SAN DIEGO - Chase Fisher looks like your typical Pacific Beach bro. The 31-year-old surfer is tanned and freckled, his hair gelled back to give that permanent ocean-wet vibe. With bright-colored shades slung around his neck, he looks more like a DJ than a retail entrepreneur.
But Fisher is the sole owner of Blenders, a rapidly growing sunglass company whose brand has recently exploded online. The retailer plays up its roots in San Diego, pulling inspiration from the local lifestyle to influence its design and branding. People around the world are buying sunglasses he's named after local neighborhoods. The North Park Collection - a series of glasses that sports a classic, rounded rim - is a customer favorite.
Although Blenders has been around since 2011, the company's popularity has recently hit a fever pitch. In 2016, the company brought in $1.3 million in sales. This year, Fisher expects the company to hit $45 million.
A San Diego State University alum, Fisher is as SoCal as a guy can get. Raised in Santa Barbara, he's been surfing since he was 6 years old - becoming a sponsored amateur athlete from the time he was 13 through college. It was this early exposure to brand sponsorship - the use of "influencers" before they were called influencers - that contributed to Blenders growth. Today, the company sponsors athletes who align with their brand, including professional surfer Lakey Peterson, snowboarder Jessika Jenson, and wakesurfer Austin Keen.
Fisher said its a bit surreal.
"When I was a kid, I was always trying to get sponsored by companies," Fisher said. "I'm now the guy on the other side, approving sponsorships for athletes, which is pretty cool."
What's the big deal with these sunglasses?
While it would seem the market was not in need of yet another sunglass brand, Fisher perceived a gaping hole in the market. During college, he spent a lot of time at the beach as a surf coach. Everywhere he looked, he saw the same sunglasses: Oakleys and Ray-Bans, two brands that carry hefty price tags. One night in 2011, he was headed to see a DJ at San Diego's FLUXX nightclub and decided to go shopping first for some new clothes. He went to Target and bought a pair of cheap, neon green sunglasses to wear that night.
"People kept coming up to me saying, these are crazy! Let me try them on,'" Fisher said. "They were literally prying them off my face."
Fisher said the moment made him realize there was demand for colorful, beachy sunglasses that were more fashionable (and sturdier) than the Target variety.
"If you wanted to get a pair of shades back then, you basically had two options: spend $100 on a brand, or buy a $5 pair on the boardwalk that you didn't even like that much," Fisher said.
So he designed his own sunglasses and named them "Blenders," riffing off the street name he lived on in the core of Pacific Beach: Hornblend Street.
Blenders sunglasses sell for about $40 to $60, depending on the style. They're not cheap, but they're not prohibitively expensive either. The frames feel sturdy without being overly heavy, and the lenses - often polarized - are clear. But it's likely the styles that get customers hooked. Blenders, which employs 30 people in San Diego, has an in-house team of designers who are constantly coming out with new lines. There are purple polarized lenses with tortoiseshell frames, unicorn pink gradients and sky-blue aviators.
Miro Copic, a marketing and branding lecturer at San Diego State University, said the styles are fun, but not overly audacious either - appealing to a mass-market audience. He attributes part of Blenders' success to their creative ad campaigns (enticing users to sign up for email ads by offering high-stakes rewards, like free trips to Hawaii), and their early use of social media marketing. The brand has 360,000 followers on Instagram.
He said timing plays a big role in a startup's success on social platforms. Blenders joined Instagram while the platform was still young, and while brands in their category - sunglasses - weren't overly present.
"If the category is already saturated with brands, then it's not going to work the same for you," Copic said.
But Copic wonders at Blenders future. Can the company sustain its fast growth with its current marketing tactics?
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Today, Blenders makes 97% of its sales online through its own website.
"There's a lot of companies in San Diego that hit that $40 to $50 million mark, but don't grow beyond it," Copic said. "The question is, at a certain point how does it become a $100 million brand? They may plateau before they get there. Not everyone is looking for sunglasses online."
Bringing Blenders to brick-and-mortar model
Fisher said he's trying to get ahead of a plateau by expanding the company's retail presence. Blenders has a brick-and-mortar storefront in Pacific Beach (attached to their headquarters) but also has plans to open three more stores in 2020. Nothing is nailed down yet, but they're thinking one will open one in North County (perhaps Encinitas), along with Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tenn.
"The beauty of e-commerce is you can run with your data," Fisher said. "So wherever your data is most prominent, you can put stores in those locations."
Fisher doesn't plan to design his stores like traditional eyewear brands. Down with tied-down alarm sensors and glass barricades.
"Walking into a Sunglass Hut is like walking into a prison," Fisher said. "Everything is behind glass ... And there's nothing unique about going into a Sun Diego or Sunglass Hut. Everything is just same, same, same. People want to experience new things, and they want to share those experiences."
Blenders is set up to be more eventful for its customers.
"We have music playing and events, we have food and snacks," Fisher said. "I mean, it's a full experience."
The stress of viral Internet marketing
With new stores and new products on the horizon, Fisher said he's a bit overwhelmed with the pace of business. The company has doubled its staff over the past 12 months, moved into a new office and watched as their revenue hockey-sticked north. E-commerce can be a turbulent business, as Internet promotions can go viral at a moment's notice - it's a blessing and a curse. Unexpected demand puts immense pressure on inventory management.
"You can go from selling seven pairs to 700 pairs overnight," Fisher said. "In one month, we could sell anywhere from 6,000 to 40,000 units."
It's kind of scary, he said, figuring out how to scale his business. He's a solo business owner, without any input coming in from investors or co-founders.
"Leadership is very difficult, especially when your brand is getting spread across the Internet so fast," Fisher said. "Sometimes you lose focus of who you are and you can't keep up with it."
He recently decided to take some of that weight off his shoulders, hiring a chief financial officer, a creative director, and other leadership positions this year to spread the decision-making at Blenders.
At the end of the day, Fisher said he just wants to keep the brand authentic - thoroughly San Diegan - while still supporting the company's viral growth. His office is two blocks from the beach, with chill vibes at headquarters. His staff walks around barefoot and their dogs putter around the office. And Fisher sort of hopes it stays that way.
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