Starting A Wooden Sunglasses Brand And Getting on Shark Tank

$25,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
5
Employees
product
Grown Eyewear
from Byron Bay, Australia
started June 2011
$25,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
5
Employees
6.35M
alexa rank
8.74K
followers
platform
email

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi everyone, my name is Jeff Phillips and I am the founder of GROWN® Eyewear. We focus on designing, manufacturing and selling handcrafted & sustainable wood and bamboo sunglasses.

We’re proud to say that we are Australia’s Original sustainable sunglasses company too! As part of our mission, for every pair sold through our North America or European shops we fully fund sight-restoring eye Surgery for 1 person or diagnostic eye exams for 12 children through our giving partner in SEVA.

Similarly, in Australia each pair sold will fund nutritional needs for orphaned or injured animals through our Australian partner, WIRES.

Our average monthly revenue is $25,000.

starting-a-wooden-sunglasses-brand-and-getting-on-shark-tank

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I was a teacher and would find my mind wandering to product ideas in class. I would say I was a good teacher and liked doing it, but it was clear that it wasn’t quite enough. In 2009 I had launched a headwear brand (Beardo®) and it was going quite well, but I had an urge to do something that would do good. So odd as it seems, the idea to create a company that ‘did only good’ came long before the actual product idea.

Be stubborn in your pursuits, but not so stubborn that you won’t humor the idea of changing paths if something isn’t likely to work.

I didn’t know what I was going to sell, only that the profits would go to help others. I was first inspired by a documentary I saw on TV in Australia about an eye doctor named Fred Hollows.

He was an extremely selfless man who travelled to poor countries to give free eye treatments to communities in need. People would literally travel for days by foot to see him and he was able to give back sight to many people who had been afflicted by treatable issues like cataracts. That’s where it all started for me. It touched deeply and from there I decided to find a way so that I could give back something.

From there I decided that creating a brand based around a high quality and sustainable product would be a great match. Because we were dealing with eyes and cataract issues, naturally sunglasses were an easy product choice, but as mentioned, I wanted it to be sustainable.

There was no sense to me in creating a product to give back to those in need while burning oil and pollutants to make plastic products. That is when I started researching fibre and other materials to use. Wood was a good choice as I had seen others in Europe trying it, and by using only FSC certified wood and bamboo I could ensure that the materials were grown in registered plantations and sustainably sourced.

Though sunglasses were a seasonal product for most of the World, in Australia it’s always sunny and I knew wood sunglasses were something that others would also be interested in. It seemed to me that the whole world was growing more aware of personal impacts on the environment and the timing was just right.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

Design

Early prototypes were a bit hard, my friends and I were running some old CNC machines and they did the trick but we quickly discovered that without the right material and methods, the sunglasses would not be stable. Where plastic glasses can be molded and stamped out perfectly, the handcrafting method of wood sunglasses was a bit trickier and each pair was truly different.

We discovered that wood truly does breathe and to create strong sunglasses we needed to cross layer the wood, in at least 4 layers. That would ensure that humidity levels in the areas that we shipped the glasses would have no effect. This was the moment we knew we had something special, that nobody had been able to perfect, but we did!

Website

Trademarks and startup costs were fairly minimal and the real output was in time, research and trial and error. We setup a shop on Bigcartel, but pretty quickly realized it was limiting.

There were a few bugs that kept popping up and our suggestions the Bigcartel for new apps and features that we saw on Shopify were not being responded to. Also we found that reporting sections could be much better to help keep us on track.

Shopify seemed to be reading our mind with their improvements and new features so was a good choice and I am extremely happy with the look and feel of the site now.

Packaging

Packaging was another challenge early on.

Everyone selling plastic glasses were using rectangular boxes. We wanted to be different, but we also wanted to rethink this method to ensure strong packaging for online sales. Afterall, you never know what happens behind the scenes at a mail processing facility!

