Story #6. A Norwegian eyewear brand Kaibosh changes the way people buy sunglasses
Words and pictures by the blue-eyed barbarian
Helge Flo is the founder and designer of Kaibosh, one of the most inspiring eyewear brands for me. While the brand was born in Bergen, Norway, Flo travels between his stores in Oslo, Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Warsaw. I was lucky to catch him in Copenhagen as he laid out Kaibosh story: the story about growth, bankruptcy and starting from scratch.
You have been a co-founder and designer of Kaibosh since the beginning. What was the story from inside?
Slowly we developed the idea that we need to change the way people wear eyewear. Because people wear the same frame for about three years. And there is nothing, no garment or shoes or anything that you wear every day for three years. Nothing. Slowly the urge to change this materialized.
We understood that whatever we did with the frame itself, it would need lenses in. And those are bloody expensive. So we needed to control the lenses as well.
Suddenly, the project became very big.
Also, we couldn't sell these to optical stores because their logic is: “We have our own lens deal. We don't want to buy lenses through you or sell it cheap. Why? Are you insane?”
Okay, we need to own the stores. So the project becomes even bigger.
So now we are designing and producing and then we have to distribute it through own channel in order to do this change.
You were designing sunglasses for other companies before. Did you still work there when you started Kaibosh?
We were still designing for other companies. And in the process of giving birth to Kaibosh, everything was this kind of a huge project. Through the other business, we had enough funding to launch two shops.
On this stage what you need, you need volume, so everything can run smoothly. We needed to grow two more shops. That's when we went to find investors.
While Kaibosh was a project inside the bigger business, you invited investors into the whole company?
Yes. And when the investors came in at the same time, the other business kind of went down, because we were focusing so much on growing Kaibosh. Then the investors had to carry all of Kaibosh when it was sucking up money and opening up stores. We were using a lot for money on debt to the point that they should finance the whole thing.
We followed the plan, but the sales didn't come quick enough. And then they pulled the plug on the whole company.
The whole thing collapsed and went bankrupt.
And then in January 2017, my wife and I, because we started the whole thing, we bought Kaibosh and all the assets from the bank and continued. Eventually, it was closed only for about a week.
We started the whole thing again. But only with Kaibosh, nothing of the design for others. Of course when you start all over again, then you are a startup again.
Have you achieved the sales to sustain the business now?
Last year we were still losing money, for this year we will be in balance. So then Kaibosh is actually self-sufficient and sustainable. But it took so much resources and energy to come to where we are now.
If you were to make this decision again, would you invite investors into your business?
I've always tried to do things as smart and as cheap as possible. And I think that's super important.
If you want to innovate, and you have all the money in the world, why should you innovate? Why? Where's the incentive? Where's the drive? Where's the hunger?
In an early startup, not having money, you have to be smarter and that’s a good lesson for everyone, I think. It triggers your: “There is nobody on the planet as interested in my project as myself.” You can't buy that interest from anyone. Nobody will ever have the same enthusiasm as the founder himself. It might happen later. But in this startup, there is no one else, only you.
You're forced to think how can you market something for free or as cheap as possible. How can you go directly to your customer and talk for free to them? You're forced to think about that.
So I think that is a very good exercise to do until you understand the mechanics of your company. If you can. Of course, if you are in a business where investment is so huge that you are unable to even start before you launch the product. Okay, then that's a different game.
I would say, try to drive it as long as you can for as far as you can. Because you are so fresh, you are so hungry, you are open to everything.
That first phase is important. And then if you need, you get investors to go into the next phase where you can think differently. You can maybe grow those initial ideas big.
How did you find your audience?
What is special about Kaibosh, is that we genuinely want to make a change. We want to have a quality and a design and our price that make it possible for you to have three frames. And then we had a conscious decision to go for a younger audience and talk only to them. So we selected two main groups that we wanted to target.
They are forward-looking young people, maybe from the young fashion crowd. We are very focused on talking to them. Then, in the beginning, we spent some money to try to get into the right magazines. We were very focused on that the collection had been seen by the media and by the target group. All those things came into action.
What we did experience in the beginning is that, because the design was so well received and we didn’t flash prices, people thought we were expensive. So people came in and it was like: “Wow, you are not expensive. This is affordable.”
We had to tweak the concept and that's why we decided to make two pink stores to be more playful and to get away this black and white, very expensive look, that we had in the beginning. So listen to the customers and adapt to the feedback you get.
How do you estimate the effectiveness of publications in magazines?
I think it's good for brand awareness. For sales, I'm not quite sure.
What was really good for sales from the experience?
I think good for sales is giving people a fantastic experience in the shop. Designing great products that make them look like a million dollars. And we have a really strong focus on the design side and make people look good, and have a good feel of the product.
