Chase Fisher had his multimillion-dollar business idea at a San Diego nightclub in 2011.
Fisher, who had just graduated from San Diego State University, was surprised by how many people were complimenting the cheap, neon green sunglasses he was wearing as an accessory: "They were like, 'Those are so cool. Where'd you get those? Let me try them on,'" Fisher tells CNBC Make It.
It spawned the idea for what's now a $90 million business: Blenders Eyewear.
The reaction to his cheap shades made Fisher realize there was an untapped market for stylish sunglasses that weren't as expensive as name-brands, which he could cash in on.
Fisher borrowed $2,000 from his roommate and launched the sunglasses company Blenders Eyewear (named after Hornblend, the street he lived on). Fisher started to sell his product out of his backpack on the beach where he worked as a surf instructor.
Within three years, Blenders made over $1 million in revenue. And in December 2019, Blenders was valued at $90 million after Italian eyewear company, the Safilo Group, announced it would acquire 70% of the company.
"I was a surf coach. I would be spending nine hours a day at the beach just noticing people and the expensive sunglasses that they were wearing," Fisher, now 32, says. He bought his own sunglasses at Target, because he "couldn't afford the shades I actually wanted," like Gucci, Oakley or Ray-Ban, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
"There wasn't really a competitor or a brand that was in between that offered a cool style sunglass at a price point that was affordable and quality and comfortable," he says. So "I decided to go out and create our own."
The idea of starting his own business was also motivating to Fisher, who had always struggled in school due to dyslexia. "In the darkest of times and in the lowest of your life, you can create opportunity," he says.
So in 2011, Fisher started Blenders with his neighbor, Blake Jensen, a graphic designer. Jensen created a few mockups of sunglasses and the pair shared them on Facebook to seek feedback.
"I hustled to get fans to that Facebook group," inviting all of his friends and family, Fisher says of the company's first social media presence, which amassed 1,500 followers over a few months. "Before we knew it, we had hundreds of likes and a lot of people [complimenting the sunglasses' design]."
Those positive reactions validated Fisher's idea and gave him the confidence to ask his roommate to borrow the $2,000 with a promise to pay back the loan with a 25% return (or a total of $2,500) in six months.
Fisher then spent eight months trying to bring his designs to life, researching online and googling things like "how to find a manufacturer" and looking for negotiating tips. When he found a manufacturer, his first order was for 300 pairs of sunglasses – which cost the entire $2,000 loan – featuring black frames, red detailing and the brand's signature pair of stripes on the arms.
In 2012, Fisher went to sell Blenders for the first time. He got a booth at an entrepreneur fair in San Diego and priced his sunglasses at about $20 each.
Hoping to sell all of his product, Fisher was extremely disappointed to only sell 10 pairs, which he called "the most humbling experience." Customers at the fair were looking for different styles of frames and more vibrant colors.
"When you're 22, you just graduated college, you have this young mentality, like 'I'm going to take on the world and anything I do is going to turn to gold and it's going to be easy,'" he says. "And sure enough, you fall flat on your face."
Fisher almost quit, but then received advice that kept him going: "Someone said, 'The only way you're going to fail is if you stop."
Riding a new wave of motivation, Fisher made branded stickers that he "slapped" on street signs to advertise; he sold his $20 sunglasses at pool parties, concerts, festivals or on the beach while teaching surf lessons; and he established connections with popular DJs and local musicians who wore Blenders sunglasses for free while performing sets.
"I'd be going to the bank every night and depositing 40 to 60 bucks and reinvesting it in the company," he says. And although Fisher was cash-strapped, he still managed to pay his roommate back within six months as promised. But to keep the business afloat, Fisher's own salary came last in line. "It took me two years to pay myself $1,000," says Fisher, who continued to work as a surf coach to pay the bills.
Still, by the summer of 2012, Fisher was out of money. So he turned to crowdfunding.
"We didn't know anything about investors," says Fisher. And "this was the cool, new way to do it." Fisher and Jensen started a 30-day Indiegogo campaign, where they pitched "vibrant, polarized, designer sunglasses."
At the end of the campaign, Blenders raised $7,000 through nearly 200 investors.
"At that time, it was the most money I'd ever seen. It was like I had a million dollars. It really felt like I hit the jackpot," says Fisher, who used the money to manufacture more sunglasses with different color schemes.
Blenders' sales slowly grew and by the end of 2012, the company had generated about $8,000 in revenue.
In 2013, Fisher began experimenting with using Instagram as a marketing tool, both for communicating with customers as well as reaching influencers who would post images of Blender sunglasses in exchange for a free pair.
Famous musicians, like Snoop Dogg, wore Blenders at concerts and events. Athletes, like surfer Lakey Peterson, wore them at competitions.
"We were getting a lot of followers and a lot of eyes on the product," going from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of followers within a few months (Blenders currently has 480,000 Instagram followers), and sales started to pick up.
In 2013, Blenders generated six figures in revenue, and that figure topped $1 million in 2015 after Fisher added snow goggles to the product line, he said.
Despite that "huge achievement," Fisher says his focus never wavered from "keeping the business healthy and profitable."
"There wasn't this massive moment and celebration. It was more of, 'OK, we've cracked a million. Now, let's get $5 million,'" Fisher says.
In December 2019, Blenders was valued at $90 million after the Safilo Group announced it would acquire 70% of the company, with Fisher to remain CEO of Blenders, focusing on product production and distribution. That year, Blenders generated nearly $41 million in revenue.