Sam Whitten of Hemp Eyewear talks to Business Matters about his brand and some of the biggest challenges he has faced so far.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
For my final project at university, I was inspired by my desire to find long term sustainable solutions after learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Initially, I started by creating glasses frames from recycled plastics, but after more research I learnt of hemp. We have since been pioneering the use of organic hemp fibre in all of our products. The eyewear has been successful over the last few years and now we are able to launch sister product lines.
I founded Hemp Eyewear after graduation. My university pollution project truly inspired me to take action and thus I pursued the mission to bring hemp in various forms to the public, showcasing the super crop and raising awareness it’s many benefits. Recently I have been exploring and experimenting with new ways in which our products can keep pushing boundaries in sustainable design and natural materials ie. Pineapple leather straps for watches and natural dyes within eyewear.
What is your point of difference?
One of the first businesses on the market to explore the use of hemp as a massively sustainable alternative and the world’s first hemp fibre eyewear product. We have recently launched the world’s first hemp watch, too.
How do you spread the word about your business?
We have a strong social media presence, with over 10k active Instagram followers and have regular press features in covers such as Business Insider, Designboom and various fashion magazines.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted business?
We have been lucky to have benefitted in many ways from the pandemic. We have taken the last year as an opportunity to reflect on the direction of the business and focus our efforts on product development. This has allowed us to finally put plans into motion, for example, the launch of a specialist design studio and fundraising for out new hemp watches.
Unfortunately, this has not entirely been true for our clients, many of whom have seen a significant decline in business. This has had a direct impact on our sales, however, we are beginning to see a boost as many areas of the world experience an easing of restrictions and increase in footfall for businesses.
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
As mentioned above, there have been difficulties with cash flow and sales. This is always one of the hardest things for any business with a start-up structure and the stability of the business can be reliant upon the success of this. As an ‘ideas person’ the organisational aspect of business has been a skill I have had to develop.
Have you received any financial support for your business?
Yes, there has been some Government help through various schemes such as the By Design grant from Scottish Enterprise and I have won the YOUNG EDGE award in the Scottish business awards program named ‘Scottish Edge’.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Especially when starting out, there was noticeable resistance from the market. This was largely due to the perceptions surrounding hemp at the time as well as product quality at the beginning. But over the last few years, our product quality is fantastic and we pride ourselves on this. Also there has been a boom in interest in CBD oils and natural alternatives as people become increasingly health and environmentally conscious. Luckily the reception has significantly shifted to a more positive nature regarding hemp and there are booming businesses within the industry.
If I was to name one, it would be the decision made at the beginning of this business when I chose to outsource the production of our eyewear frames with a company in the UK. It fell significantly short of expectations, making it a huge setback when first starting off, and I had to basically start again from scratch after spending almost all of the initial budget.
Bringing production of our eyewear frames in house was the best decision we made. Everything is done in our manufactory now and we have direct control over the quality control and design edits or prototyping take one day instead of three months.
What are your three golden rules for success?
Passion. Without passion, it’s impossible to have the level of commitment that is crucial to creating, managing and building a start-up. With all the obstacles faced when initially following my dream, I think that it’s my passion that helps me to persevere through the difficulties past and present. And having a team who shares my passion also boosts the overall energy here.
Unconventional. This is the second most important rule to me. I always ask myself “what’s the point of doing something that someone else is already doing” and I think that’s essential to the success of the business so far. We were the first people really utilising hemp in such a way and we still have so many more innovations to come. Being unique and different from the crowd fuels each step taken forward at this business.
Lastly, planning. I believe that making schedules and plans is part of an effective business model, whether this is in a simple to-do list or a detailed weekly planner, time management is key. I always tell my team that if they think a task will take an hour, then schedule it to take double that as unexpected things always get in the way. Also taking time off is crucial and planning for this is key to avoid burnout.
I couldn’t run my business without…?
My team. I spent the first five years of this business running it alone, handling all the manufacturing, social media, content creation, press and more. In hindsight, I can’t believe that I was able to do that for such a long time. Nowadays my team is truly helping me to develop this business and we’re now able to take substantial steps forward.
What’s next for your business?
As mentioned above, the last year has been an amazing opportunity for us to develop ideas that we have been sitting on for several years. We have been able to put into motion and raise funds for the world’s first hemp fibre watch and by working with Annas Anum, we are able to make it 100% vegan too. Additionally, we will soon be launching our ‘Hemp Design Studio’ which will be the next big step. This will be the design consultancy arm of the business where we will design and develop new hemp products for other companies.