HATCHING AN IDEA
The true “A-HA” moment happened as I watched a fifth pair of sunglasses drown in Lake Michigan. It was the summer of 2010; I was in my late 20s and living in my hometown of Chicago, IL. It’s not that I didn’t love my job in software engineering chained to a desk for hours on end, it’s that my mind was constantly on the water. As a native-born Canadian, my parents, brothers and I traveled every summer to our family cottage on Stony Lake, where as many activities as possible took place on the water. We’d transform into part fish as if it was in our DNA. Living in Chicago with Lake Michigan in constant view, I was able to exert those fish-like qualities with some of my dearest friends who happened to have boats and were ever-eager to use them (Danny, Matt, Kevin, Natalie…big thanks). The only issue I had during the summer of 2010, besides my growing disdain for deskwork, was the fact that I lost SO MANY pairs of sunglasses to the bottom of the lake. Whether the shades slipped off my face while leaning over the edge of a boat, or I completely forgot that they were on me as I eagerly hurled myself into the water, the shades were sucked below the surface, never to be seen again.
Totally irritated with myself and also the effects of gravity, my mind started racing, and I knew something had to be done. The world was in need of good-looking floating sunglasses, and I was just the man for the job. The name “Waviators” appeared one day in my head and was excited when GoDaddy revealed the domain was actually available.
Next step was to design the product. I had zero idea where to start, so I met with countless industrial design firms across the Midwest to see if somebody could help me realize this vision. I remained tethered to my day job, I was not getting any closer to finding a development partner, and all spare thoughts focused on trying to crack the code on the product design. A year went by, another summer passed and more shades lost to the sunken depths.
Fast forward to January 2012 when I got the call from Charlie, a long-time friend and former colleague who was living in Taiwan at the time. Charlie knew all about my grand Waviators idea and the challenges I was facing. The stars began to align one night when Charlie happened to be having drinks with a Taiwanese factory owner who casually mentioned he could produce floating sunglasses. Charlie called me with the news and, not so casually, I emptied my bank account, withdrawing my last $15,000, and proceeded to purchase the first run of Waviators Floating Sunglasses. Thankfully, Charlie, with his resourcefulness and experience, partnered with me early on and we launch Waviators together. Eventually, he would venture on to pursue his own eCommerce ambitions but was hugely instrumental in those early days, for which I am eternally grateful.
Working with minimal funds we settled on a classic stock unisex frame, which quality and design pale in comparison to what we are producing today, but those were the early days. The sunglasses were estimated to take several months to ship, a fortuitous lapse. Now that production was underway, I had to build a website, secure a commercial bank account, and consider other crucial links in the supply chain (like importing and shipping to our customers).
START-UP BLUES…AND JOYS
The initial launch of the classic unisex frames came in four colors: blue, yellow, red and white. Ironically, today our best selling frame color is black, but the thought then was that brighter colors would make spotting shades against the water much easier. And here begins the part of the story that proved to be a continual challenge for me as a budding entrepreneur: marketing, branding and ensuring quality control while also managing a tight budget. We had chosen the most affordable stock mold and had only enough funds to partially brand the frames. We developed a limited website platform, just enough to stretch the budget even tighter, and we maintained constant communication with our partner in Taiwan through the production process. The strongest ingredient we had for our Generation 1 Waviators was determination and tenacity. I was broke, treading unchartered waters, completely flying by the seat of my pants, and still adding to the stockpile below Lake Michigan until the first shipment made it to my warehouse.
The clear objective was to get Waviators out to the world and test if the product was as innovative as we thought. The first sale came from a random customer in June of 2012, just a few days after our website went live. Receiving notification of that first order caused my confidence to soar and I became increasingly determined that something big could come of this. The design/build and marketing phases were finally leading to purchasing results.
Momentum built slowly after that first sale. Order frequency was somewhat sporadic and usually small in size. We were stoked if $100 of merchandise was sold in a day. Then in early 2013 we finally closed our first bulk order which allowed us to make back our initial investment; Sales were picking up! But just days later we got a letter from the largest sunglass manufacturer in the world (I am still afraid to say their name) stating our use of the name “Waviators” put us in violation of several pre-existing trademarks. Well, crap. Luckily, one of my dearest friends is a lawyer, and he provided incredible guidance during this time (thank you Sean, I wish you drank more so I could buy you a few more well-deserved beers). With Sean’s guidance, we ultimately decided not to fight the claim, and instead worked out an agreement that allowed a runway to sell off all remaining inventory, so long as we rebranded immediately thereafter.
The rebrand nearly destroyed us. After breaking even, the remaining profit was minimal. I feared throwing in the towel as much as staying in the game. In need of a sanity check and advice, I turned to my trusted high school friend Drew who convinced me I simply had to see this thing through. So, I took that small profit and doubled down. Waviators became Waves, and for the first time, I truly felt empowered and in control.
