Brent Martin has been involved in the sunglasses business since he was a kid growing up in North Vancouver, helping his entrepreneurial father polish and sell eyewear that he picked up from merchants overseas.
The avid mountain biker, who won the first-ever Canadian Mountain Bike Championships in 1986 at age 22, decided he wanted to develop and sell his own brand of performance sunglasses that would hold up in the most challenging conditions he faced during his own rides.
“I said ‘Dad, I think there could be a market here if we came up with affordable eyewear that was functionally up to the demands that we need for mountain biking, like polycarbonate lenses,’” Martin recalls.
His father took him to Asia where they sourced one style of sunglasses and called it “The Ryder.” That’s how Ryders Eyewear was born.
Martin and his team continued to tweak the design and performance of the eyewear over the years, to meet the needs of their target mountain biker crowd.
Orders started pouring in from retailers, agencies and distributors selling gear to mountain bike enthusiasts, including from Australia, where the company made its first international export sale. That followed with orders from the U.S. and then other international markets in Europe and South America.
Today, Ryders Eyewear markets a wide range of polarized, photochromic and antifog performance sunglasses in more than 1,800 retail locations across North America, South America and Europe.
The company has more than 20 sales representatives across North America, who help to sell and service the product sold by retailers such as Atmosphere, Sail, Running Room and Mountain Equipment Co-op, to name a few.
The sunglasses are designed in North Vancouver, assembled in factories in Taiwan and China, and then shipped back to North Vancouver for quality control before being sold to retailers and consumers around the world.
“A key core value of Ryders is to act consciously which allows us to donate our older merchandise to local charities and communities around the world where eye protection is scarce,” says Martin.
In December 2013, Ryders was sold to Paris-based Essilor International, the largest lenses company in the world, alongside its parent Suntech Optics Inc., which targeted mass-market retailers with sunglasses and reading glasses.
Martin says the deal has given Ryders more resources to design and distribute its specialty lenses, while allowing the company to stay true to its roots and customer base.
“One of the reasons they bought us was for the authenticity of the brand,” Martin says. “The business is aligned with our brand promise and the free-ride mountain bike movement which was born here in North Vancouver.”
A big challenge for Ryders over the years has been staying focused on its target market of mountain bikers and other athletes involved in what Martin calls “the two-wheel culture.”
“Our goal was to focus on one thing and to do it really well, instead of trying to be everything from everybody and spreading yourself too thin,” Martin says.
“There is a way to do that, but it isn’t how we wanted to do business. Consumers are savvy and can sniff out when you aren’t authentic.”
Q&A with Brent Martin, founder Ryders Eyeware
1) What was your first export sale?
It was to Australia in the early 1990s.
2) How did that first export opportunity arise?
After starting the brand, I travelled around the world for a year to use and promote the product and spend some time in Australia. When I got back, I got a call from one of my new Australia friends who wanted to distribute the specialty sunglasses in his country. We met in Asia and I showed him some factories, and the relationship developed from there.
3) When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
The importance of securing your trademarks. I learned the hard way from the deal in Australia when I sold the company. We’re still working through that process.
4) How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
There has been a lot of consolidation, not just with manufacturers, but suppliers and retailers. That impacts how we run our business. The Internet and availability of information has also changed significantly. We can now get data on what glasses sold by different retailers in different markets, right down to the lens. There is so much data out there, if you have the capacity to crunch that, it can do a lot. It means better design, better buying and more efficient operations with fewer returns. It allows you to run a much more efficient business model.
5) What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
You have to be humming in your own backyard before you go to the world. You need to have your local community buy in first. The design and operation of your company needs to have the capacity to manage the foreign conversations that are a reality around the world – you’re talking about different time zones, different languages and shipping rules, as well as different cultures and consumers. Most critical is that you need the people in your company aligned and stoked to drive the brands culture. Without this growing a sustainable and successful business will be really difficult.