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Lessons Learned: Eyebobs CEO’s Vision for the Future

How does a 19-year-old company known for funky magnifying glasses reposition itself as a major player in the optical industry? The head of Minneapolis-based Eyebobs reveals his vision.

Lessons Learned: Eyebobs CEO’s Vision for the Future

Since Norwest Equity Partners purchased a majority stake in Eyebobs from founder Julie Allinson in 2015, the Minneapolis–based eyewear company best known for its bold and funky readers has gone through a number of changes in leadership, branding, and sales strategy, with the goal of shifting the company from novelty wholesaler to a full-service brand. Prescription lenses, introduced two years ago, now make up more than 10 percent of Eyebobs’ business. CEO Mike Hollenstein—whose experience includes stints with other locally based consumer goods lines including Sportsman’s Guide and Duluth Trading—took over in 2017, replacing Michael Magerman, who held the top spot for only a year. Hollenstein quickly paused his predecessor’s planned push into retail stores, saying the designs by a national firm “lacked soul.” He replaced Eyebobs’ entire leadership team. And he changed the company’s longtime mantra: “ ‘Irreverent and slightly jaded’ is not who we are now.” Hollenstein explains how he’s shifting the culture of a company he describes as a “19-year-old startup.”

Eyebobs at a Glance

Founded: 2001
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Ownership: Minneapolis–based Norwest Equity Partners
Employees: More than 70
Company stores: Six (Minneapolis, Boston, Washington, D.C., Denver)
Wholesale partners: 2,000

Set a goal

“We want to be everywhere,” Hollenstein says. “We are challenging one of the largest, vertically integrated industries in the world from the point of view of an underdog—not by being cheap, but by being unique and different.”

Don’t ignore the 45-plus market

“This is a segment of the population that doesn’t have many brands building lifestyle and fashion-forward products for them. We are leaning into this and saying, ‘Yes! You are aging. Congrats! It’s time for you to own your power.’”

Rethink your brand statement

Hollenstein charged Joe Prebich, his new vice president of marketing and sales, whose previous brand experience includes work on Fjallraven, Oakley, and Zeal Optics, to restate Eyebobs’ mission. “There’s nothing more personal than what you put on your face. We want to help people be true and authentic to themselves,” Hollenstein says. The company’s new tagline: “You supply the personality—we frame it.”

Know the competition

“To this day, 50 percent of eyewear is sold by independent optical stores. We are creating a very different experience by focusing on framing personalities, and we find that our customers are coming from all types of stores—not just those that you would expect based on their media coverage.” (He’s looking at you, Warby Parker.)

New goals may require a new team

Hollenstein says he’s replaced all leadership roles since he took over as CEO in December 2017. “It became apparent that we needed a different, broader skill set for the individuals in our key leadership positions. Finding individuals who love the nuance of working at a small to mid-sized company in this market can be challenging. All of our leaders need to be comfortable developing our strategy and jumping in to sell glasses at our stores.”

Build brand awareness

Even though Eyebobs has been a presence in Minneapolis for nearly 20 years and its frames are sold at dozens of local stores, more than 80 percent of customers at the Mall of America Eyebobs store are new to the brand. Hollenstein takes that as a good sign that the stores are driving awareness. “It gives us great confidence in our nationwide expansion strategy,” Hollenstein says.

Focus on what you do best

Known for off-the-shelf reading glasses, Eyebobs introduced prescription lenses in 2017, which now represents 10 to 20 percent of the business. Still, “we are focused on being a frame company,” Hollenstein says. “We believe that all lens types will grow as we build awareness through store expansion, brand advertising, wholesale partner growth, and in our direct channel through a new website experience launching later this year.”

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