Putting social cause at the heart of business
I recently spoke with John Pritchard, the founder of Pala Sunglasses, an ethical brand selling premium quality sunglasses whilst supporting life-changing vision projects in Africa.
John is passionate about making a difference, making sure that every person who buys Pala's sunglasses knows that they've made a positive impact on someone else's life. For every pair sold, Pala give a pair of prescription glasses to a person in Africa.
He has worked in advertising for the last twenty years beginning his career in print at News International. Having gravitated towards digital as that platform began to emerge, he spent 10 years at Microsoft in their Creative Advertising Solutions team. For the past year, he has been at AOL working as a Creative Strategist in their Partner Studios division.
In this interview, John talks about how he's used his daily commute to create Pala, building a vision centre in Zambia, weaving sunglass cases from recycled plastic bags, dos and don'ts of managing a business on top of a full-time job, and much more.
John, what made you start a business while working full-time?
I've spent much of my life working within corporate environments, mostly advertising, and I've always enjoyed the challenges and experience. However, when you ultimately break down what I do to a more basic level, I am really just the conduit for transfer of marketing money from one company to the benefit of another. As time has gone on, I have needed to find more purpose to my ‘work life’ - I don’t want to be sat in my rocking chair in thirty years’ time regretting not taking the chance to embrace that ambition and wondering what might have been.
I think it’s certainly a lot easier taking a risk at a younger age. I would now put myself firmly in the ‘middle age’ bracket and at this stage in my life I have a number of financial and family commitments, which means you can’t be so gung-ho and simply give up the day job. It’s a case off sustaining a regular income and growing my eyewear business until the point at which I can take a small salary and move into the business full-time.
Building a business with a social purpose
Why did you decide to have an ethical sunglasses brand as a business?
When I first started planning for my business there were other brands around at the time like Toms Shoes and Gandys. I liked the fact that there was a social cause at the heart of their business strategies and giving people an alternative choice in what were cluttered markets.
For me it was a case of identifying a cause first. Whatever I was going to create as a product needed a cause at the heart of it. An increasing awareness of the global issue of a lack of access to eye care sowed the seed of an idea. 10 per cent of the population can’t get access to eye care and yet a pair of spectacles can be so empowering for the wearer by virtue of being able to read, learn and work. Simple, but so effective.
How long was it in the making before its launch in July 2016?
The planning has been going on for the last five or six years. We officially launched in July 2016, having received the necessary financial backing from Nick Robertson, the founder of ASOS, to get Pala to launch.
Talk us through the concept, how does it work?
From the eyewear point of view, for every pair of sunglasses we sell, we give a pair of prescription glasses to projects in Africa.
How it works is that Pala provide grants to projects that our partner, charity Vision Aid Overseas, are working on in Africa. For example, the first project is the development of an eye centre within the Muchinga district in Zambia. The centre is attached to the main hospital and it will serve more than 750,000 people.
Pala is actually investing in infrastructure; we are training people up, providing all the hardware, the glazing equipment, all the stock (for the next 3 years) and the entire redecoration of the rooms. We have underwritten the cost for the full project and this will be looking to complete by then end of March this year.
How do you work out how much to donate per sale?
We know how many patients are expected to be treated by the vision centre in the first three years of operation. That gives us a cost per patient from the grant we’ve provided, and we take that patient costs from the sale of our sunglasses.
Have you had the chance to meet patients?
Yes – several, and many have an interesting story to tell. One girl I met said she had travelled with her uncle, by car and by train, just to get her pair of glasses. The round trip was more than 500km and was going to take them two days to get there and back. She was a teenager and just starting out at her next school. For her family it was important for their only child to hopefully succeed academically, achieve a good job in one of the big cities or overseas and bring an income back to the family.
How does someone from a small village hear about a Vision Aid Overseas project 500 kilometers away?
Vision Aid Overseas are one of the leading charities operating in Africa and consequently have significant awareness in the regions. I think mostly it is through a word of mouth that people hear about the projects and then the desire and determination to make the effort to visit one of their outreach projects. If your child has poor eyesight then you will try and seek out solutions to help them towards a better future.
PALA secured investment from Nick Robertson, the founder of ASOS. What do you think made your business stand out?
I met Nick at a networking event and I literally just caught him as he was leaving and told him about my idea. I knew he was going to be at that event and if I hadn’t gone and spoken to him, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.
We met about three weeks later but it still took 6 or 7 months before he invested in Pala. More than anything, he was trying to see how credible my idea was. He liked the ethical story behind what I was trying to achieve and clearly retail is an area he has considerable experience in.
Now we meet every 4-6 weeks and I give him updates. He’s put me in touch with other relevant parties along the way, like Care4Baskets who I work with on our sunglass cases.
What were your biggest challenges when you started?
Creating a brand identity for my target audience of twenty-somethings. I am forty-something(!) so I had to get into the headspace of what that target audience look for, what they like in a brand, where they shop etc. This meant a lot of researching with the target audience to help inform my decisions. I might like a particular sunglass style or a style of photoshoot campaign, but I have to remind myself that I’m not the core buyer of our sunglasses.
You went through a legal battle over a logo, how did you deal with that?
When I first started out, I had a different brand name and I got challenged by one of the biggest optical firms in Germany about my logo being too similar to theirs. Frankly it was an absurd challenge as I was using an entirely different letter, so rather than back down I refuted their challenge.
And you won the case?
Yes, we went to a judicial review and I won the challenge. By the time it had all finished, it was almost a year. When you’re trying to market a product with a logo on your sunglasses, you then have to wait until it can get cleared, so it was frustrating in the sense that it slowed progress for a time.