I was looking at all kinds of options and designs, but when I was at a local liquor store I had an ‘AHA!” moment. I saw that a lot of wine bottles were shipped in lightweight cardboard tubes. That was it! Exactly what we needed. Lightweight, sustainable and nearly crush-proof.

starting-a-wooden-sunglasses-brand-and-getting-on-shark-tank

Describe the process of launching the business.

I had a bit of savings in the bank and financing was luckily not a big issue, it wasn’t an extreme amount of money, but I had about $15,000 to get things moving. It helps to have friends in the SEO and website field who were happy to pitch in and truly believed in the project.

Due to the fact that GROWN® was the first wood sunglasses company in Australia, it was easy to appear in the top search spot for all of our keywords! There was simply no competition! Getting in early like this has also helped retain the #1 search position since launch. I am pretty sure that google looks at both our keywords and age of the site, which helps to keep us at the top.

Launching any business is hard though and each one always brings unique hurdles. For us it was just a matter of reaching out to bloggers, news and media who would appreciate the focus on sustainability. Back then, there were a few hot words that everyone was throwing around like ‘Eco-friendly’ and we helped ourselves by integrating some of those trending words into our pitches.

A few years after launch things were going pretty good and we were starting to make a name for ourselves. I had a 1962 Holden EK which I painted our logo on and that started getting alot of heads turning too! It was also great for photo shoots.

starting-a-wooden-sunglasses-brand-and-getting-on-shark-tank

Shark Tank

I had heard that the tv show ‘Shark Tank’ was filming for its first Australian season and thought that would be a great chance to get a partner and possibly go mainstream.

I never got a call and thought they just weren’t interested, but about 3 days before they were set to film, one of the producers called. They said they would like to put GROWN® on a waiting list and that if interested, I would have to fly to Sydney at the drop of a hat sometime over the next 3 weeks.

I said “absolutely’ and picked up my sandwich to continue eating lunch. Before I could take another bite, he called back and said I need to pack up and get to the airport!

I knew this would be a great opportunity so I got moving! The pitch went great and in the end I accepted an offer from 2 Sharks (Naomi Simpson and John McGrath) who had ties to the World’s largest eyewear retail mogul, Luxottica.

I was excited to get into stores like Sunglass Hut, and OPSM, but in the end their contact was simply not interested in getting into sustainable products and we mutually parted ways.

That was a bit of a bummer, but the brand had exploded in Australia and thanks to the airing of the Shark Tank Episode, traffic spiked and we had over 24,000 visitors on the site during the first 20 minutes of the episode airing. GROWN® was very popular and the press couldn’t get enough of our story!

starting-a-wooden-sunglasses-brand-and-getting-on-shark-tank

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We have played with running ads and retargeting and find that most of our customers are coming to us organically, we have the unique opportunity to keep ad costs minimal.

This works just fine for us, so we keep focusing on SEO and allowing our potential customers to find us, rather than trying to throw out a wide net. That would cost a lot and let’s be honest, not everyone wants wood or bamboo sunglasses!

Specifically, we make sure we know what people are searching for. In Australia for example, potential customers search for ‘wooden sunglasses’ while in North America ‘Wood Sunglasses’ is used as the search term much more.

This kind of understanding of our keywords only comes with time and research, and it does change also! We apply the keywords to the site in an organic and non-forced way by integrating into descriptions and page names.

While this may seem like SEO 101, there is an art to it and making sure you aren’t too heavy on your keywords or placements.

Take a chance and follow your gut. If you have an idea and you really do like it, chances are other out there will too. Go for it!

We have 25k fans on Facebook and about 10k on Instagram (@growndesigns) and while the facebook and Instagram algorithm changes has affected every brand, we don’t let it get to us. We never boost posts as we find it’s not effective and we rarely run anything more than a retargeting ad.

Our following was sitting around 10k on Instagram but after the airing of our shark tank appearance we gained a lot of new fans who were just interested in following our story. We aren’t focused on the fanbase to be honest.

It’s an important method to reach your current fans and customers with paid ads, but by no means as important as it was 2-4 years ago. People are now bombarded with ads on social media and banner blindness is more prevalent than ever.