Have a shop environment that is forward-thinking, that feels fresh, that people want to go there. And then we also try to story-tell as much as we can in the shop. Tell the customers why we exist, give them a good experience and also encourage them to tell friends about it.
Because we are a small company with limited resources, we are trying to encourage people to tell the stories to others. Just by talking to them in the shop and not pretending to be a huge company. Tell the story at it is: “We need help! And you can do the difference.”
It's one of the things that we always try to follow – just to be yourself. Just be honest. Not trying to be something you are not.
I’ve seen that you organize many events. Could you talk a little about that?
Yeah, it's one of those things that we have done regularly for some years now. If we launch a new collection, we can invite people in. We can also ask if any food companies want to promote their food in our environment.
It’s a very straight forward way of doing it, but it's never been done in an optical environment. It's a garment environment. It's a fashion store environment.
We have done that. We also had done a concert into the street. It was a street festival. And then we had an artist singing out of the window here. That was kind of magical. It was a bit surreal.
We work with a lot of musical artists. We had the launch of a new artist in our shop in Bergen and that's also a really special thing to do. It's really good.
We have hard promoted people like photographers with an event in the shop, where we showed their new art. So we act as a gallery more than a shop.
It's not made as a sales event, though. It's fully focused on the person, it's cultural. It's not like: “We will launch your record and then we have 20 people on the floor trying to sell sunglasses.” That's not trustworthy. I would hate to go to a place like that.
All the products are just along the way. People can see them, they can try, we have people on the floor that can answer questions, but they are not supposed to sell. Of course, if someone insists to buy something, there's a possibility of doing it, but it's not what they are encouraged to do.
Then we have had other things. We have had the flea markets where we invited people that wanted to sell something. We gave them parts of the shop and they could sell things that don't need. This was around Christmas, so others could have had a Christmas present. And we didn't charge for that. Then we invite in a restaurant and they can serve soup. So it's an event where you can have a good bargain, people have a good time, and just to be a part of society really. Of course, we have our thought behind it and that is that we try to reach out to customers that normally wouldn't go to our shop, try to make our shop known.
People could think that pink shop like this could be a bit dangerous, a bit frightening, too hip. “I'm not hip, I can't go in that. They are too cool.” - you know, all those things that we can think. But no, we are down to earth. We just thought it was fun to have a pink floor, come and talk to us.
I guess the website should have been quite helpful for you, right?
The webshop was great, but it was far too expensive. So I couldn't keep it.
Was it expensive to run?
Yes. When they started the webshop, that I'm not kidding, I think for at least three months, there was our own team in Stockholm with several people only working on developing it. It must have cost absolutely a fortune.
What was the price of the website back then?
Probably several million kroner (a million Norwegian kroner equals to 100 thousand Euros)
You have to remember, I found the company and I was the designer of the company and I designed products, but I didn’t design the processes and I didn't run the company. I actually didn't know what things cost, and I didn't care.
So now I am running the company and I'm doing it my way.
So important for me to work in the shop for these weeks because then I can, I have to face the retail system.
I have to face the customer with storytelling. I have to look at the kitchen is messy. Why is it messy? I deal with all these fundamental things that all the staff has to cope with every day. If I don't care about that, I don't care about them. So I force myself into these things that I think the whole organization will benefit from.
People share pictures with Kaibosh sunglasses all over Instagram. How did this behavior emerge?
We're sponsoring new artists for whom those are the first sunglasses they get for free. Most of the time I have a conversation with them: “Do you like the sunglasses? Do you want to wear them?” Because if you are not dying to wear my sunglasses, I don't want to give them.
The value of the product is that you want to wear it.
Whether we exchange money or not. Because you also give me a value back, if you share the products. And then it becomes very relaxed. There is no contract with them, nothing. It’s just: “If you like the product you can talk to us.”
Some artists don't want us to launch it in our feed. They only want to have it in their feed. Fine. There are no strict rules for this.
And we also have done a lot of interviews with people using our products, normal paying customers. It’s something I want to do more often: “How do you experience the frame? What has the frame done for you? That you can have more than one frame, what does it do to your life? Does it improve or is it just nonsense?
What do you feel helped you to create this bond with customers?
I think that just being down to earth and just get people to trust you. We are not perceived as aggressive. We are honestly trying to make a good deal for people. We're not trying to rip them off. I don't have our wet dream of becoming a billionaire or whatever. I want the change. That's the main goal of this company. And of course, we need money to do that.
I have craved this all my life. This honest company that I want to trust. There's not many of them.
The blue-eyed barbarian explores authentic businesses worldwide, documents their success stories in this Journal of Authenticity and spreads the most fruitful practices in regard to business development, communications, and creative solutions. Here's more stories that you might like: