•Sunglass startup Blenders tapped Instagram branding, affordable price points and a digital-first model to reach Millennials
•The strategy enabled the founder-led brand to reach a $90 Million valuation in 7 years
•Acquisition by eyewear giant Safilo grants DTC disruptor manufacturing muscle to fuel expansion
Blenders Eyewear founder and CEO Chase Fisher spent a lot of time around people in sunglasses. Since his days as a young sponsored athlete in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, and then a surfing coach in San Diego, he noticed that almost everyone he saw was wearing one of three higher-end brands: Gucci, Oakley or Ray-Ban. At the other end of the price spectrum, he found nothing but cheap options of dubious quality.
Fisher’s goal quickly became developing an affordably priced brand of stylish sunglasses that could also stand up to outdoor sports for surfers like him in Southern California. “There was a real need in the market for it,” Fisher said. “And what better place to do it than San Diego? If it’s not going to work here, it’s not going to work anywhere.”
With a $2,000 loan from his roommate, he produced the first pairs of Blenders and set up a website to get started. Not unlike Nike founder Phil Knight selling sneakers out of the trunk of his car, Fisher started by selling his product out of his backpack to other millennials on the beach, at pool parties, and at music festivals.
Fisher’s commitment has paid off: the company now boasts a $90 million valuation, is projected to reach $70 million in sales for 2020 and appeared on Inc.’s 2020 list of the fastest-growing private companies.
Now with a recent acquisition by Italian eyewear giant Safilo Group and an expansion into prescription optical, Blenders is taking on legacy players as well as a pioneer of direct-to-consumer success, Warby Parker, for a bigger share of the eyewear pie.
I think starting literally from nothing teaches you so much about the fundamentals of business. We started from one pair, one style, one customer at a time. It taught me so much.
Chase Fisher, founder and CEO, Blenders Eyewear
Designing shades to stand out in a crowd of DTC competitors
These days, it seems like direct-to-consumer brands are a dime a dozen. Nearly every consumer category is teeming with its own disruptors, as multiple new, millennial- and Gen Z-focused brands jockey for mind and market share.
However, it takes more than just disruption to win over consumers in 2020’s post-pandemic economy, and brands are taking new approaches to drive revenue and growth that combine the power of traditional retail channels with the lessons learned via direct sales.
As a millennial himself, Fisher seems to have a knack for knowing what his consumer wants. Blenders was an early advertiser on Instagram, and was quick to understand what a valuable tool the platform could be for building both brand identity and a wider audience, using audience data to tailor product and advertising to loyal consumers. “As social media started to rise,” Fisher said, “that really opened the door to a whole new world of capabilities.”
However, he also knew that millennials were looking to connect with brands in a more one-on-one, experiential way. In 2018, Blenders opened its first retail store in its hometown of San Diego. “The store really came from organic roots, just like everything else,” Fisher said. “Consumers nowadays are really feening for those smaller, intimate interactions, and with sunglasses being a really experiential product, people are able to come in and talk to us, try them on.”
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How a commitment to e-commerce helped Blenders ride out the pandemic
Since 2012, Blenders has maintained steady growth fueled by its combination of Instagram-friendly branding, accessible price points, and e-commerce-first retail strategy, according to Fisher. Though the brand has about 500 retail partners across the country — the biggest among them Zumiez, Tilly’sand Sheels — the company has never relied on third party online sellers like Amazonand eBay for e-commerce growth.
When the pandemic hit, Blenders was forced to close its physical store for three months. Luckily, Fisher said, the brand generates the majority of its sales online, where business was booming enough for him to keep all of the office and retail staff employed until they could reopen.
Though the COVID-19 crisis has challenged much of the retail sector, the multi-billion-dollar eyewear market continues to grow. The global eyewear market size was valued at 138.7 billion in 2019, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.1% from 2020 to 2027, according to Grandview Research.
A strategy of bootstrapping his way to DTC success and beyond
Fisher is intent on remaining true to his original vision and takes a lot of pride in his bootstrapping roots, tapping his intuition to guide the company in its first steps and learning everything he needed to know along the way.
“I think starting literally from nothing teaches you so much about the fundamentals of business,” he said. “We started from one pair, one style, one customer at a time. It taught me so much.”
At first, Fisher never saw his company as a direct competitor to DTC giant Warby Parker. Now, as the brand gets a boost from Safilo’s manufacturing capabilities and expands further into eyeglasses, one challenge ahead of them becomes: how to disrupt the disruptor?
Fisher sees the two companies less as competitors and more as an example of what brands and retailers will have to do to keep up in an increasingly digital-first world, as COVID-19 gave many retailers and brands a crash course in digital transformation.
Safilo’s investment in Blenders, for its part, is a strategic one, as the Italian company hopes to leverage the partnership into more future-proofed e-commerce development.
“We have a business model that is built for the future,” Fisher said. And the Safilo deal gives Blenders the oomph it needs to play in the same leagues as both Warby Parker and legacy brands.
“Although we’re in the same space [as Warby Parker] and we sell in somewhat similar price points, we’re both vastly different,” he said. “There’s plenty of room.”
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Published October 21, 2020