Turn life’s challenges into golden opportunities and make a difference in the world, just like Ben and Laura did with Jonas Paul Eyewear. In this inspiring episode, we hear the remarkable journey of Ben and Laura Harrison, the co-founders of Jonas Paul Eyewear. Their son, Jonas, who was born blind, sparked a mission to help not only him but countless other kids facing visual impairments. The couple shares how they transformed adversity into a thriving business that’s making a difference in the lives of children globally. Tune in to a discussion filled with life-changing insights, strategies for entrepreneurs, and heartwarming stories of triumph. Ben and Laura are on a mission to not only create beautiful eyeglasses but to empower children to see the world in a whole new light.
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Glasses With A Purpose: How Jonas Paul Eyewear Is Changing Children’s Lives With Ben And Laura Harrison
I’m very excited about our guest. The reason for that is because these wonderful people, Ben and Laura, who are husband and wife, started their own business from a personal tragedy. They took their tragedy and created an awesome business. We’re going to get into the details and how they did that. Welcome to the show, Ben and Laura Harrison. Husband and wife, Ben and Lauren Harrison, launched Jonas Paul Eyewear. What a wonderful name. I love this name. Inspired by the birth of their son, Jonas Paul, they named the company after him who was born with a rare eye condition that left him blind. I’m going to ask the two of you to go ahead and share your son’s story because it’s so much better when you tell it rather than me reading about it. Let’s get started. Tell us a little bit about Jonas.
First of all, thanks for having us. We’re excited to chat with you and share our story with your audience. Hopefully, people feel inspired and encouraged by our conversation.
You’re so welcome. When I heard your story, I was like, “I have to have them on.” I like having a husband and wife business because you’re also going to share what it’s like to work together. A lot of entrepreneurs want to know, so let’s get started with Jonas.
To give a little bit of context, I’ll start with leading up to the birth of Jonas. Lauren and I met in undergrad and then we ended up starting several businesses after college. We had a photography business as well as a business in the website development space like websites for photographers, creatives, etc. We’re already entrepreneurial. Since owning our businesses, we ended up waiting seven years to start a family because we had our other babies that were our businesses. We decided to start a family. We’re fortunate enough to get pregnant and then I will pass it off to Laura for that piece of the story.
Jonas was born in March 2013, which is crazy to think about all that’s happened over the years. A little backstory on him, the pregnancy and all of that was fine and very normal from a pregnancy standpoint. When I went in to give birth, it was a pretty crazy situation. We ended up having to have an emergency C-section. In the operating room when you were lying on the table, I remember hearing him cry, which, as a parent, that is always that first cry. You’re like, “Everything’s okay.”
They brought Jonas over to me and I was laying on the table. I don’t remember a whole lot at this moment, but the one thing I do remember was Ben’s bringing him over and me saying, “Does he have pupils?” In that moment, Ben was like, “He just had a traumatic experience coming into the world. They’re going to clean him up and all of that.” That was the first moment where part of my thinking was something was wrong but dismissed it in that moment.
Right away, you saw.
I noticed something was different, but you think, “Maybe he’s just goopy and dirty from the birth process.” The next day, a doctor came in to check him out. That was when everything shifted for our lives. They noticed that his eyes were a little bit different. They sent him off to see a pediatric ophthalmologist who did a several-hour exam on him. It was 24 to 30 hours which, for a new baby, that’s a pretty long time to be away.
At that moment, we kept feeling like something was going on that we didn’t know about. The doctor ended up coming back to the hospital room, stuck the oxygen out of the air, and said to us, “I don’t know what is wrong. I’ve never seen this or experienced this, but I don’t know what to tell you is wrong with your son.” I remember in that moment screaming, bawling, and crying, “Is he blind?” and thinking to ourselves, “What just happened?” We went from thinking our baby seemed pretty fine and everything to potentially a very different situation.
That moment was where everything changed in our lives. It sent us down this whole path of eyecare, what that’s going to involve, and what his future’s going to be. We’re based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the hospital here said, “You have the opportunity to either go to Northwestern in Chicago to see a specialist there or University of Michigan.” We chose the path to go to the University of Michigan. That started us down this odyssey of eye surgeries and pursuing what we could to give him the most potential for sight.
He’s had 22 surgeries.
From there, taking it to what was the impetus for the business, we met with a doctorate from the University of Michigan. She confirmed that the condition he was born with was Peters anomaly. It was rare, a pretty unique thing to have. Everyone’s cases vary, but Jonas did have the potential for sight. To Laura’s point, when we found out that Jonas’s life was going to be different than ours, as parents, selfishly, it’s that loss of expectation and you maybe don’t respond appropriately because you think of how different things will be. With us being in the visual arts and creatives, our world and our career were built on the visual arts. It was hard for us to process how different his life could be. In that, we were struggling, but that was more of our own internal personal struggle.
A lot of parents struggled, Ben. If that was my child, I would struggle too. It wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t struggle.
Exactly. After that, through that struggle, we met with the doctor and she did give us a little bit of hope and said that sometimes kids who do have Peters anomaly have the potential for sight if they choose the surgery route, which would be cornea transplants and other hard road that Laura had mentioned. We did opt for that path. In that process, that was what inspired me as the stylish dad that I am. I wanted to find him stylish glasses so that he looked like a little stud muffin. I felt like the options were lacking for kids, especially what adults would wear.