Our goal is to retain existing customers and to make sure their shopping experience is a good one. Sunglasses are a funny item, one day they are on your table, the next they have vanished. Or as one of our customers discovered, running over them with a car isn’t a good idea! While we test our wood sunglasses heavily and even include a lens ball drop test, and a 20 foot free-fall onto concrete, running them over or sitting on them will usually end in tears!

We know accidents happen and because we found ourselves giving our family and friend discount to customers who had accidents, I thought we should change the game. That’s why I started the ‘DAMN COVERAGE’ program. It means that no matter what you do, if your glasses break within a year we will give you 40% off a new pair. That is also on top of our regular manufacturers warranty.

By doing this, we are happy that our customers are happy and their minds are left at ease if they have another accident! People really like that program and our customer retention has gone up significantly.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The future looks good for GROWN, we are developing some new sunglasses lines. They will be sustainable of course, but these will not be wood. It’s all very top-secret right now as this has never been done before, but just know that good things are coming!

We may revisit putting GROWN sunglasses back into retail shops. We had previously stopped putting them in stores as it opened up a whole different list of issues and was a lot harder to manage.

We had our sunglasses in a few chains like Patagonia and Golden Breed, but pulled them out because we wanted to have the ability to offer exclusivity to a large distributor, and we simply couldn’t do that with hundreds of accounts already open.

We don’t use Amazon yet but may be open to that in the future as well. We find that our direct and organic search traffic is quite steady, but Amazon may help put us in front of some new eyes too.

We get roughly 10k unique visitors a month and a conversion rate of nearly 4%. Over 80% of cart adds end in a conversion, which is great to see, but it’s also telling us that customers know what they want, our site is laid out in an easy to navigate way and that Free Shipping is great for avoiding dropouts.

Our goal for the site was to make it easy to navigate, and more importantly, easy to checkout.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

It pays to get things right the first time and not rushing to market, though you don’t want to develop a fear of launching either. I’ve seen both! Make a plan when you first start out, it could be a full business plan or just a list of goals for this launch. I find this helps to look back on, to see how far you’ve come and to keep you on track.

Be stubborn in your pursuits, but not so stubborn that you won’t humor the idea of changing paths if something isn’t likely to work.

As for skills, I find that the basic skills are useful to monitor your sales, and make sure you are hitting targets. Also a working knowledge of design, photoshop and photography can be really useful, especially early on.

Photoshoots are not cheap and by knowing what you want, it can help you negotiate a good shoot rate, and cut out a lot of wasted time and energy. Good photos are very important and I think having a strong idea about style will help solidify the brand image.

starting-a-wooden-sunglasses-brand-and-getting-on-shark-tank

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Shopify as mentioned, fulfilment is managed in house and we have no smaller items which warrants an upsell feature, though this is something I think is valuable if you can implement it.

We use MailChimp for our emails as they are clean to design and affordable. We don’t discount our products often, maybe once a year, but when we do, our customers are very willing to buy.

That is something I think a lot of brands do to much. If you discount your product a lot, you are basically saying that you have too much stock or you’ve overpriced to begin with. It can look terrible if not done right.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I really was inspired by Tim Ferris’ The 4 Hour Workweek. It’s got a not of insight and tricks of the trade.

starting-a-wooden-sunglasses-brand-and-getting-on-shark-tank

Some of the resources are a bit outdated that he mentions, but it’s very relatable for any entrepreneur and I find it opens my mind up to other possibilities and other ways of doing things.

It gets you thinking a bit laterally.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

If you are looking to start out online, you should remember that simple is better. When designing your website try to make it as clean and smooth as possible. That goes for product design, packaging and ads too. Simple is better and trial and error is the key, so keep testing.

Some issues I see are things like spending too much money before you have even started selling.

Take a chance and follow your gut. If you have an idea and you really do like it, chances are other out there will too. Go for it!

Where can we go to learn more?

-  
Jeff Phillips,   Founder of Grown Eyewear

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