The idea of launching fashionable, eco-conscious eyewear came to drummer Ed Bird in 2015 after developing a product idea for drummers using sustainable materials. Fast forward to April 2020, Bird Eyewear became the first UK eyewear company to become a certified B Corp in recognition of its outstanding commitment to sustainable and ethical business.
There weren’t many brands out there making well-made sustainable eyewear says Bird. So, Ed and his younger brothers Lawrence and Paul decided to launch their Bird Sunglasses brand with a triple mission statement: people, profit and planet.
Bird says: “We wanted to fill the gap in the eyewear industry with affordable frames that made a real difference in the world. We wanted to demonstrate that we were a more-than-profit company and a force for good.”
Each pair of Bird Sunglasses helps distribute solar lights across Africa through their Share Your Sun partnership with charity SolarAid. They help create micro businesses in communities, weaning people off toxic and polluting kerosene and paraffin burners.
Bird spent the whole of 2016 researching the sustainable eyewear market and creating prototypes. He settled on working with four different manufacturers in China where the majority of eyewear manufacturing takes place.
The brothers initially launched Bird Sunglasses at the end of 2017, raising £12,000 through crowdfunding site Crowdfunder UK and won the site’s best new idea in fashion award, which led to it being featured in Forbes, the Independent and the Mirror.
That same year, Bird Sunglasses was a winner in the National Santander Entrepreneurship Awards.
Bird Sunglasses won The Start-Up Series in November last year, closing the deal with a £300,000 investment on Christmas Eve. “It was a nice Christmas present,” Bird laughs.
Bird himself only went full-time in January, working alongside two other staff members, as well as three freelancers handling marketing. The brand is now in the process of hiring a full-time marketing person.
How important was winning The Start-Up Series funding and what has Worth Capital done for your business?
Having that capital behind us has been such a huge boost. It meant we could all go full-time, which is a huge help on productivity and helps us iterate faster and move quickly with wholesale distribution, as well as pushing a lot more on marketing.
Apart from the equity investment, how has winning the competition affected Bird Sunglasses?
On top of marketing and being able to buy more stock, there’s all the huge experience that Worth Capital’s directors bring to the table. Having Matthew Cushen sit on our board has been very helpful and he’s now an integral part of our business. Matthew and his partner Paul Soanes brought a lot of experience. There’s a lot of cross-information and sharing with other The Start-Up Series retail business winners too.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?
Well, our model was not online only. We were selling into independent opticians and the pandemic closed down all our retail sales outlets. We have had to stand down various reps and freelancers we would have been working with.
Which means we’ve had to pivot quickly focusing on our online sales. Our business used to be 50:50 split between consumer and wholesale, so we’ve pushed through a lot of website changes to optimise our online channels.
In some ways, it’s forced us to come back to our core proposition and how we tell our story online, making best use of all the digital channels over the last six months. It’s very easy to do online marketing badly. That’s been a very big learning curve.
In terms of stock, luckily, we had done enough forward planning in 2019 and we had enough frames in stock to see through the online demand.
What changes have you had to make because of coronavirus?
It’s made us improve our customer experience on the website, installing an augmented reality feature where customers can try glasses on virtually and swivel their heads round to see what they look like. It means the customer can quickly decide what suits them and which frames they like. The virtual try-on has been so helpful because it breaks down barriers with people ordering from home, and our return rates are now so much smaller, saving on packaging and postage.
What is the outlook for Bird Sunglasses now?
Having the backing of Worth Capital puts us on a strong foundation. Moving forward, we see a really big opportunity for growth. We’ll soon be launching our online prescription glasses, offering virtual try-on along with some new frames by the end of August.
Our main goal is to establish ourselves as one of the best-known eyewear brands, first in the UK and then further afield. And we eventually want to give a million solar lights to Africa. And as things begin to open up, we will also see our independent optician business start up again.
What would you say to somebody thinking about entering The Start-Up Series competition?
It’s definitely worth applying and sticking at it. When we met Worth Capital it meant doing a deep dive into our products and our model and our vision. That was all really helpful. We took away pages and pages of ideas from our first meeting, and that was before we even knew if we were progressing any further. Having that first face-to-face session alone was a great help. For us, the rigor of entering The Start-Up Series competition was the challenge and what made it worthwhile. People shouldn’t be afraid of not winning but embrace the learnings.