You want Jonas to fit in and Jonas wants to fit in with everybody else.
I had those flashbacks of wearing glasses as a child in elementary school and being embarrassed because they were the very functional-looking ones and not stylish or something I was excited about. At that moment, we decided to push out our challenges and use this as a creative outlet to hopefully make an impact in the world. We were thrust into this space that we knew nothing about. We saw a lot of opportunities to help kids feel confident in their glasses and a lot of opportunities for childhood blindness prevention as well, which are two key aspects of our business.
Is that because you saw a gap in the market that there wasn’t fun, cool-looking eyewear?
Kids were always an underserved portion of the market. That’s validated by some of our investors who do have deep optical industry experience. It was always more treated as you need something functional to hold lenses on their face versus thinking the child might have ideas of how they want to express themselves or they might be fashion conscious and care about how they dress. Also, a lot of the stereotypical things, too, with regards to kids love bright pinks and bright blues. It is not as much like adults where it is more of a refined aesthetic.
You should see some of my eyeglasses, I got lots of colors. You took a tragedy because it was a tragedy. You struggled. A lot of parents would say, “Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to Jonas? Why is all this happening to us?” versus “Why is this happening for us? How can we impact the world and give Jonas the best possible life he can have and truly belong with everybody else?” You looked at it as, “Why did this happen for us?”
You are already an entrepreneur, so it’s not like you didn’t have any entrepreneurial skillset. However, you had zero experience in eyeglass space. You know about graphics and all that design but have zero experience in eyeglasses because there are so many different frames. You have to fit so many different prescription lenses. I’ve got that myself. That’s pretty gutsy. You two seem to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and going into space that you didn’t know a whole lot about. Tell us a little bit about that.
To your point, the way you phrased that comment around why this happened for us challenged us even in our pre-interview because that captured the spirit of how we looked at it. To your point, it can be easy when you face challenges, just the natural human reaction as to like, “Woe is me. Why did this happen to me? It’s unfair.” If you aren’t able to get outside your shell, push that out, and think of external things and how fortunate you are, it can be paralyzing when you face a challenging situation.
For us, without being able to articulate it that way, “Why did this happen for us?” what we thought was it’s a challenging situation. We see a lot of withdrawing from society when it comes to disability and things because it can be challenging. We remember those challenges and seeing the families in the hospital with challenging situations. For us, it inspired us to push out. When you’re suffering, sometimes the best way to get out of your head and out of your suffering is to realize how fortunate you are by serving others and making an impact.When you're suffering, sometimes the best way to get out of your head and out of your suffering is to realize how fortunate you are by serving others and making an impact. Click To Tweet
What motivated us was seeing that opportunity in a space that we had no idea about but we’re thrust and forced into. We saw an opportunity to make an impact both for kids domestically who are embarrassed to wear their glasses. Could we create a brand that is empowering, exciting for them, and confidence boosting? Also on the flip side, we had the resources to give Jonas the potential for sight.
Early on, I don’t know what it was that caused us to come to that realization, but it was like, “How fortunate are we to be in a place where we can give him the potential for sight?” I couldn’t imagine being a parent in the developing world and having a child go blind and being able to do nothing about it. That was another piece that felt like we could take this pain and this challenge and we could make the world a better place and change the trajectory of kids all over the world, especially in the blindness prevention side.
To piggyback on that, when Ben first brought this idea up to me, it was about a month after Jonas was born, so very early on. I remember thinking he had other ideas along the way that I’ve been like, “No, that’s not a great one to pursue. We’ll save that for another time.” With this one, there was something about it where when you talked to me about it, I felt such peace about pursuing it too. I can remember back to sitting at the table at our house at the time and remembering that conversation so clearly and being like, “Yes, let’s try this.” We’re either going to figure out if it’s something that anyone else wants or feels like there’s a need for, or we’re going to not pursue it. I feel like we’ll know pretty soon on in the process. Thankfully, you were not scared to bring that idea up to me that day.
Entrepreneurs were gluttons for punishment. Why do we do this to ourselves? To that point, too, we weren’t afraid to pursue it. I don’t think there are many more powerful forces in the world than parents fighting for their children and trying to advocate for their children.There are no more powerful forces in the world than parents fighting for their children and trying to advocate for their children. Click To Tweet
We’re the only advocate in most cases. When you’re not their advocate, then that’s a whole different situation. You said a couple of things I’d like to unpack. Ben, you said, “We had to get out of our head. We were suffering.” Many people stay in that suffering mode. As Tony Robbins always says, “If you’re in your head, you are dead.” You have to get out of that head. This one resonated with me the most. Entrepreneurs, you can’t just come up with one idea and think that one’s going to work. You have to brainstorm, bounce it off to others, and talk it through. Those were great. You both have no experience in eyeglass wear. What did you do to find the right team or the right professionals to understand how to build frames to fit all these different prescriptions there? How did you find that team?
