Eyewear maker has future in focus after struggling through startup

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By Andi Lucas

If the passion and grit of a company founder were the only two determining factors of business success, then Hemp Eyewear Edinburgh (HEE) can already count itself a winner.

In 2014, HEE majority owner and operator Sam Whitten – then just 22 and studying Product Design at Glasgow Caledonian University – created a prototype pair of sunglasses handcrafted from hemp fiber and water. A strong drive to run his own business combined with a deep interest in the principles of a circular supply chain fueled Whitten’s desire to “design something out of the most sustainable material in the world.”

After researching various renewable materials and their potential applications, Whitten determined that all signs were pointing “hands down” to industrial hemp as being the single best material for a huge variety of commercial and design possibilities, specifically as a substitute for traditional plastics. And he decided that this is where he would direct his energy and attention. As a designer-maker, Whitten describes his simultaneous discovery of the seemingly limitless potential of industrial hemp, and that there were no eyewear companies using this sustainable alternative to plastic, as “a eureka moment”.

Birth of a startup

The first prototype pair of sunglasses, manufactured in early 2014, formed the basis of the concept behind the HEE product line, and Whitten’s start-up was born. Over the next few months of that same year, Whitten manufactured about 50 more pairs of glasses by hand, making continual improvements and small revisions to his process along the way. At this very early point in Whitten’s new role as founder of a start-up, an article he submitted about the sunglasses to the popular site DesignBoom.com – with a monthly readership of 3.5 million – gained some traction.

Making hemp sunglass frames.
A small pool of workshop colleagues assist in the making of the sunglasses.

With a significant number of DesignBoom subscribers recognizing the aesthetic appeal of the sunglasses, and a noticeable growing interest among consumers in products made from sustainable materials, Whitten saw a welcome and encouraging early bump in sales. HEE then faced the classic “champagne problem” of a start-up, experiencing rapid growth while being starved for investment capital. And like so many other entrepreneurs, Whitten was unable to secure financing via traditional lending mechanisms.

Nonetheless, on the back of the early wave of interest, HEE launched what was ultimately a successful Kickstarter campaign, with 281 backers pledging just under $50,000 in a preliminary round of funding.

Sourcing raw materials

Whitten said he has had little-to-no issues with banking services in the UK as a result of the company’s materials choice. This a very different experience to that of entrepreneurs operating within the United States, who are often unable to open basic transactional bank accounts – let alone credit card merchant facilities or lines of credit – when manufacturing hemp products.

While being necessarily protective of both the specifics of his supply chain and proprietary manufacturing process, Whitten revealed that he has been successfully sourcing raw plant materials from established growers in France and Germany for many years, and has yet to experience any issues in regards to supply. Whitten said HEE is exploring the option of growing raw material locally in Scotland so the company can more confidently scale.

Working with a small part-time operational support team – finance director Colin McCullouch; website and branding designer Brad Smith; eyewear design and creative Edward Gucewicz and a casual pool of workshop colleagues who assist in the making and finishing of the sunglasses – Whitten recently launched a second Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for new-and-improved machinery, molds and tools, and to facilitate a larger production run, all with the view of reducing cost-of-goods and the minimum retail price while increasing the wholesale margin.

Looking to scale up

Five years after launching HEE, Whitten is now looking to scale up, creating the necessary systems and processes to allow the business to rapidly expand. As finished products continue to be sold directly to hemp boutiques, opticians and other eyewear outlets, Whitten is considering a range of distribution and potential partnership options. While acknowledging that making eyewear requires “specialist production procedures,” and that labor costs in the UK are unlikely to ever be economically comparable to manufacturing costs in less economically developed countries, Whitten believes scalability for a high-quality, handcrafted, environmentally friendly niche product such as these sunglasses is entirely possible.

While Whitten’s dedication to promoting industrial hemp’s use in creating fashionable eyewear is admirable, small companies such as HEE will only survive and thrive if growing numbers of customers purchase their products at retail. That means it’s also necessary that the products are adopted into stores and collections by larger businesses with broader distribution networks.

Time will tell if enough consumers who express concern about the overuse of fossil fuel based traditional plastics are prepared to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to buying eco-friendly “luxury” products like designer sunglasses.

Andi Lucas, founder and owner of NSP Development

Freelancer Andi Lucas is the founder and owner of NSP Development. After a decade running start-up businesses in Colorado, USA, she is currently working her way back to her native home of Tasmania, Australia with stops in 15 cities in the USA, UK, Japan and Costa Rica. This four-month-long period of travel is providing opportunities to meet with many passionate people working in the industry, exploring everything she can about hemp and writing about what she has learned along the way.

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