Crowdfunded company takes a cue from Toms shoes

Growing up in a Chinese family, Vincent Ko saw the many uses of bamboo — in kitchen utensils, decorations and even furniture. Years later, as a recent Georgetown University graduate, Ko began to wonder if the trendy Asian grass had a place in fashion — in sunglasses, to be exact.

Now, Ko’s D.C.-based Panda sunglasses company is featured in boutiques across the country and just inked a retail deal with Urban Outfitters. Ko used crowdfunding for his initial start-up cash; he is part of a new breed of entrepreneurs who seek tiny amounts from hundreds of small-time investors rather than a lump sum from a single, well-heeled angel. With the recent passage of the federal Jobs Act — a legislative package designed to increase capital formation and help small businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs — crowdfunding sites may become even more popular, as small investors will now be able to buy equity stakes in companies.

Previously, securities laws required equity investors to be “qualified,” meaning they had to show they had the wealth to invest.

Ko’s business was born when he was wandering around the Georgetown shopping district one day last year and saw a display of Toms shoes — the footwear company that donates one pair of shoes for each one purchased. Inspiration struck: What if he could create cool-looking sunglasses that also have a charitable mission?

Ko and his two co-founders partnered with TOMA, an organization that performs eye examinations and provides other health services to tribal communities. For every pair sold, Panda sunglasses donates an eye exam and a pair of eyeglasses for one person in need in Colombia, Argentina or India.

They launched the idea on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and raised almost $20,000 — far overshooting their original goal of $3,000.

By doing so, they joined scores of other local businesses and projects that have attracted sufficient donations to launch through the site.

Recent Washington Kickstarter successes include management consultant Alice Ning, who raised $18,674 to start TapCaps, stickers that make it possible for people wearing gloves to tap on smartphone screens; and Pleasant Pops, a company that sells hand-crafted popsicles, which used its $26,366 to open a brick-and-mortar store in Adams Morgan.

“I had already put my car, computer and banjo up for collateral for our bank loan, so Kickstarter was one of our only options,” said Pleasant Pops co-founder Ryan Horowitz.

He got the word out about the Kickstarter page on Facebook and Twitter, and the company raised $12,000 in the first 24 hours of the campaign.

Though Kickstarter has said it’s not interested in offering equity in exchange for contributions, after the passage last month of the Jobs Act, similar crowdfunding sites will be able to. There are roughly a dozen such services, most of which have whimsical names such as IndieGoGo, Launcht and Crowdcube. Now that their users can get stock in the companies they fund, crowd-backed entrepreneurs like Ko may become more common.

In February, Ko took his Kickstarter money and began working with a bamboo shop in China to create the glasses, which come in five styles and sell for about $120 each.

“China gets a bad reputation for how well products there are made,” he said. “But when it comes to bamboo, China is the best in the world because they’ve been doing it since the beginning of . . . China.”

Panda’s big break came when the company sparked the interest of the retailer Anthropologie, which is introducing Panda in some of its test markets. To date, the company has been responsible for more than 1,000 eye exams, and Ko recently quit his consulting-firm job to work on Panda full time.

“It was scary, but it’s now or never,” he said.

 
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