Initially, it started small. To be honest, the world is shrinking. Candidly, we started on Alibaba with verified manufacturers and there are all these different tools you can use to figure out freight records and who sources what and all of that. A lot of it was that grunt work of figuring out the regulations about kids’ eyewear. What are the costs and minimum investments and all of that? Initially, we self-funded it. There are a lot of late nights trying to figure out who could be the right manufacturer for us to at least test the model and get a minimum viable product out there. We self-funded it in the beginning. We started with five styles. We shipped them directly to families and let them take them to their doctor to get the prescriptions filled and all of that. We started with a very MVP product just to test the market and see if there was something that would resonate.
How long did it take you to do the research versus to get into MVP?
It was a lot because it is a medical device.
What was the timeframe? Was that a year?
It was probably five months from when we first started talking. We launched the company six months after he was born and we had to do sourcing and design.
Let’s go into that, audience. You need to get off your buts and get started because there’s never a perfect time. Their son was blind. They’ve been through 22 surgeries and they started the business within six months. All of you out there with your big buts, “But I got to wait for this. But I got to wait for funding. But I got to do this. But it has to be perfect.” Get out your buts and get started. That’s amazing, six months later, and self-funded. I believe you said you put in $50,000.
Over the course of the first two years or so, we put in probably around $50,000. The initial opening order was in the $15,000 to $20,000 range for everything to get the product here. Over those first couple of years, there was a bit of a burn there as we were trying to grow the business.
There was a burn.
It’s funny too on that note. When we turned the website on, I remember thinking everybody’s going to know about this. Fun fact, we didn’t even actually have the product in our house. We were working out of our house at the time and we had nothing. We haven’t received anything yet.
This was a little naive in the space of medical devices because it had landed in the States, but we didn’t realize the process of going through customs, FDA clearance, and all that.
You had to go out and find a manufacturing company. That takes time.
It was just hindsight. It all worked out. I like to laugh at the thought of us launching the company without actually having a product to sell.
Laura, that’s a blessing in disguise that you don’t even know. That was another blessing for you because so many people go to market without any product or without any classes, especially eLearning and things like that. They go to market first. They want to test the market. Kevin Harrington is a perfect example who endorsed my book, Exit Rich. Kevin Harrington says, “I don’t do anything until I go to social media, I split test, I market, and I pre-sell the product, then I go get the product.” You have to have all your ducks in a row to be able to do it in a timely fashion. What you did was a good thing.
At the time, this was a couple of years ago. I feel like so much has changed too with platforms. Kickstarter didn’t exist at the time either. The concept of us was so naive at that moment, but it all worked out. I remember we have so many orders coming in that it’s just taking us a long time.
I need my audience to pick up on the right points here. You are not naive. Many people wait until they get all the product in. They wait until they get all the ducks in a row, get the product, and have no orders. They didn’t do anything. You think you were naive, but you’re doing the right thing in business. That’s what I tell all my entrepreneurs. Don’t wait until it’s perfect. Don’t wait till you have everything. Get your ducks in a row. The worst thing you can do is be stuck with a bunch of products. You were naive in your head, but you were doing the right thing all the way. Jonas was blessing you and so was God. You had to go and raise capital. At what timeframe did you have to raise capital?
Going to go back to your original question because I do think that’s important about how you learn about these things, it goes back to finding a network of people. There are so many individuals who are experts in the field and are happy to give 30 minutes or an hour of their time to help an entrepreneur who’s excited or passionate about something. Don’t be afraid to try to find your people in your network. Lean on that to try to get as many insights as you can.
We were fortunate enough to go through a program called Praxis, which became our people. It was a social enterprise accelerator based out of New York City. That was influential in our early days of the business. It is having that encouragement of other people that were trying things, losing money, and stressing about it because you have your day job that’s paying the bills, but you have this passion project that is bleeding capital that you feel passionate about and want to pursue it. What’s important is finding a network of people that can support you and you can bounce ideas off of and learn quickly.What's important is finding a network of people that can support you and you can bounce ideas off of and learn quickly. Click To Tweet
Through that accelerator, we ended up doing pitch nights, and in Austin, we met a guy named David McKinnon who was the former Founder of Molly Maid, ProTect Painters, and some other big franchises. He made a comment, sat down at our table after the pitch, felt compelled by our story, and said, “You should meet Cliff Bartow. He was the former CEO of LensCrafters.” We were like, “We should meet Cliff Bartow. That would be great if you made that introduction.”
That was in 2015. We launched it at the end of 2013, had been running it for about a year and a half, and then ended up meeting with Cliff who was early retired, impact-driven, and loved our story. Going back to what we said originally, he saw how much the kid’s space was neglected in optical and saw the opportunity. He ended up leading along with David McKinnon and Alan Gotthardt, a group down in Atlanta. They ended up doing a small round. Cliff also brought in Joel Sedano who was the former SVP of product at Luxottica.
Since we pursued a network and put ourselves out there and were trying to discern whether or not this was the right thing to pursue, there was provision. Call it God or call it whatever you believe in. We believe that God aligned this and created this opportunity for us to meet the right people who would help take it to the next level. We immediately gained 50 years of optical experience and expertise overnight once we pursued the right partners and investors.