Waves sunglasses took off, and I quickly realized it was time to expand our product offerings. The floating sunglasses idea had stemmed from the desire to solve a dilemma in my life, and I wanted to continue on that course with a specific focus on the water. So was born the Micro Towel. Traditional towels are big, bulky, they take too long to dry, and in my world, they were always left behind. With an eye toward ease of adventure, the towel had to be portable, quick-drying and super absorbent. Testing hundreds of fabric samples, I eventually found the material that would ultimately develop into the Micro Towel. The material testing process was not what one would call “scientific” but it did represent real world applications. I took the samples and compared their durability after a full soaking, then wringing them out both gently and with force to test which is the quickest “quick dry”. I left sopping wet samples in my backpack to see which dried faster. They came on boating trips and were handed out to friends who were instructed to utilize them however they desired and report back. I would cover myself with sand at the beach and analyze which sample removed the most from my body when wet and when dry. They even came with me to the gym. Female friends applied them as post-shower hair towels and, once the final material was selected and samples were given, the unanimous report was they were best in the market. Our new product proved a huge success across the board.
That summer we moved into our first office in downtown Chicago. Waves’ rent at the time totaled a mere $200 per month (Owen and Charlie, thanks for taking us in. Ping Pong rematch at our office whenever you’d like). The strengthened quality of our merchandise and marketing strategy gave the business real momentum. We hired Tom, our first intern who helped with order fulfillment. In retrospect, it is incredible how amateur our order processing system was at the time. Our method involved arranging and packing up all incoming orders in our tiny office, utilizing any extra square footage we could find, then filling up industrial-size laundry bags with the packages, slinging them over our shoulders and trekking them down the street to the Post Office. Some days we were making three or four trips. Not the most efficient structure, to say the least.
THE POWER OF PLACE
The business experienced growth in Chicago, but by the end of 2013 it was clear industry ambitions and current location did not align. The hub needed to be closer to the adventure enterprise. I decided it was time to move the company away from the distractions of the big city to a place where I could focus on growing the business. My brother and his wife had moved to Calistoga, CA a few years earlier, and each time I visited it became harder to leave. Inspired by the natural beauty and the opportunity, I felt Northern California was the perfect place.
Charlie and Tom had both moved on at this point, and I was going out on my own in search of a more authentic business model and self. The official move out of the Chicago office happened in April 2014. Once in California, the office was reassembled in my rental home in Calistoga with a dilapidated leaky shed that I transformed into the new warehouse. As soon as I was settled it became crystal clear that Calistoga had just the right ingredients to take Waves to the next level.
An unexpected, and wonderful consequence of making the move was the amount of talent at my fingertips. Ashley, a talented designer, moved to the area with her husband around the same time as the Waves relocation. We hired her to fashion the packaging for our newly released Forever Cold line. Her creative ability blew me away. Ashley continued to work with me on product design, and soon also began to handle customer support, as well as countless other jobs, all of which she took on with grace and all of which she completely crushed. As anyone who has ever owned or worked with a small company before knows, we all wear many different hats, and since Day One Ashley rocked each and every cap she’s put on (she is very stylish). All of a sudden, very organically, Waves had its first full-time employee.
Fast forward to holiday season 2014. At this point I had been in Calistoga for several months, living and working out of my rental home and the small shed out back. Enter Michael, a close friend from high school, and also the twin brother of my aforementioned brother’s wife. Michael was living in NYC at the time, and on this particular trip out west he ended up crashing at my place. The good houseguest he was, Mike quickly caught on to how hectic my days became as I was working to stay on top of timely shipments, and he began helping me out as orders flooded in during the holiday season. Mike ended up working quite a bit (earning his keep!) between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Come New Year's, and Michael was less than eager to get back to blistering cold New York, so he stayed. He lived with me for the next two years and became Waves’ second full-time employee, running warehouse operations.
Business grew and the team was working together seamlessly. We continued to expand our product offering for Waves and soon launched a sister brand, Kawartha Outdoor. Kawartha is our camping and hiking label, with a focus off of the water and onto the trails. Between Waves and Kawartha we have two outlets that allow us to develop products for our various adventure passions. At the end of 2015 we were able to move the operations out of my house, and into a commercial warehouse with a big roll up door (I love those things). As compared to a tiny shed with a standard doorframe and no direct access, it is a lot easier to unload huge containers of merchandise into a proper warehouse with high ceilings and ability to back a truck directly to the loading area, trust me.
Company growth and profit continued into 2016. Jon and Kirsten joined our team. We launched our Adventure Series with debut trips to the top of Mt. Whitney and an RV tour to Bryce Canyon, Utah, and we formalized our Core Mission. We also got the ball rolling on our Ambassador Program. Waves celebrated its 5th anniversary this year. Every day is a learning experience in how to be successful in business while staying unwaveringly true to personal and professional missions and goals. I feel good about the traction we have made thus far and I am excited for journeys to come. We hope to continue to do this for a long time, making explorations for you, our customers and friends, a little easier and a lot more fun by bringing you quality products at a beyond fair price.