Industry Watch

Genuine vision: Julie Allinson, founder and president of Eyebobs

Working on specs

Never mind the coasts, Eyebobs is making waves from Minnesota

By Erica Rivera
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Know your customer. That’s the tenet that has propelled eyewear manufacturer and retailer Eyebobs into markets all over the world. 
Who is that customer? “Somebody that is outspoken, that knows him or herself, that is going to kick aging in the ass,” says Julie Allinson, founder and president of Eyebobs. “They’re not going to wear some small, demure, pair of glasses that are invisible.”
Allinson grew up on a farm in Iowa, earned a degree in finance, then worked at Piper Jaffray and U.S. Bank as a project manager. She later became president of a children’s clothing company. “I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole,” she says of her previous experience. “I understand the finance side of things, but I’m a creative at heart.”
Then Allinson had an eye-opening experience that changed her professional trajectory forever. She asked her trusted friend Jason Engelman, then a sales associate at Specs Optical, to help her pick out reading glasses. If Allinson was going to purchase two pairs as planned (one for the office, the other for home), she’d end up spending over a grand. 
“She looked at me like I was insane,” says Engelman of Allinson’s sticker shock.
Allinson asked if there was anything else. There was, at Walgreen’s. For $19.99, Allinson could have purchased an “awful” pair of readers. She didn’t want to.
“It was my ah-ha moment,” she says. “That changed my world.”
Within two weeks, Allinson decided to start Eyebobs. Her goal was to combine reasonable prices with daring styles; quality and design were paramount. She spent a year studying the eyewear industry; she attended a plastics conference in Chicago, visited Italy to learn more about plastics, and toured factories in China, where Eyebobs are now manufactured.
Back in Minneapolis, Eyebobs was born in 2001. Allinson decided on Minneapolis for the headquarters because she believes in the work ethic of Midwesterners. “People [here] don’t expect a free ride,” she says. “They expect to come in and work. And they want to contribute.”
Allinson lobbied for her brand the old-fashioned way: she visited optical retailers and pitched store owners. But the company struggled in its first year. Then she approached Brad Sherman, a longtime sales associate at Hubert White, a men’s clothing store in Minneapolis. Sherman recommended that Eyebobs shift its focus to the fashion industry.
“She’s got everything from conservative, retro stuff to incredibly fun color,” Sherman says of the Eyebobs product. “She has a very wide appeal.”
Though accessories hadn’t sold well at Hubert White in the past, Allinson worked out a deal to display Eyebobs in the store. The cheekily named spectacles (“Peckerhead,” “Egotesticle,” and “Huge Hefner” are just a few of the men’s styles) sold out in 90 days. Sherman was so impressed, he referred Allinson to like-minded contacts. Eyebobs also made the rounds at trade and fashion shows. Soon Eyebobs could be found in Anthropologie, Ampersand, Nordstrom, and many other retail locations.
“She built a brand overnight from East Coast to West Coast,” Sherman says of Allinson.
There are currently 25 locations statewide that sell Eyebobs. Internationally, the outrageous frames can be found in more than a dozen countries, including Australia, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia.
The company has remained loyal to brick-and-mortar stores, including smaller boutiques. “We are not a mass-market product,” Allinson insists. “We are a class-market product.”
The brand has appeared in such publications as Glamour, Elle, and InStyle. Katie Couric, Andrew Zimmern, and Chris Gardner (author of The Pursuit of Happyness) are loyal wearers and have even teamed up with Eyebobs to design frames.
While some in the fashion world might view being anywhere other than L.A. or New York as a disadvantage, Allinson says her Minneapolis location keeps her focused. 
“Each coast has all this fashion influence that I think makes folks in business a little paranoid,” she said. “In the Midwest, I can put my nose to the grindstone and keep on working.”
While Allinson follows financial statements to see how the business is growing, she measures success in less mathematical ways. “When I get on a plane and somebody’s wearing Eyebobs, I know we’ve succeeded,” she says.
Allinson believes that grit and determination were key to the success of Eyebobs. “When you’re in a startup, you’ve got to be scrappy,” she says. 
Engelman, who officially joined the Eyebobs team in 2008, advises: “Do things that nobody else is doing. Partner up with somebody that is really cool.”
Allinson also recommends careful consideration of who is going to own the company before you start building a brand. “You have to decide if you’re going to own the entire grape or a slice of your watermelon,” she says. In the case of Eyebobs, Allinson wanted to be the sole proprietor. She says she’d rather lose sleep over pleasing her customers than placating investors. 
Allinson now oversees a staff of 24, from designers to packers to order takers. They, too, measure the momentum of the company by “the pulse by the number of boxes they’re ordering, by the number of packages they ship, the phone calls that come in. You can feel the pace get heightened. It’s exciting.”
“They’re hands-on,” Sherman says of the company. “They’ve got big inventory. They move it. They know what they’re doing.”
While Allinson acknowledges that challenges are inevitable in business, she doesn’t fixate on them or let them slow her down.
“They teach entrepreneurship now in universities, and I’m not sure it can be taught,” Allinson says. “It really is a gut feeling that you have to keep moving forward. If you analyzed all the risks, you’d never go into business.”