Menu

This Idaho-Based Eyewear Company Is A Small Business With A Global Reach

Proof Eyewear's wooden collection. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

Three brothers run Proof Eyewear.  In 2010, they started with $5,000 each, working from a garage-cum-office. Today, they’re an Idaho success story selling their glasses in over 20 countries around the world.

“You probably don’t think of Boise when you think of innovative start ups,” says COO Tanner Dame.

But Proof is proud of its Idaho roots.  “We really love our town and where we’re rooted is a big part of it,” says Tanner.

Looking to reinvent the eyewear industry, the three Dame brothers, Taylor, Brook, and Tanner, are experimenting with different materials for both prescription and sunglasses, and giving back to the global and local community.

Tanner Dame, COO, of Proof Eyewear. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

Tanner Dame, COO, of Proof Eyewear. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

Sustainable Materials

In 2009, they concocted the idea of a wooden eyewear brand.  A year later, they jumped in, launching Proof.  “This was way before wooden eyeglasses were trendy,” says Tanner.  “Till then there had been only a handful of companies producing wooden frames, some of them dating back to the ’60s in California and others being more like art than fashion.”

For the Dame brothers, though, it was a natural extension of their heritage. Their grandfather, Bud Dame, had acquired a sawmill in Knab, Utah.  “We grew up with sawdust, and working on a mill,” recalls Tanner.  Familiar with the raw materials, they starting sourcing wood from the Pacific Northwest and Canada for eyewear.

The concept was a hit but they weren’t sold that Proof would be a wood-only company.

“We didn’t want to be classified just as a wooden sunglass company.  Plus there were so many classic styles like the John Lennon or aviator frames that we couldn’t really adopt using wood.”

Mold for one of the new aluminum designs. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

Mold for one of the new aluminum designs. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

So they started adding new materials to the collection, bearing in mind that they had to be environmentally-friendly. To compete with the plastic-based frames (which are the bulk of the industry), they chose cellulose acetate, a material that’s sourced from wood pulp (the process of how it’s procured can be found here).  And to produce those classic frames, they turned to recycled aluminum.

“Wood is certainly sustainable,” Tanner says.  “But aluminum is infinitely recyclable making it a good option for a consumer product.”

This spring, the company launched its first aluminum line, supported by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Proof does prescription glasses as well with their sustainable materials. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

Proof does prescription glasses as well with their sustainable materials. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

Doing good is part of the business model

Sustainable eyewear, though, is only one aspect of Proof’s ethos.  The company has also adopted a generous giving back policy — last year, Tanner says, they gave 12 percent of sales to nonprofits and eyecamps conducted overseas.

“We need to be more than just eyewear,” he says. “There needs to be substance to the brand beyond just a quality product.”

That substance includes annual trips abroad to countries such as India, the Philippines, Nepal, and El Salvador where the company helps fund screenings, surgeries, and provides prescription glasses.

“We really want our staff to be a part of this. It’s not just about us,” Tanner notes.  All members of the Proof team can go.  The company foots the bill once they’re in country; employees just need to cover the cost of a plane ticket.

In India, they worked with the pioneers of eyecare innovation for the developing world, Aravind Eye Care, based in Madurai, a metropolis in South India.

“What really drew us to Aravind was the sustainable model,” Tanner says.  “The fact that they do all this good work but also have a revenue stream is impressive.”  Aravind employs a tiered pricing models: customers who can pay the 50 Rupees for three consultations, do so, but others who cannot are still treated for free.

“It allows for a sense of sustainability for the organization, because they didn’t have to constantly fundraise,” Tanner says.

The give-back attitude is entrenched in the founding team.

“We didn’t start this company to get rich.  There had to more to it,” Tanner iterates.  Since all three brothers had spent time, traveling and volunteering in developing countries, they wanted to incorporate this element into their business and bring along their staff.  This year, Proof Eyewear will be heading to Uganda.

But the impact isn’t limited to the developing world.  “We want to be an example in Boise,” Tanner points out.  The local community is as important as the international community, he says.  The team holds fundraisers and events to shed light on local challenges, be it preserving the environment or treatment for breast cancer.

The company likes to do outdoor activities with the team, as part of their company culture. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

The company likes to do outdoor activities with the team, as part of their company culture. Photo Courtesy of Proof Eyewear.

In fact employees can bring a social cause to the founders that they want to support.  “And we’re happy to jump in and see what we can do to help. We want our employees to be a part of the business in every way possible.”

That mindset lends itself to a laid-back (but tenacious) work environment as well.

Vierra Reid, who runs marketing at Proof says, “there is a great culture here where co-workers are friends and spend time hanging out outside of work.”  Examples include weekend hikes, picnics, and even road trips in an Air Stream.

“We intermix life with work.  It’s almost a blurry line,” Tanner notes.

That fluidity, along with their charitable program and sustainable sourcing, has led them to become a viable contender as a b corporation.  “We’re about 80% through the process right now and the rigor has really helped us address all aspects of the business,” he says. B corps emphasize a triple bottom line beyond profitability.

Though profitable today, the brothers started working out of a garage and living together.   There is no glamorous shortcut to building a business that tries to succeed in every aspect, not just on the book, says Tanner.

“We’re not that overnight success story that people are looking for these days.  It’s definitely been slower, gradual growth.  But that’s been good for us, and helped us figure out our vision along the way.”

A vision that should be adopted by more brands?