With over 6 million viewers watching, the Dame brothers received two offers from celebrity moguls on the hit TV show Shark Tank. It was the capital they needed to expand their small business—Proof Eyewear. But that’s when the three brothers from Idaho put the real in reality show. They turned it down. Instead, it was just the boost that helped position Proof for future growth.
“The biggest thing we learned from the experience,” said COO and General Manager Tanner Dame, “was that viewers really related to the people behind the brand, not just the product.”
After the broadcast, Dame said they had countless people tell them how much they respect and love their brand. As a result of that feedback, they were able to raise the capital they needed to grow while remaining true to their brand.
The Entrepreneurial Brand
Proof Eyewear comes from a pedigreed heritage of entrepreneurship. Their grandfather started a sawmill in the 1960’s. It grew to a 1,900-employee business now headed by their father. The brothers spent their early years working there.
“I remember admiring what my older brothers and dad were doing and wanted to follow the same path,” said Dame. “I wanted to directly effect the day-to-day of what I was doing.”
Proof was born from the idea of taking wood in another direction. What if you could manufacture sustainable eyewear made from it? In three years, they went from operating out of a garage with one laptop and a website to expanding distribution to U.S. and international retailers. Recently, they opened their own flagship retail store in Boise.
Using Technology to Tell Their Story
In an industry dominated by one or two big-name eyewear companies, Proof uses its brand to differentiate itself. Technology is a critical factor in getting that message out.
“We’re a small team and can’t always be everywhere,” said Dame. “So being able to promote our story, product, and brand via our Internet connection is at the heart of everything we do.”
Proof uses social media and emails to stay in touch with what tends to be a younger customer base. In fact, Facebook and Twitter are their go-to way to launch new products or make announcements. Much of the post-Shark Tank reaction came through these channels.
From an operational perspective, they chat with international distributors, make bank wire transfers and facilitate customer service requests, all online.
Lessons for Growth
The Shark Tank experience highlights a question many small businesses face—is it time to take that next big step? Dame offers these tips based on Proof’s experience:
- Stick with Your Principles – Proof bases decisions on its three pillars—produce unique sustainable eyewear, give back to good causes we believe in, and stay true to our heritage and past. If what you’re considering doesn’t support your principles, it’s time to re-evaluate it.
- Proceed in Stages – An early step for Proof was hiring staff outside of the three brothers. Could they maintain control of their brand? They started slowly by hiring staff behind the scenes, like in shipping. Next they found expertise in areas they weren’t good at or wanted, like brand management or Web development. They’ve also had success with internships from Boise State. Working in stages, they were better able to control their growth.
- Work on Your Business, Not Just in It – It’s easy to get so involved in the day-to-day that you neglect the bigger picture. Proof has regular strategic planning sessions. These frequent sessions help refine their strategy and position the business to evaluate opportunities as they arise.
While swimming with the sharks might not be for everyone, Tanner Dame and his brothers turned it into a way to grow their business. For other small business owners, it’s a lesson in using your brand to connect with customers.
“Anyone can imitate product,” said Dame, “but not your brand and the relationship it creates with your customers.”