University of Maryland student Bryan Heffner thought he’d look cool in sunglasses with a Maryland flag printed on the frame. When he couldn’t find the pair he envisioned, he painted his own, sitting on the couch watching TV in his College Park rental house. The sunglasses were an instant hit — when Heffner wore them to tailgates and football games, people kept asking where he got them. He decided to try selling the sunglasses, and he set up a Facebook page and Gmail account to take orders. More than 60 orders rolled in in less than a week, and Heffner realized he couldn’t hand paint his design fast enough. He recruited a friend and fellow student, Michael Lansing, and his craft project quickly turned into a business.
“Novelty sunglasses are a big thing on college campuses. Students want inexpensive sunglasses that make a statement. When we realized we had a strong market for our design, we found a manufacturer to produce the glasses. It took nine months, but we finally got our first shipment in time for the 2011 football season. We officially registered the business, Shades for U, in September 2011.
“We sell the sunglasses on our Web site and at tailgates and games. With a $15 price point, we exceeded our sales expectations last year, grossing more than $25,000. Now our priority is expansion.
“We’re working on expanding to other state schools where our current Maryland flag design is applicable. For that design we don’t need a licensing agreement, but for designs that use logos or mascots, we will need to do that. We’re in that process now — collegiate licensing agreements require several months. We have campus representatives lined up to help at Penn State, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. We’d like to crack into the big schools in the NCAA’s college football Southeastern Conference.
“We’re also looking to get our sunglasses on store shelves and move to more of a supplier role. What’s the best way to get into retail stores?”
Harry Geller, entrepreneur-in-residence, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship
“You can look to approach large chain retailers with a presence in college towns, such as CVS or Rite Aid Pharmacy. The challenge there is convincing the retailers that your product will sell well in more than just one small region of the state. Also, it can take longer to broker deals with these big retailers. You can start with smaller independent retailers and specialty stores and collegiate stores located on campuses. You should research and test what retail display packaging would work best for your product. Having a professional looking display package will add credibility to your product placement pitch.”
“We are pursuing the retail vendor role. We just got connected with a retail rep that is going to help us get into specialty stores along the boardwalk in Ocean City. And we already have deals with three online retailers.”
“In response to Harry’s advice, it is very important for us to expand to other university markets for this model to succeed. We are currently pursuing collegiate licensing so we have the opportunity to expand. We can then implement successes that we had on a small scale towards a larger scale expansion strategy.”