That’s very important what you said because you do have to align yourself with a network. That’s why there are so many mastermind groups around the world, but you need to find the right network. You need to find industry leaders in the industry that you want to be in and find the right mentors. It is very valuable because you wouldn’t have gotten where you are now if you didn’t do that. That’s huge. We tell our audience to do that all the time. Do your due diligence. Make sure you’re hiring the right mentor. You’re right. Very successful entrepreneurs want to help other entrepreneurs. If they’re not very successful, they don’t want to help you because they can’t help themselves, or they are trying to help you and charge you a lot of money for it. That’s important.
One and a half years into it, you decided to raise capital. We’re only on question three and I have a whole bunch. Let’s get moving. Tell us a little bit about how that process was. If you didn’t find the capital to start the company, you used your own money to do so. Many people start their business on what I call the shoestring approach, but then they never really grow very far because they only have so much money. You’re not profitable from day one. How long did it take you to become profitable?
It took 7 or 8 years to get to the point of having a truly profitable company. We made choices along the way that made us not profitable like investing in digital marketing and things like that. It could have been profitable at an earlier stage, but in the end, we wanted to grow something bigger. We wanted to invest in the brand and keep it growing.
Are you saying you didn’t turn a profit for 7 or 8 years? You said you kept your day jobs. Did you have a day job? You had other companies.
The photography business and the web company that we had, we stopped those when we raised that in our first round back in 2013. The first year and a half, we were running 3 companies at 1 time essentially, and had a new baby. It was a lot.
That’s your second child, and then after you get the funds, you stop the other businesses. You’re working 1,000% in this company. That makes sense. How many people did you go out to raise capital? How many people did you pitch to?
Ben went on the capital race circuit where it was a couple of years, especially on our second round in 2019. He was out there hitting the pavement, trying to get in front of as many people as he possibly could for several months. Thankfully, we were able to get aligned with some additional awesome investors even in our second round.
Here is a little more context on that. The initial round, I don’t want to say it fell into our lap, but it did with the right people, a few key individuals who believed in what we were doing. At that stage, it was still such a small business. We had put some capital into it, but we hadn’t invested a ton into growth. It wasn’t a really exciting story. You always hear that phrase, “Sell the sizzle, not the stake”. We had enough stake that it could be something, but we did have some traction and showed some numbers. It was a little more at that stage. They believed in what it could be.
We raised a small round there and then continued to invest in the brand, and then we were more organically growing. We were approached in 2017 at an optical conference. We were doing a booth there. Walmart approached us and she asked if we’d be willing to sell in Walmart. That was one of those amazing moments where you never know. She had her badge backward and was being a little intentional about it because she knows the power that she wields. We decided one of the key tenets of our brand was to make great design accessible to anyone to have a more accessible price point and meet everyone where they are. They loved the answer. We ended up launching Walmart Vision Center in 2018.
That was a huge win along the way, too, because that sent us on these two tracks where we had direct-to-consumer but then also a pretty significant wholesale business that was providing cashflow to reinvest in the business. It was some of those key wholesale opportunities that ended up getting us to that point of profitability and being able to reinvest in that. As Laura mentioned, we ended up having opportunities and kept having all these things happen, which was great along the way, both with wholesale and direct-to-consumer. We then did decide to raise more capital in 2019 to continue to pour more fuel on the fire.
You already went past my fourth question about wholesale retail. Let’s go back to investment real quick. How many investors did we get and how many rounds?
Two rounds. We did a series seed in 2015 with three investors and then we ended up doing another one in 2019. We’re at a total of thirteen investors.
You have thirteen investors and you had to give up equity for that. Would you give up equity for money if you had to do it all over again?
I would. We wouldn’t be where we are now without them. The key also is we have great investors as Laura mentioned. We have very patient capital and understanding investors. It could have been a different story had we pursued a more aggressive investor with, “I have a five-year timeline. You have to hit these numbers or things are not going to go well between us.” Because we aligned with the right investors, I wouldn’t change the way that we did it.
Patient investors, you all listen up, when you go to raise capital. I’m telling you. Almost everybody who reads this is always looking for capital. You need those patient investors. Did you also get investors that had skillsets? Was this in their wheelhouse? Do they know all about eyewear and design? What type of investors did you go after?
That’s another piece, too, of finding the right investors. It is having a good lead investor who believes in what you’re doing and has industry experience. Cliff, for example, ended up bringing in several other former Luxottica executives. We have quite the lineup. When people look at us in the industry, they’re like, “How did you get all of these investors to join the company? They are such well-respected individuals in the industry.” That’s another piece, too. If you find the right investor that’s passionate and believes in what you’re doing, they’re going to help bring their network in as well. It makes it a lot easier to raise capital when you have someone like that who believes in it. He has skin in the game and wants to bring his friends along and other people in the industry that he respects.
That’s huge. That’s very important because so many people go after the money. You can go after the money all day long. Money doesn’t always make you successful. Networking and getting the right people and the right team in as investors with industry experience and a huge network is what will help catapult you to the next level. How many noes did you have to take before you started getting yeses?
Quite a few. Fortunately, I got a lot of quick noes. That can be the challenging part or the part that’s constantly tugging at you if you just don’t get quick noes. “This isn’t a right fit for us, but I’m happy to introduce you to so and so.”
10, 15, 20, how many?
