Mitchell Saum '17 of Pawleys Island, S.C., furthering his business with the help of The Space.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Like many seasoned entrepreneurs, the idea for Mitchell Saum’s business began as a way to solve a problem – the Pawleys Island, S.C., resident and avid surfer lost his sunglasses one day while riding the waves.
“They sank right to the bottom. I knew I needed to find glasses that would float,” says Saum, a first-year student at Wofford College.
Shocked by the sticker price for bamboo shades, a more sustainable and lightweight option than traditional plastic frames, Saum, then a high school senior, decided to try making and selling his own. The first step involved contacting manufacturing companies in China.
“The sales people spoke English,” Saum recalls, “but it was broken, and I was never really sure if they’d understood what I wanted until I got the first prototype.”
After several weeks of waiting, a sample pair of sunglasses arrived in the mail … in pieces. “I was pretty upset about that. It had taken so long to get them and then they were completely smashed.”
With the prototype in hand, the next step was getting the capital to place his first order. “It was kind of a tough sell to convince my dad to loan me the money, especially when he saw the shape the glasses were in, but I finally convinced him.”
With enough capital to get started, Saum ordered 100 pairs of bamboo sunglasses, and Swell Bamboo Sunglasses was born. He quickly sold out his first order and placed another, then another. He personally distributed each pair, either through friends or through the mail, fulfilling orders after school.
Priced at $40 per pair, Saum is able to keep costs low by taking an unusual approach to marketing – posting photos of the glasses on Instagram, the photo-sharing social network. “People liked the look of them, and the price,” he says.
“Ours are cheaper, if not the cheapest on the market, but still good quality. I started getting all these followers. Then, people started contacting me to ask about distributing the sunglasses in Europe and Africa,” he says. Today, his company has more than 36,000 Instagram followers, and a distributor on almost every continent. With a retail website currently under construction and a new Facebook page, Saum is increasing his marketing efforts.
Since entering Wofford in the fall of 2013, Saum has had to let family take over most of the order fulfillment responsibilities while he’s adjusted to a busy college schedule. “My mom has been great,” he says. “The support I’ve gotten from both my parents is the reason I’ve been able to do this. My brother even helped out for a while.”
While he’s not currently involved in the day-to-day distribution of his product, he’s working every day to move his business forward by taking Chinese classes and participating in The Space to Launch, Wofford’s entrepreneurship program offered through The Space in the Mungo Center.
“The Space has been helping me with marketing techniques and storytelling,” he says, “and learning Chinese is something I never thought I’d do, and now, I have this great reason. It’ll be a huge help in dealing with the manufacturing side of the business.”
This summer Saum plans to visit China with a Wofford classmate with stops planned in Shanghai and Wenzhou, where his glasses are made.
Want to buy a pair of Swell Bamboo Sunglasses or to get in touch with Saum? Check out his company’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/swellshades) or contact Saum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Lisa Mincey Ware, marketing director for The Space