Business Owner Story – Canvas Eyewear

Business Owner Story – Canvas Eyewear

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Justin Street believes the future is bright for customized sunglasses. His company, Canvas Eyewear, offers a unique platform that allows users to design a custom pair of sunglasses with their own uploaded images on the frame. Street turned a corporate layoff into this successful business venture that’s awarded him invaluable opportunities for learning and personal growth.

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The Start

How did you get started with your business?
I was with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for almost 8 years. I worked on the digital team there. Through a restructure process, half of my division was laid off, and I was part of that group. I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. It was a good time in my life to do something there.

I had gone to a sports licensing conference for something completely unrelated. Over lunch, I was sitting next to a guy who had been in the eyewear business for some time. He was describing this manufacturing technology he had come up with. He created this process, which we use now, to expedite the prototyping process for the existing eyewear industry. In the traditional business, it took 70 days to turn around a prototype for a client. With this technology, it can be done in less than a week. I thought it sounded like a consumer-facing product, because you can basically customize anything you want right now (t-shirts, tennis shoes, etc.), except eyewear.

How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
We put a very little bit of personal money in in the early days. Then we ran a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. We used it two-fold:

1) We needed to figure out a way to finance the website we wanted to build. That was the missing link. We had the concept and we knew we wanted to put this technology into the hands of the masses, but what was missing was the site. We decided to run the campaign to raise funds for that. We targeted $10K, and we raised just shy of twice that.

2) While we were raising the funds, it was further market validation for us. There are a lot of people who are doing crowdfunding campaigns for eyewear, and we wanted to see if others felt this was a truly unique proposition and product. I think we sold roughly 600 pairs of glasses by the end of the campaign. So, that gave us enough dollars in the bank and encouragement to keep moving the project forward.

Who was your first customer?
We trolled friends and family for quite a bit. We relied on them in the early days for that validation and feedback. I have some very honest friends, which was a good thing, because sometimes when you’re starting a business, people just want to encourage you and pat you on the back. Before we even launched, we were able to take that feedback and improve what we were looking to offer.

Running the Business

How did you learn to run your business?
I had some experience before diving into this in the corporate world. But, to be honest, it’s really been a trial and error process. I’ve had some friends who have done some entrepreneurial ventures, so speaking with them about their trials and tribulations and trying to learn from their experiences helped. Also, I’ve put a lot of research in personally on things like trying to figure out the best things to do for taxes.

What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
I think we approached the first year completely wrong. We looked at it as, “We’ve got the coolest thing since sliced bread. If you build it, they will come.” We had some strategies and tactics for sales, but we were really sales, sales, sales-focused. Not that it’s a bad thing, because in the early days of any startup, you have to be sales-focused.

But now, what’s at the front of my mind is learning – What do you want to learn? Whether it’s how people are interacting with and using our website, or how customers are perceiving the product when they’re standing in front of us and trying it on. We’ve switched now to have this focus on what is our intent and what do we intend to learn from it with everything we do.

What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
We did a lot of research before taking any type of action, in particular, looking at other companies that have been in the mass customization space for a long time and who do it well. Before we even looked at partners to help us with the web technology, we wanted to have a very solid understanding of what this environment looks like and what we want to emulate from different companies.

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What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I’m talking to you right now while I’m walking with my five-month-old daughter, so the flexibility it has given me in my personal life has been fantastic. Aside from that, it really pushes me outside of my comfort zone and it really challenges me on a lot of things. I know that when you’re outside of your comfort zone is when you’re really growing and developing.

What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
Time management and prioritization, especially with a product like ours where there are so many ways to approach a blank canvas for sunglasses. Trying to whittle down and figure out the best way to move forward has been a real challenge. It’s fantastic that we get contacted by so many people who reach out and want to partner with us, but since we are so bare bones right now, it’s hard to decide strategically if it makes sense to have these conversations. Learning to say “no” can really help streamline things and accelerates the growth you want to see.

What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
I have a couple of friends who started It’s been really interesting to see their evolution and how they’ve approached it. The model they have now is something completely different than what they set out with. One of my friends who also knows them told me in the early days of Canvas Eyewear, “As you go on, you’re going to encounter lots of challenges, but just remember that those guys were reading SEO for Dummies just a couple of years ago.” I always keep that thought in my mind. They just raised $15 or $20 million. They’re having a super-successful business venture. But they had to learn at the very beginning, too. I look at them as an example of what I’d like to do – always learning and not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get down into an issue that you need to figure out.

What I’ve Learned

What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
Start your business for the right reasons. You have to be passionate about whatever you do, because it will take over your life. If you’re not enjoying what you’re building, other areas are going to suffer. Pick the right opportunity, which is going to be completely different for everybody. Figure out when to say “no,” and wait for the opportunity that’s right for you.

What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
It’s super-cliché, but everything is going to take twice as long and cost three times as much as you estimated.

About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.

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About the Author — Lydia serves as Content Manager for Nav, which provides business owners with simple tools to build business credit and access to lending options based on their credit scores and needs.

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