I would say probably around 10 to 15 noes. Those are investors that I thought were pretty serious and thought it might be a fit. There are many others I talked to where I was putting feelers out there that were more gentle noes. The investors that I was more actively pursuing are probably 10 to 15 or so.
That’s not bad. Some people went after hundreds and hundreds of people, like Walt Disney. He went over 1,000 people who told him no. You can’t quit too soon. Everybody’s always 3 feet from gold. That’s been a good process for you guys. Did you have any assistance or any help with raising this capital? Did you go to a series firm that specializes in capital raising or did you do everything yourself?
We did everything pretty much ourselves. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources like startup accelerator resources and all of that. Also, Praxis. This community we were a part of had a lot of resources and a lot of people that were advisors and volunteered their time to that. Fortunately, through the network that we established, we were able to get a lot of advice. One of our investors in particular is pretty savvy. He invested in other things and had some boilerplate operating agreements that we were able to make a little more of a smooth process.
This is a success story. They got into the industry they didn’t know anything about. They never raised capital before and they were able to raise capital. Let’s see if there are any questions over here about capital. I want to now dive into wholesale retail before we get into the impact of your story-raising capital and everything else that’s tied to that. Let’s go in now and start talking about wholesale versus retail. What did you start first?
We started our direct-to-consumer in 2013. That was our bread and butter right out of the gate.
That’s when you had sales, Laura, but you didn’t have the product or you had the product but you didn’t know yet.
We did not pursue wholesale until the day the buyer approached us from Walmart in 2017 and then launched in 2018.
That’s important. From 2015 to 2017, they did resell directly to consumers. That was 100% of your business. How many orders did you have before you knew you had a product?
Probably 15 to 20 or so. A lot of it, to Laura’s point, was friends, family, and acquaintances trying to support us because we launched it to the world thinking everybody would know about it.
It is another brilliant move because that’s where you start. What did I tell about real estate? Go to your friends and your family and exhaust all of that. That’s another brilliant move. Two years later, you decided to go wholesale. That’s because Walmart called you. I’m telling you God is all over this. How did Walmart find Jonas Paul?
There’s so much to unpack there. I feel like it’s so hard to have a concise story around it.
We got to make it as concise as possible.
A lot of it was marketing and investing in our brand. She saw us through social media ads and saw these things.
A giant like Walmart saw you through social media. Who handled your social media?
At the time, we were doing it.
We had this one specific image that she recognized and triggered it, which then started that conversation like, “I’ve seen that image, let’s talk.” It was enough that it grabbed her attention. It was very impact-driven as well, like her herself. She wants to support brands that are making a difference and a positive impact in the world. It was also the synergy of how she’s wired to be and what products and brands she wants to support. Also, us filling that opportunity for her.
At that time, too, it was early days. It was before omnichannel was a big thing or a big conversation topic. We were dedicated at that time. It was the height of direct-to-consumer products. We’re just going to focus 100% on direct-to-consumer. We were torn when they approached us because it was such a great opportunity, but it changed our model and how we were thinking about doing things. Now, we wouldn’t change it at all. It was never a bad decision to pursue that because we were contemplating if is this a direction we want to pursue as a brand. It immediately creates more complexity in what you’re trying to build.
You all said brilliant things you don’t even know you’re saying them. I don’t know if the audience picked up on this, but there are two huge things that he said. Those two huge things why Walmart called him is 1) Social media consistency. 2) Ben said the image. Do you probably use that image over and over again like the golden arches? It was the golden arches that she picked up on, that image, and it was the consistency. When you guys are out there doing your marketing, remember consistency, branding, and the image because you all were branding the company probably along with branding Jonas. Those are two brilliant things. Walmart calls you. How many stores did you go into and how many stores are you in now?
Fortunately, she rolled us out nationwide, so it’s about 2,800 stores.
That’s huge. They never do that. They want to do a trial basis. They say, “We’re rolling out to ten stores.”
It was huge. It started with eighteen SKUs, I believe, which is also pretty big for a retailer to commit to because there’s such limited board space when it comes to optical frames.
How many SKUs do you all have, 250?
We have 220 to 230 in there.
She rode you out. Have you been kicked out of any of the stores?
No, we’ve expanded. We’re up to 29 SKUs now. Walmart’s doing a great new 2.0 stores that are beautiful, well done. We’re the featured kids’ brand in those stores.
You used to have a good profit margin even with wholesale. 2017, it’s 2023 and they’re still in Walmart. They’re in more stores than they were before with more SKUs. They’re in the same amount of stores with more SKUs. That’s huge. You’re not just in Walmart. What else are you in?
America’s Best, that’s one of the biggest brands that out of all the ones you mentioned. Walmart and America’s Best.
They run a great business. They’re one of the well-respected optical companies. One other thing I want to add to it because you hit on a great point, image brand matters. The brand does become your moat, especially working with a Walmart. I wanted to dispel this myth, at least in our experience, Walmart has been great to work with. People ask that question all the time, “How’s that been? Have you kept your margin and all these things?” They’ve been awesome to work with.
A lot of it goes back to us building a brand and they see the value in the brand you build. They give you the margin when you’re a brand coming in. It goes back to that what you said triggered that thought around like, it is important to build a brand and an image because then you have more leverage and the discussions and if they want you, they’re willing to pay for it, and they’re not going to squeeze you on margin. They’re going to treat you well and respect you.
