Panda: Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills

Panda: Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills

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It may sound like a ploy to get shoppers in the door, but the power of ‘green’ and eco-conscious consumers can’t be denied. So Georgetown University buddies Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills thought:

Why not? And in the fall of 2011, the now 24-year-olds started up Panda, a Washington DC-based sunglasses maker that uses sustainably-harvested bamboo for its frames. To complete the virtuous cycle, they’re devoting a portion of their profits towards funding eye exams and cataract surgery to aid people in the developing world.

Recognising social change

Since launching, the fledgling fashion company founders have managed to land their frames in popular retail outlets across the US. But what separates Panda from the herd of ‘eco-friendly’ products on the market? And what can like-minded start-ups learn from a company that grew from fashion obscurity to prominence in just six months?

“We don’t hide the fact that TOMS Shoes was a huge inspiration. We figured if we could make a fraction of the impact that Blake Mycoskie made with a different item, we’d be doing a good job,” says Vincent Ko. “I want Panda to also be a recognisable brand for social change, so when someone sees Panda, they know that for everything that is purchased through the company, an individual in need or a charitable organisation will benefit.”

Getting funded

Panda’s founders used the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.com to get their idea off the ground. “Kickstarter not only allowed us to get the funds to start production, but also gave us a lot of publicity,” says Ko. “We got many of our initial retailers and partners through Kickstarter, which completely levels the playing field for young entrepreneurs.

 

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“Unfortunately, there’s starting to be a commodification of Kickstarter. You see established companies using it as just another marketing tool at the expense of smaller, in-development ideas. But I would still recommend it because it does help with fundraising and publicity.”

Stay trendy, but authentic

Ko has a word of advice for product start-ups leveraging off social awareness: Consumers aren’t stupid. “They know when something’s authentic. And if you’re going to try to start up a social venture, you have to do it end-to-end – with everything from messaging to packaging. Of course, this takes time.

There’s no way that a six-month-old sunglasses start-up is going to be perfect on day one. So we send a regular newsletter out to all of our customers, updating them on the steps we’re taking to improve.”

Start-up advice

Ko has this advice to offer fellow social start-ups: Don’t wait. There is no better time than in your early 20s or mid-20s to start a business because at worst you’ll just end up where you started – having learnt from the experience, of course. Ultimately, though, proceed thoughtfully and systematically. It’s really important to grow responsibly and not overstretch.

Eric Shapiro
Eric Shapiro is a freelance writer in New York.