By Eric Peterson | Sep 02, 2014
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
Employees: About 15
At Optic Nerve, sunglasses are a family business -- and a way of life.
CEO Bill Cotton and VP of Product Design Tom Fox got into the sunglass business by way of their fathers, who both worked in the eyewear industry.
The duo started working together at Shades of Vail as teenagers in 1976. The shop, owned by Fox's father, Ken, was a trendsetter in the pre-Sunglass Hut era.
"The store was the first of its kind in the world," says Fox. "Everybody said, 'You're going to have a store that sells nothing but sunglasses and ski goggles? That's crazy.’ But it was very successful."
Cut to the early 1980s. Cotton and Fox were importing and distributing sunglasses all over Colorado. "We had Subarus that we loaded up and went all over the state," says Cotton. "Tom went one direction and I went another."
They got out of distribution in the ensuing decade and moved from Vail to Wheat Ridge to focus on manufacturing.
"We're designers and importers now," says Cotton. "We're really focused on making top-quality sunglasses at a great price. We don't believe you need $200 sunglasses to get out and enjoy the outdoors."
To wit, the retail price of a pair of their budget brand, Mountain Shades, ranges from $10 to $40 and Optic Nerve sunglasses and goggles are typically $50 to $100.
The strategy has worked. Today the company makes about 500,000 pairs a year at factories in China and Taiwan. Cotton points to product quality as the key to the growth over the years. "If we made crappy products, it would all unravel," he says.
Cotton says the Colorado lifestyle remains a key inspiration. "We're a Colorado company with a green triangle. We're very proud of that."
And they practice what they preach, he adds. "Tom and I jump on our bikes first thing in the morning and we wear these products while we're riding and snowboarding."
Fox heads up product design with an eye to the needs of an active lifestyle, helping guide the company into renewable materials in the last five years. His latest and greatest innovation is SideSwipe, a newly released sunglass system with four interchangeable lenses. Starting at $109, it's also the first Optic Nerve product with a triple-digit retail price.
As rationale for developing the patent-pending product, Fox cites customer comments: "It's so difficult. Can't you make it easy to swap out lenses? I don't want to break my frames." He's confident Optic Nerve has solved those problems with SideSwipe, and at a retail price that is notably below the industry standard.
Like sunglass design, manufacturing overseas is something of an art form. "We've developed long-term relationships with factories in China and Taiwan," says Fox, noting that skilled labor is critical in sunglass manufacturing.
Cotton highlights a few "global challenges," noting, "The factories are clearly aware of sustainability and workplace conditions. We have all of our top factories sign off on a compliance code of conduct."
It's a continual learning process. For the past few years, Fox has participated on a partner factory's committee where he has been one of the only outsiders. "We celebrate successes, we walk through things, we learn," he says. "I've brought this to our other factories."
It's paying off. Fox says he's never understood Optic Nerve's manufacturing logistics better, and the committees were the key to his continuing education.
Challenges: "To get our message out to a broader audience is challenging," says Cotton. "We're not going to arm wrestle with Oakley, so we need to be creative with our marketing."
One campaign provided much-needed shades to athletes and coaches in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Cotton called it more "connecting” than marketing "We feel really good about doing it."
Opportunities: Corrective sunglasses. "The optical market is one of the things we're taking a strong look at," says Fox, citing an aging demographic as well as badly designed products currently on the market. "You see people push their sunglasses up their noses all of the time, and that's because they've been built with only one thing in mind: optical."
Needs: Time, says Fox. The company's lead time moves back a month every year. "2016 starts for me on the first of November," he notes. "It's a constant process. SideSwipe took us 18 months."
"We need to keep innovating to keep up," adds Cotton. "Everybody on our staff needs to innovate."