We’re going to get to an audience question and let’s keep the answers as precise as possible because we have a whole bunch of questions from them and me. I see a part two coming on.
We’re okay with it. This is great. I’m loving it.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to break into the wholesale retail industry and build good relationships with retailers?
That’s a great question.
Were my questions not great?
Yours are great too.
They’re inspiring a lot of other great questions.
Let’s go get a great answer here.
There are so many tools now, it goes back to that. Marketing is huge targeting within your marketing. Creating the right messaging to get in front of the right buyers is important. It goes back to leveraging your network. Being persistent and kind, trying to be present and supportive on their LinkedIn and other things like that. Thinking of it more as relationship building than just a transactional thing makes a business a lot better.
Another brilliant statement. They’re knocking that out of the park. Another brilliant statement. You own a relationship instead of a transaction. Everybody goes for the transaction, everybody goes for the kill, and all the thrill of the deal. You got to build a relationship, especially with Walmart and America’s Best. I got to point these out because you all just gloss over them.
You have to put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. Think about all the emails you get. “This is a big sales pitch. This is the best thing ever.” Being present and encouraging, trying to build a relationship using your network to build a relationship just gets your foot in the door to have a conversation. That’s what you need.
These days, relationships can be so easily, as you said, Michelle, a transaction. We’ve lost that a little bit in this tech world that we live in now. Going back to having that pendulum swing back towards the relational side of things, to Ben’s point, being persistent but not being annoying. There’s a big balance in all of that. When you are persistent and continue to be there with people but not be annoying. It can serve you well in the long game.
There’s a balance. Did you all find the balance sheet that Laura just mentioned? Be there with them, but don’t be annoying.
One other quick addition to that is to add value to them. That’s the other piece that some people can forget is their buyers, they’re managing tons of products and might have many categories. They have access to all the data, but at the same time, it’s not presented and packaged nicely in a way that they could make business decisions that could grow their business. If you can do your due diligence, do your research on competitive products, come in and say, “I can see that they’re priced at this. We’re priced at this. We could give you more margin. This could increase your top line.” Come in with data points that could be interesting to them or make their job easier. That immediately starts the relationship off on the right foot and you want to support them.
If you make their job easier and provide that white glove service then 1,000% you’ll have stickability. They will want to keep you because you do make it easy for them. We have a company we’re selling that delivers to all the public retailers and they make it easy for the public to buy from them. That’s what you have to do. You answered Jack’s question, which was, what strategies did you implement to establish partnerships with retailers and expand product reach in the wholesale market? You have 50/50, 50 wholesale, and 50 retail. Do you see it continuously growing in wholesale or retail? Do you think it’s going to stay 50/50? What do you see?
Both. Going back again to Jack’s question, I do believe we’re in a world of convenience for the consumer. Meaning that people are going to buy the product wherever it’s most convenient. If they’re in a store, your product’s there, they like your brand, they’re going to buy it there. They’ll buy from us online. What we’ve seen is it’s been this rising tide. We were nervous originally to say we go in retail. They have such a presence, such an audience. Is it going to cannibalize our direct-to-consumer and vice versa? People are nervous about us being online.
That’s a huge thing, Ben and Laura, that people struggle with. If I’m doing direct-to-consumer and I’m going to open up wholesale, how’s that going to affect this? If I’m all a wholesale, I’m going to go to the direct consumer. Do they think I’m competing against them? What are the pricing strategies going to be? It’s always been a struggle on an entrepreneur’s mind. How do you overcome that? Do it quickly.
Just do it. I don’t know if it makes sense for all brands.
Nike, just do it.
The pricing side of it is important and all of that. It’s brand building. In the end, that brand is going to be our moat. We want to be available to as many people as possible and whatever channel they prefer. In the end, we have seen that it’s been a rising tide. As we build our brand directly to consumers, it benefits our retailers. Our retailers benefit us because it gets our brand out there. It’s been a great synergy and we continue to be a top-selling kids brand even in brick and mortar stores.
You are in a competitive space even though you saw a gap in the market, there are a bunch of copycats or big companies going, “Why didn’t we think about the kids?” It’s a competitive market. Branding is everything. What would be cool is if you sent us that image that Walmart saw that became the scores.
Branding is everything. You hear me talk about the 6 Ps and the 4th P is Proprietary. The bigger the brand, the bigger the exit price, the bigger the multiple. Do you know who the number one brand in the world is? It’ll be you soon. It’ll be Jonas Paul soon.
Coke or Nike.
They’re in the top ten, Apple. Over $800 trillion.
I thought you meant the most recognizable brand.
It’s worth the highest value. That’s over $800 trillion just for the brand. That’s not counting EBITDA assets or anything else. That’s just the brand itself. Build your brand, build exit so you can exit rich. I’m on question six, there’s a bunch of people in the comments that want to ask questions. Starting a business always involves risk. Especially, a business that’s not necessarily in your wheelhouse. You are a former entrepreneur. You have marketing, design, graphics, and all that. Yet you had zero experience in the eye business. The biggest experience you had is Jonas and what he went through. What were some of the initial challenges you’ve already mentioned? Let’s narrow it down. What are the biggest mistakes you made and what would you do differently?
