blog format.
Q Why not sell products on HearingMojo.com?
I want to be an independent and objective information source and selling a specific line of products would distract me from that goal. Plus there are a lot of people more qualified than I am already setting up retail presences on the web. You will see a lot of hearing-assistance products coming online and selling through many, many outlets ranging from high-end audio stores to cellphone carrier sites to snazzy retailers following the retail model for eyeglasses and contact lenses -- upscale "For Eyes Only"-type stores stocked with all kinds of hearing enhancement products mixed with slick ecommerce options.
That's not my expertise. I’m better-suited to follow a traditional publishing model, providing excellent information for customers, facilitating the interaction between them and suppliers -- providing strong click-through rates to advertisers and taking a "commission" in that way. I hope by the end of the year to have enough content on the site and enough traffic to build the business organically with backing from advertisers who find they are able to establish a healthy ongoing dialogue with customers through HearingMojo.com.
Q I’ve known you a long time and you’ve always been a “Big Picture” guy. So what’s your next step?
I'm trying to maintain a narrow focus on the hard-of-hearing niche. But if this comes alive in the right way it will be an interesting model for "business blogging" that may be a little different from the models people are talking most about right now. Most of the discussion now is about how established businesses can use blogs or tap the independent bloggers out there to reach their customers better. It's still the traditional marketing idea brought to you by traditional marketers, who are thinking of the blogosphere as yet another medium to exercise, among all their media options, as they develop their marketing mix.
What I'm looking at, though, is an independent information site that is built from the ground up as a blog market conversation, a site that sits directly between customers and the companies trying to reach them, that facilitates the interaction between the two in an independent, calculated and very efficient way. Nothing new here if you've read Cluetrain Manifesto -- I'm not talking about marketing as a verb or marketing "to" or "at" consumers; I'm talking about creating a "market" in the original sense of the word, a place where buyers and sellers meet and greet each other and have a conversation, where a ton of information is exchanged very quickly and efficiently, where there's haggling about value in ways that sets market prices as fairly, efficiently and quickly as possible, but where there's also a healthy sense of community and shared purpose.