Mantra Eyewear CEO, Sam Waldo: Every Product Needs A Story

Mantra Eyewear sells sunglasses in China and aims to be one of the country’s first lifestyle brands. Started by two Americans, Sam Waldo and Andrew Shirman, Mantra successfully launched its first line of sunglasses in 2016. 

The path to profitability has not been straightforward for Sam and Andrew. After spending two years teaching in rural China, the two started a nonprofit that provided eyeglasses for underprivileged children. However, when a few funders pulled out at the last minute, Sam and Andrew began thinking about alternative methods for funding their nonprofit. And thus the idea for Mantra was born. 

In this interview, we ask them about their journey so far and how they had the gumption to tackle a competitive market (sunglasses) in a foreign country (China). 

Just Like Grape: How did you start Mantra? 

Sam Waldo: We took a pretty circuitous route to start Mantra. After leaving Teach for China, I started working in Beijing and my co-founder, Andrew Shirman, actually moved back to the U.S. While we were teaching, we noticed that many of our students had trouble seeing the blackboard and it was severely impacting their education, so we started a nonprofit called Education in Sight. We worked nights and weekends on the project and in our first year, we were able to get glasses to 351 students. 

Ironically, our first crisis with Education in Sight was what gave us the confidence to start Mantra. We had this sponsor from Chengdu, a large city in Sichuan province, come out of nowhere. They were interested in sponsoring 50 schools in the fall of 2014. We would be able to provide glasses and they would get great press and videos that they could share with their partners. But when it came time to actually pay for the glasses, they kind of just ran away and we were left holding the bag. We were actually tens of thousands of dollars in debt to our partners. We didn’t have any way to pay them, much less ourselves. So we started thinking about alternative ways to fund Education in Sight and that’s how we started thinking about creating a socially conscious lifestyle brand. 

I grew up seeing the popularity of everything from whole Whole Foods to Toms shoes and Warby Parker eyewear in the U.S. So it was really quite clear to me that there was nothing like that here in China.

JLG: Wow. Sounds like you got burned pretty badly. But I can’t imagine that the transition from running a non-profit to running a business was easy…

SW: Yeah, it took us almost a year to get Mantra going. We spent almost all of 2015 researching and learning about the market. It wasn’t until 2016 that we were actually able to launch a product. 

We were enlisting the help and the assistance of more relevant people and talking to more people in our target customer group, young well-educated Chinese people. The key turning point came when we started to get those people involved in the company and a more real way when we started bringing our first people on as you know part time and then full time like advisors and eventually staff members and we dedicated the little funding that we had to that sort of thing as opposed to diving right into manufacturing.

JLG: How were you able to sustain yourself and bridge the gap between Education in Sight and Mantra? 

SW: Well, I wouldn't necessarily lay out the timeline that way. We didn't have salaries at EIS, but we also didn't have salaries at Mantra for about 18 months. It wasn't until 2016 that there was really a way to pay ourselves. I did a lot of odd jobs - what worked best for me was copy editing, where I could completely control my time and earn a high hourly rate by getting through assignments quickly. But it was tough, there wasn't much money.

JLG: One thing I’m pretty interested in is how you went about designing Mantra sunglasses since neither of you have design backgrounds. 

SW: Early on we knew that the brand would be heavily dependent on storytelling. We knew that it would be influenced by our experiences in Yunnan. We wanted buyers to know that each pair of glasses had a story and that they were a part of the social mission. 

We were lucky the initial designer, Olivia, that we are working with is a close friend of ours. She's based in Australia and she really understood our mission and what we’re trying to achieve. She was able to create something young and fun and very summery. Definitely respecting her ability to kind of carry out that vision that's been really important. I think if I tried to micromanage the designs specifically then that probably would be would be disastrous 

JLG: How did you first start selling glasses? 

SW: Since we didn't have much money to pay for marketing, we got started just by getting out there and doing a lot of markets and events in and around Beijing. Here in China that you can pitch a tent for a day and is of meet the people that are wandering around and tell your story and try to sell some glasses at was basically that’s we did for the first three three or four months as we were planning some more sophisticated kinds of PR. At that point, we were thinking about how to get our WeChat and other social media up and running. It was nerve wracking and exciting because we were at that point where it's like ok this is fun and it's really cool. We're getting a good response from people when I have the chance to face to face sell a pair of glasses to someone they can try them on they can hear the story then I think the conversion rate on that was probably was very good. But that's not scalable at all. When we weren’t at open-air markets, we tended to have very bad days. 

We knew we had to ramp up our online presence. We started getting a few influencers to talk about us and send people to our WeChat store. We ended up getting a friend to write a piece that blew up on WeChat. It characterized us as foreigners who were heading out on the street--which is a really compelling image for Chinese people--and selling their wares in front of big luxury stores like Louis Vuitton and Prada. We took pictures of me like trying to sell Mantra glasses in front of them and that was I think just like just cute enough and just sort of like who like sort of rebellious and had a strong enough contrast to it that it really gave the article a bit more spice. And from that, we were able to sell out of our initial run.

JLG: So what advice would you give to people trying to start their own lifestyle brand? 

SW: Since we're not designers and don't have a fashion background, that means we've taken a non-traditional approach to our brand - Mantra has grown out of our story and our non-profit work, which is very different than traditional lifestyle brands which tend to be design-concept-driven. I'll assume we're speaking to people in a similar position, who are looking to create an apparel or accessory brand but don't have that specific background. We only got off the ground because of the authenticity of our story. We didn't just see a market opportunity and build a product to fit it; there's a reason for Mantra to exist that goes beyond just filling a certain niche. That shines through in our marketing, our collateral and in our product - we've built this thing up in order to help rural students, and that sense of genuine purpose is our guiding light both as a small company and as a young brand in the eyes of our consumers.

My advice then is pretty straightforward - if you want to start a lifestyle brand to offer a product that's slightly cheaper, more expensive, or offers a small feature-tweak, then I imagine you'll have a hard time. Our customers buy into our brand because they want to buy into the whole story and the values Mantra projects. Without that purpose, we wouldn't have any way to stand out in such a crowded market.