I don’t like to focus on this because I like to go forward not backward. I don’t like review mirrors. I don’t like somebody looking in a rear review mirror and saying, “I should have done this or that.” However, it’s a great learning experience and you fall forward, you don’t fall backward. A lot of people fell backward and they quit but you got to fell forward. What are some of the biggest challenges, and mistakes, and what would you do differently?
The things we would probably do differently, one challenge has been continually being cashflow. We have a product that takes 3 months to produce another month or up to 3 months for delivery. You have a lot of cash tied up in inventory. That’s been one of the biggest challenges of the business is being able to stay on top of cashflow. You get these huge production orders from Walmart and you have to figure out how to pay for them and those things.
How many returns do you get from Walmart? I asked about wholesale, and one of the challenges of wholesale is returns.
Optical is a little unique in the sense that they take a discount off of an invoice that is a co-op for returns. In general, it’s a certain percentage off invoices so you don’t get, I guess surprised with a lot of those tons of returns. A little fortunate that we have had some along the way as far as some return charges and things like that. Overall, it hasn’t been too bad. It shows our product is also well made. That also helps with reducing the number of returns.
One of the biggest challenges is cashflow because it’s tied up in inventory. I might have some ideas to solve that problem that we can talk about offline. What other challenges?
The other challenge I would say are things we would maybe do differently in the beginning you hear that advice a lot of like, hire people that are smarter than you as soon as you can afford them. That tied to the cashflow to would’ve maybe raised a little more capital than we thought we needed originally, just to give us some margin and buffer. That’s one thing that entrepreneurs can struggle with are you Jack or Jane of all trades and, “I’ll do this, learn how to read a P&L, and I’ll learn how to do this.”
Had we hired more experts in their fields earlier on, even if we were stretching ourselves to be able to afford them? It would’ve just accelerated what we could’ve accomplished because we’ve finally gotten to that point where we are hiring more experts and you can see the value that they bring to the business. At a much faster clip we had a great team but it was like we were all learning together and we could have accelerated things had we had some people who were experts along the way.
You did get some experts in the beginning because you didn’t know.
Advisory side of things.
Have you created a board?
We saw the same board.
That’s another way to gain people who are smarter than you in areas that you’re not, what’s in their wheelhouse to start that advisory board sooner rather than later. Anything else that was a big challenge that you would’ve done differently?
Those are some of the main, I’m sure there have been a lot of hurdles along the way or bumps that we’ve had to pivot quickly around.
How do you see technology g impacting your industry for the good or the bad, specifically AI?
It’s going to benefit the optical industry in general. That’s been a thing they’ve been trying to solve. There’s a certain experience involved with an optician fitting frames on a face. Everybody’s face is so unique and the shape of their face and what frames look good. That’s one piece that will be helpful in the industry is for the consumer to be able to find a perfect fit based on even more algorithmically. It’s not going to replace an optician, it’s not going to replace that experience, but it’s going to make it easier to do it from your phone or home.
That’s a huge impact. The glasses can be ordered quickly.
Access to more inventory. A store could have a thing that, “These aren’t in stock here, but we could order them for you,” or it could open up opportunities there. They say 1 in 4 kids need glasses. For sure. The number, number of parents who don’t know their kids need glasses needs to be solved. It really shouldn’t be the case because it’s still surprising how a lot of kids don’t find out they need glasses until they start school and then a teacher notices that they’re having trouble reading the board or there’s behavioral things because they can’t pay attention. I’m hopeful there are more technologies at a younger age that can help diagnose that quicker. There’s a lot you can do with myopia prevention and helping kids. If you can catch it early on, you can reverse the effects of their eyes getting worse.
Let’s talk about that real quick because you have one profit center and that selling frames. 50% retail, 50% wholesale. Do you have other profit centers or not?
Do you mean from our selling our philanthropic side of the business?
What I’m talking about is, do you prescribe those things that can help prevent like vitamin A and some of those things? Are you selling any of those products?
No. It is more on the philanthropic side of it. That’s more the donation side of things.
Let’s jump into that now, and I’m going to talk to you offline about cashflow and I’m going to talk to you offline about profit centers, I have five to seven of them. Let’s dive into that, Laura.
Our buy site gift site. We’ve touched base on this several times throughout our conversation here, but for us in those early days back to the start of our conversation when Jonas was born blind, that was a huge change in our lives. I feel like for us that was a passion if we can help other kids that maybe don’t necessarily have access to supplements and foods, if we could help be a support for them that would be an awesome way to give back.
Since day one, our buy site give site program has been an important part of our company and it’s been really neat to see that branch of the company grow over the last few years. We’ve been able to impact over a million kids through those donations. It’s been cool. We’re excited to see that as the business grows the impact can grow then. I feel like that’s close to our hearts personally. If we can help other families and other kids who are going through some of those difficulties have life-changing supplements that’s pretty awesome.
I agree. It’s important. What do you all think? Do you think it’s important to take a non-profit aspect, whether it’s your non-profit or partnering with other non-profits that have everything together as part of your story, as part of your company brand? How does that help impact Jonas Paul?
