SME Magazine catches up with Zoe and Ali Watkiss, above, founders of eyewear company SunGod. Here, Zoe tells us about the company and the story behind it
After university, we were both working in London – Ali in architecture and me – Zoe – in marketing at L’Oreal. We were always looking for ways to spend more time outdoors, whether that was in the mountains, on bikes or just on two feet. We had started a winter bobble hat company called Hats for the Hill on the side of our day jobs, which was great fun but highly seasonal!
We started looking at ways we could make this all year round and our attention turned to the summer season and eyewear. It became very clear, very quickly that the market was only offering expensive designer sunglasses that came with huge mark-ups, or cheap £10 knock-offs that broke in a few wears. We believed we could create something better – a brand that offered more – and so we took matters into our own hands and SunGod was born.
We wanted to create a brand with the customer at its heart. Through cutting out the middleman and going direct to consumer, we were able to offer durable, lifetime guarantee-backed custom sunglasses and ski goggles, all for a fairer price for our customer.
Once you’d come up with the idea, how did you make it a reality?
After six months of working with manufacturers and product testing, we launched on Indiegogo in 2013, with a target to sell 400 pairs of sunglasses. Within one month we had
sold nearly 4,000 pairs and from this we were able to fund our first production run with the money from the pre-orders. Looking back on it, we probably wouldn’t have been able to go into production if we’d only sold 400, but it was a record for the platform at a time where crowdfunding was new and exciting way for brands to test the market. It also gave us a
hugely engaged, loyal and global customer base from day one, many of whom are still customers today.
It was just the two of us from then until 2015 when we took on our first employee, and so we had to work smart and be super focussed on what we were working on. In the first few years, Ali used his architecture skills to lead on product design and operations, and I used my marketing and commercial background as a grounding to drive the business. We were
building and shipping the products ourselves at the beginning, which gave us a great
understanding of our products and customers, and how to grow and develop the brand
based on what they were looking for next.
Partnerships are important to you. Can you tell us about them and how they work.
Partnerships are an essential part of our business model. We have a content and
partnership-led acquisition strategy, which means that rather than spending on traditional
forms of advertising, like print adverts, we find new customers through building partnerships with like-minded brands/athletes/charities and tapping into their audiences, and by creating aspirational, attention-grabbing digital content. We have a dedicated Partnerships Team who look after our existing partners and find potential new ones, asking questions like: a) is this partnership meaningful? and b) how could we work together to positively impact our community? These partners include high-performance sports teams like England Rugby and McLaren F1, charities like Surfers Against Sewage and Protect our Winters, and individual athletes like World no. 1 triathlete Hayden Wilde, right, and World Champion skier and kite surfer Maxime Chabloz.
Our partnerships are two-way relationships. Our custom product offering means we’re able to offer athletes and teams unique designs that are tailored to their needs, which we can then offer to their fanbase too. And for our charity partners, we create Limited Edition models in collaboration with them, and donate a percentage of the proceeds, as well as using our platform to share their story through campaigns and content. On the flip side, working with the world’s best athletes and teams is a huge credibility driver for us, and helps us show that our product quality is world-class; otherwise, these athletes wouldn’t be using our products.
This is particularly important as a young brand in an industry dominated by a few huge,
heritage players. We also get direct access to athlete feedback on our products, which
continually fuels our product innovation. Plus, we can access their existing fanbase, who are typically highly engaged and sports-centric – so often our ideal customer.
You recently launched a funding round that was hugely successful. Can you tell us
Last week, we launched the 2022 Vision Raise, to accelerate our growth and fuel the next
stage of SunGod’s journey. We aimed to raise £1m and had an investment cap of £3m.
Over 10,000 people pre-registered to gain early access to the raise, which offered our
community the chance to own a piece of SunGod’s future, from just £25. So, we were
expecting things to move fast, but nothing could have prepared us for the overwhelming
response we received. The response from our community was nothing short of incredible.
We smashed our £1 million target and went on to reach our cap of £3 million and close the
round in just 79 minutes, at 200% overfunded with over 1,000 new investors.
We’ve worked hard to build a really strong community of customers, ambassadors and
athletes who we know are highly engaged, but seeing these people put their money into our 2022 Vision Raise means so much more. It’s proof that our community genuinely believes in what we’re doing: our mission, our products, and our way of doing business. We can’t wait to put their investment to good use – the hard work continues and the next exciting chapter starts now.
What will this extra investment allow you to do?
We’ve got a detailed plan for what we’ll do with this investment. Partnerships play a key role; the investment will allow us to work with even bigger and better partners, to put SunGod in front of new, highly engaged audiences, and work with more World Champion athletes to further enhance our products and prove their performance on the world stage. We also plan to expand overseas, with a particular focus on the US. As a British brand, our focus so far has been on establishing ourselves in our home market, and we’re excited to look beyond and explore new markets. We also have plans to launch the SunGod Foundation, which will allow us to maximise the impact of our charitable giving.
What do you like about running your own company? And what are the challenges?
We’ve had the chance to build a brand from scratch, built on the values that we think are
important. That in itself has been a privilege and we feel extremely lucky to have had the
opportunity. I can’t now imagine doing anything else. In my experience, the satisfaction that driving real change and creating value each day brings is unlike any other job that has come before. When you’re passionate about building a brand with meaning and always striving to be better, this brings with it the challenge of knowing when to take a step back and press pause. I think striving for that balance is a continual work in progress, and something I’ve really had to work on!
We’ve built a brilliant team around us, who are aligned to our mission and are becoming
experts in their individual roles which alleviates pressure for us as founders and makes us
feel incredibly proud. We couldn’t have achieved what we have without them, and to be
managing a team that really “gets it” is an amazing feeling.
Sum up your company in three words
It’s slightly more than three words (!), but our mission sums up what we’re all about:
Better products, with a better customer experience, that are better for the planet.