What other challenges do you face as a start-up?
When you are starting out, costs are really critical and when you are looking for services whether that be legal, design or web development, for example, you have to spend a good deal of time finding that right person to work with. It’s individuals/freelancers that I have sought out rather than larger companies as I tend to find I want a more tailored experience and better value that way.
What you need is someone who understands your position as a start-up and will grow with you as the business grows. There’s a loyalty element at play here and it seems to be working well so far.
You work full-time and commute between Brighton and London. How do you manage everything?
The biggest challenge for me is without doubt time, as I never seem to have enough of it. I’ve got a 9-6 job in London and I live in Brighton which is almost a 4-hour daily commute.
But I turned what normally people see as a negative into a positive in the sense that the train journey is actually a very useful time. I always get a table so I get an hour solid each way and that’s a really good time to work on my business.
I also go to work early when the office is quiet so I try to pinch an hour a day that way too.
Would you let someone else run the parts of your business so you could get more free time?
At the moment, I still do all the social media and marketing but at some point very soon someone else will need to take it on as that is very time consuming. This will free me up to focus more on the operational things but even then that would be something I would expect to delegate as the business grows.
Design & Production
What’s the best place to find out about latest trends in eyewear?
Twice a year we go to the biggest optical fairs in Europe where you get the insight into all the trends for next season. There is one in Paris called Silmo and Mido in Milan, Italy. They are big trade shows where all of the optical/sunglass manufacturers meet. We go there as a team, look at what the forthcoming trends are and use that as inspiration for our own collections.
How long does it take to design a pair of sunglasses and where are they produced?
The design process takes about 2 months. We use custom made acetates so it takes another 90 days to produce. It’s almost a 6-month process by the time we’re finished
The sunglasses are made in China by an ethically audited factory and all our packaging is made out of recycled material or is FSC approved. My whole ethos is to provide good quality eyewear at a really affordable price.
Finding use for recycled plastic waste
As well as sunglasses, you also sell unique cases woven from recycled plastic waste in Ghana. Who are the weavers and what's been working with them like?
There are 3 communities making the cases. They are based in Bolgatanga, Upper East Ghana, which is about 12 hours bus journey from the capital Accra.
There is a weaving community there which has traditionally always woven products from straw. They’re a talented group of people but they are restricted by the seasonal availability of straw to around 3 months of the year. So they weave our sunglass cases using recycled plastic waste.
How do you make sunglass cases out of recycled plastic waste?
We weave with material from a combination of recycled plastic bags and plastic waste material from the manufacturing process.
Any of the waste from our own weaving process (about 18 kgs per 1000 kgs) then goes back to the system to be recycled, so there’s a zero waste.
For the bags that have been collected and re-used, we need to ensure we pay for someone to wash, cut and then twisted into strands for weaving. There is quite a chain of events!
I read that you also use recycled water sachets?
Yes, if you look at the inside of some of the cases, you might see a white core underneath the finished black weave. Those are water sachets that have been handed out by other charities and have simply been discarded. People drink them and just drop empty sachets on the ground so we use them to make our cases.
Weaving sunglass cases
How has the idea to have woven sunglass cases actually come about?
I work with Jib Hagan who has a charity called Care4Basket. He is running the operation in Bolgatanga working with the weavers. He and I discussed working on a case design and after several prototypes we ended up with the simple design we have today. For the weavers it was a new challenge and they’ve quickly become competent at producing them. In our latest shipment of cases, each one comes with a label that has the name of the weaver that wove it. It’s a nice personal touch and they are very proud to put their name to their work.
What were the first woven cases like?
From the first batch I’ve got, there were quite a few misshapen cases but very quickly the quality has really picked up to a point where very few fail the quality assurance. I like the quirkiness of the cases, it makes them feel more authentic.
How often do you get to go to Africa to visit the weavers and the vision centre?
I tend to combine a trip with when Vision Aid are going out to one of their outreach projects with a team of volunteer optometrists. During that time, they see hundreds of people from remote areas. I intend to get to Ghana this year to meet the weavers and film their story. It’s really important that I connect our customers with the direct impact they are having.
How would you like the future of PALA look like?
In the short term, I would like to be in a position where I can take an income that will enable me to move full-time into the business. I’m probably 14-16 months away. In the medium term, it will be about establishing and consolidating ourselves as a globally recognised brand for affordable sunglasses that do good. From there on, it’s a case of looking at how we can expand the business in other directions, whether that be going into prescription frames ourselves or sunglasses for kids which is a market, I think, is overlooked.
Will you be adding more products?
I need to grow the collection first. At the moment, we only have 5 styles but as of next March, we’ll increase to have 10 styles (24 skus in total). I think a healthy number of styles is somewhere between 25-30 so as we grow we will add! The eyewear industry is massive and very much monopolised by two or three big companies, but I think if I can get it right we can really put in a good challenge!
Advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs
If you were to give advice to aspiring social entrepreneurs, what are some of the do’s and don'ts of running a business with a full-time job?
- Find time for your family
- Smash your TV up (I can't remember the last thing I saw on TV - it's been that long. I do find the radio an excellent substitute!)
- Find blocks of time to work on your business and be disciplined about it
- Outsource to get your time back
- Get up early rather than go to bed late
- Don’t work from home (find a library or a café and work from there; it’s easy to look for distraction at home)
- Don’t write yourself a long list of things to do (give yourself 3 things to do really well and you get there faster)