In many ways, for us, it’s who we are. We’re blessed so we can be a blessing to others. There’s a certain aspect of it that keeps you grounded and a reminder of the why behind why you’re doing what you’re doing, which can be continual motivation for you as well as your team. It helps you attract great people. We’ve had the blessing. Admittedly, we’ve had some employees early on who took pay cuts to be a part of something they believed in and wanted to make an impact. It’s the fulfillment you get when you can align a passion and make the world a better place through your work. There’s just a different motivation and a different excitement getting up every day.We're blessed so we can be a blessing to others. Click To Tweet
It resonates with the consumers because people want to spend money with companies who have that nonprofit, that story. That’s something where you’re making an impact in the role instead of putting money in your pocket. You’re impacting a role by helping children see and look cool and also by helping to prevent eye disease or reverse the signs of it. What’s next for Jonah’s Paul Eyewear? Tell me about the future, a real quick snapshot. Paint the picture for me.
Why are you speaking my language?
We want to be the preeminent kid’s brand. We want to be the Kleenex of kids’ glasses. That’s the big thing. We’ve made huge investments in the brand. We hired Red Antler, which is an amazing brand studio. We’ve built a new website. We’re investing heavily in a brand. Hired a great president and we’re doing all these things internally. We keep saying internally that we’re repositioning ourselves for more scalable and more sustainable growth. That’s the mode we’re in getting everything dialed in operationally so that we can pour fuel on the fire and keep growing the bridge.
You do that by reading Exit Rich: The 6 P Method. It is sustainable, scalable, and when you’re ready sellable exit. What are the 3 to 5 golden tips that you can give to our readers who are thinking about starting up a business? Especially, if they’re going through a challenge like you all did with Jonas and you turn that tragedy into a huge business that helps children see? I call it 3 to 5 tips to not just survive but thrive. What would you tell startups, especially somebody who’s going through a challenge like the two of you?
I would say find your people. Find a great network that can encourage and advise you that could potentially provide capital.Find your people. Find a great network that can encourage and advise you that could potentially provide capital. Click To Tweet
I would say don’t be scared to start boarding, but very scary process. Being willing to just start it and go for it. You’re going to know real quickly if it’s going to hopefully succeed or fail and fail fast.
I like that just get started like Nike, just do it. Don’t wait for perfection because that’s when you become paralyzed and you sit on your big buts.
Start with a minimum viable product to test the market. Get something out there, and start getting feedback.
Start taking orders even if you don’t have a product.
I would piggyback on that too, of being willing to pivot your business model if you need to. We started very focused on direct-to-consumer and we thought this was the only thing we’re going to do. We’re going to stay focused on this. We had to pivot. Now have a beautiful combination of D2C and wholesale and had we not pivoted at that time, we could have probably shot ourselves in the foot.
Being flexible, having that flexibility, versatility, and being open-minded. A lot of entrepreneurs are like, “This is my plan, I’m thinking of this.” You can’t be that way in business. You always have to aim, always innovate, and always market. Walmart coming to you all was a blessing for you. If you were close-minded, you would’ve shot yourself in the foot. Anything else? That was three.
The other one is to listen to your customers and care about them genuinely. There’s power in providing a great customer experience, being willing to hear their feedback, responding well, and just the organic nature of referrals from people. There’s incredible value in that.
If you don’t have clients, if you don’t have customers in your business, your business will run out of gas. You have two clients. You have the direct to consumer and you have the wholesalers. Any last-minute thoughts?
No, this is great. Thanks for having us.
I have a bunch of questions, but here’s my last one. What is Jonas about Mom and Dad?
He thinks they’re cool.
Is he proud of you all?
He loves the company. He loves to walk into the office here and just he busts in there, chat with the team, ask if he can get on the payroll, and ask our controller when he can get on the payroll.
There you go. You’re creating a monster. That’s what our customers do, create monsters.
He thinks it’s pretty cool. His sister’s wondering if she’s going to get her own business named after her, but for now, we’re just sticking to the one company.
Tell her to give you a problem to solve. I’m sure you two will figure it out in a heartbeat. Does Jonas appear in any of the marketing? Does he appear in any commercials?
He’s been in a lot of photo shoots and video shoots over the years. He’s been on some podcasts too, so maybe next time you can have him come and he can chat with you.
I’ve never had a kid on my show before. That’s a great idea.
He’s a personality.
I want to thank the two of you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story with us. It’s extremely inspirational. I always try to challenge everybody to look at how this happened so they do not, get stuck with stuck into their victim mentality. Learn how you can take that challenge and turn it into a huge opportunity and help better the world and help other people. Thank you both so much for coming on the show.
You’re welcome. Thank you to our audience. Thank you for turning in week over week. I know you found this information, this content, very valuable because they took a challenge and turned it into a huge business for them and their family and are helping to impact others around the world. They want role dominance, let’s help them get there by sharing this message with your network, with influencers, your fellow entrepreneurs, and people who you know are suffering and who have huge challenges. Help them see this episode so they can too, take their challenge and turn it into a golden opportunity. Make sure you subscribe to the show. If we’ve read your question online, you’ll receive three chapters from Exit Rich and we’ll see you next episode.
Thank you so much.
Thank you all.
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