BEN: Thank you so much, Kate. It means a lot to me when people get excited about 4sight, especially coming from someone as awesome as Mr. Kate!
Last April, I split with the first company I had founded. It was a painful experience and it left me totally unsure of what I wanted to do next. Deciding I wanted to see more of the world, I left for South America two weeks later and, shortly after returning, headed to East Africa. Besides being incredibly fun, the trip was (excuse the pun) eye-opening. Before leaving, I had read some articles about eye-care in the developing world and had a vague idea that I wanted to get involved. A few weeks into my trip it struck me that something was missing: no one was wearing glasses. Here, roughly 50% of people wear glasses or contact lenses. But from what I saw on my trip, not even 1% had any eye-care. As I learned more about the issue, I was shocked to discover the extent of the problem: about 1.3 billion people (1 in 5 humans) can’t see clearly because they don’t have glasses. That means kids who can’t learn to read, parents who can’t provide for their families, millions who will lose their sight altogether. I moved back to San Francisco in October and immediately started working on 4sight. I haven’t traveled regularly to South America or Africa — though I went there when I was 16 as well — but I look forward to going on trips to deliver eyeglasses on behalf of 4sight! I plan on accompanying our first delivery, probably to Ghana or Honduras, later this year!
that’s amazing! i didn’t realize the magnitude of this issue! is there a particular moment, person or story that really touched you on your journey with this company?
BEN: There have been so many moving moments since I started building 4sight. One moment in particular that I will always remember happened last August while I was traveling in Tanzania. On a visit to a Masai village, we were quickly surrounded by a group of eager children. I took a photo of a few of the kids and when I showed it to them, they went crazy! They were so happy to see themselves on the small screen. I took several more pictures and let them play with the camera, but the novelty didn’t wear off. It wasn’t until later that I learned, with no mirrors or cameras in their village, these kids only recognized themselves from reflections they had seen in water. Something about that realization resonated with me deeply. I felt an emotion that anyone who’s worked with disadvantaged children is familiar with: a desperate urge to give the world to these kids, to clear all of the obstacles they face. If they barely knew their own faces, I wondered, how many other experiences were they missing? One little girl was especially inspiring to me. She lived in severe poverty, slept in a dark hut made of mud and cow dung, and wore a dirty, tattered shirt; despite all this, she had the most beautiful, joyous smile I’ve ever seen. It was as if she smiled with her whole face and with her constant grin I remember thinking how sore her cheek muscles must’ve been. When I’m frustrated or tempted to despair, I think of this girl and all that her happiness has had to overcome.
BEN: The other moments that have been most touching for me are all the times I see people getting excited about 4sight and going out of their way to help. It gives me an incredibly feeling when I see friends and strangers excitedly telling people about 4sight, emailing their families and coworkers, tweeting or posting to facebook, even reaching out to bloggers. I’m grateful to see people getting excited about something that I created, but I’m especially thrilled to see people coming together, taking action, and buying into what 4sight is all about.
it’s so impressive that you’re letting first hand-excperiences motivate your business pursuits. but yikes, no mirrors, oh the horror!…okay, total JK! however, since you are selling glasses as a means to a good end, and obviously some people in this world are *ahem* vain, let’s talk style! i noticed the sunglasses you sell are all made in Italy, how did you decide on your aesthetic and manufacturer? do you do any of the designing?
BEN: The hardest part of starting 4sight was finding the right manufacturer. I entered into talks and received prototypes from well over a dozen manufacturers over several months before I decided. My two main priorities were quality and style. There are plenty of things to worry about when you’re starting a company, and I needed to feel completely confident in the quality of our sunglasses. So ultimately I decided to pay a heavy premium to go with the most reliable independent Italian manufacturers I could find. I’ve found that “Handmade in Italy” is a badge that gives comfort to me and to customers. I’m beyond confident in the quality of our sunglasses and so far our customers have been thrilled – especially about the lenses, which several have told me make the world look clearer than real life!
For the first two models, I wanted designs that were iconic and timeless, but also fresh and bold. I was definitely inspired by classic designs, especially Ray-Ban Wayfarers, but I wanted to add some more modern attitude. I did make all of the design decisions, but I relied heavily on guidance from the manufacturer and advisors. I like being involved in the design process, but the most important thing is to create styles that people want to wear and I’m grateful I can call on the talents of so many wonderful people.
that’s great! i agree the ‘Handmade in Italy’ badge is a big plus. my favorite 4sight sunglasses are the Cheetah Classics which, i am wearing in the photos (love!), they really are great quality and stylin’! i like that you stick to a very classic look. do you have any plans for some new designs/styles in the future?
BEN: Absolutely! We are working on new designs now and I hope to launch them by mid-summer! One is a lower-cost wayfarer-inspired model, available in a wider range of colors. We think these will be perfect for the summer, and I plan to have them available in time to hit the road with a certain touring music festival in August!
As I said, my number one priority is to develop styles that people want to wear, and no one knows what you want to wear better than you! So please share with me your ideas and feedback! You (and all of your readers) can always contact me directly at ben@4sightSunglasses.com with thoughts, questions or anything else.
nice! let’s give Ben some feedback stylish peeps! comment here or email Ben!
i’m sure you get the obvious comparison to TOMS Shoes when you talk about your business model and as i’m sure you know they recently started selling sunglasses as well. how do you feel about the do-gooder competition?
BEN: I welcome the launch of TOMS sunglasses line. More companies in the space means more people get the eye-care they need. I don’t want to take anything away from TOMS now or going forward. Instead, I will continue working to differentiate 4sight from TOMS. Here are some ways that 4sight is different from TOMS:
1. 4sight started selling sunglasses and giving glasses first!
2. Our sunglasses are comparable, if not better, quality (handmade in Italy vs. made in Italy)
3. We’re less expensive ($89 vs. $135-145)
4. We offer free shipping and free returns — TOMS charges for shipping, and you have to arrange return shipping yourself
Being a small start-up, I can’t compete with TOMS on marketing, distribution or scale. But I have advantages: 4sight offers better pricing by cutting out the middle men (TOMS has to set high prices so retailers can make money on the markup), we can pay more attention to the customer, and we can work to make the connection between the customer and the person their helping as personal as possible (which is harder to do with TOMS’ massive scale).
i would say those seem like major pluses!
okay, lastly, what do you see as the ideal future for 4sight?
BEN: Ideally, I’ll sell 1.3 billion pairs of sunglasses, give eye-care to the whole world, and use our proceeds to throw massive parties with trampolines and waterslides and a moon-bounce for all 4sight’s customers! That might take a while though. My goal for the near future is to reach the point where I can support myself while doing something I love so much. Now that I’ve almost reached that point, I’ve started dreaming about the future a bit more. I hope 4sight will grow to a medium size where we’re big enough to make a real difference and play an active role in our own community, but small enough to remain authentic and to always remember that 4sight was founded to help people. I would love for 4sight to become a strong, recognizable brand that represents more than charity or eye-care; a brand built on taking action – not to save the world – but to change the life of one person who needs help. That would be awesome.