The founder of Dicks Cottons and Shades Club came up with the idea for premium-but-affordable sunglasses while sailing the Adriatic Sea—and never looked back.
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Rich Amundson came up with his big idea after running into a problem of his own. In his case, it involved a sailing trip to Croatia—that would go on to change his life.
In 2009, Amundson was a burned-out real-estate broker living and working (too hard) in New York. He had planned a sailing trip with friends in the Adriatic Sea, in part to help him clear his head and focus on his potential next chapter. As he prepared for the Balkans adventure, he went shopping for a few pairs of sunglasses—and discovered his only real options were overpriced designer shades, or crappy knockoffs being hawked on Manhattan street corners. Why, he wondered, wasn’t there an option in the middle?
While at sea, Amundson started sketching a pair of sunglasses. A lifelong wanderluster, he became fixated on the idea of creating a line of premium-but-affordable sunglasses inspired by his own travel. Not long after returning to the Big Apple, he quit his job, enrolled in design school, created a prototype, found a manufacturer, released his first pair for $49—and the journey began.
He named the brand Dicks Cottons, after his grandfather, “Papa Dick”—a fellow adventurer, who also happened to be an optometrist and first sparked Amundson’s interest in eyewear. In the early days of social media, Dicks Cottons became something of an overnight sensation, landing fans including Snoop Dogg, Kourtney Kardashian, NFL star Rob Gronkowski, actress Sharon Stone, and everyday customers across the globe.
Today, much of his focus is on Shades Club, a spinoff subscription sunglasses service he launched in 2015 with his co-founder, T.J. Eaton. The almost-accidental concept blew away its initial Kickstarter goal, and now Shades Club releases a new style monthly to its growing roster of subscribers.
We recently caught up with Amundson at his Orlando outpost, to learn more about betting big on a big idea and what it means—as the Dicks Cottons slogan says—to “be happy, live comfortably.”
Within six months, you went from showing apartment listings to making sunglasses. You had to be a little nervous about this leap. What was the “a-ha” moment, when you realized it might actually work out?
I would say when I got a bunch of samples back before the initial launch, and I started giving them out to friends. And they said they’ve never gotten more compliments about their sunglasses and questions about who made them. My feelings were a mixture of excitement and confidence that a new, unique product at an affordable price point would allow people to accessorize their sunglasses like they do their shoes and handbags—so they can have multiple pairs for every occasion in life, different colors to match their outfits, and build up their collection of sunglasses instead of owning just one or two expensive pairs.
Additionally, upon digging in and researching the industry, I learned that one company controls almost the entire eyewear industry, and therefore, it was prime for disruption due to the extremely high and aggressive markups set by this company.
Were you scared to go out on your own?
It was March 2010 and I quit my job the day before a trip to Vegas and I told my bosses I wasn’t coming back. And to their surprise, I had to explain to them that I was starting a new company. I went to Vegas, and then LA for a month, and never looked back. I wasn’t scared, because sometimes you just have a feeling that it’s the right thing to do and is pulling you in one direction. I was so sick of my other job, it was a no-brainer.
And now you’re onto Shades Club. What’s that all about?
Shades Club grew from demand of our Dicks Cottons customers. As we predicted, people kept coming back to purchase more and more sunglasses, almost on a monthly basis. And most of our customers ended up collecting between five and 15 pairs. Some up to 100. Upon seeing this trend, we decided to figure out how to make this even better for our customers—so we launched Shades Club on Kickstarter to see if there was a market for it. Shades Club is a monthly subscription service for sunglasses, where you get premium sunglasses every month for less than $30. We’re able to cut out even more markups due to the nature of the subscription-box business, which gives us guaranteed orders every month and a predictable ordering volume. On Kickstarter, within 60 days, we raised $360,000. So we knew there was demand for the idea.
Why are you passionate about sunglasses?
It’s impossible to have a bad time when you’re wearing sunglasses. It’s usually an indication that you’re outdoors, enjoying the sunshine, doing something you love—whether it’s hiking or at the beach with your friends. So we really want to promote that lifestyle of being happy, living comfortably, and enjoying life with your family and friends outdoors.
Travel has always been a cornerstone of your brands. Why is travel important?
It goes back to the roots of the brand, that it started out because of a trip with friends. You know, we didn’t really know at the beginning if it would just be a friends-of-friends brand. But the interesting thing is that our customers have taken on the same mentality of traveling with their sunglasses—and they take pictures of their shades and send to us on Twitter and Instagram. Our sunglasses have been photographed at almost every world monument, the Seven Wonders of the World. Doing some rough calculations, we estimated that we’ve traveled 50 million miles with our customers. A lot of our designs are inspired by our travels, and when a pair is finalized, it’s named after the destination it’s inspired by, such as the British Virgin Islands, Cape Cod, Turks and Caicos, St. Barts, Monaco, Amalfi.
What has your own personal and professional journey taught you?
The journey has taught me to try to enjoy every day, try not to get stressed out by the little things, and that happiness is simplifying life to a perfect blend of hard work on your passion, exercise, nutrition, travel, charity, and relaxation with loved ones. And if you have a business idea, life is short—so go for it.
What has been your most memorable trip?
There are too many to name. I would say the first one—the one to Croatia—where everything changed. When I got back, I enrolled in fashion school at night and pursued this idea. Without that trip, none of this would’ve happened, because I never would’ve gone shopping for sunglasses.
Any favorite travel keepsakes?
On a recent sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands, I picked up a copy of Richard Branson’s book Losing My Virginity to read along the way. As it turns out, halfway through the trip, I learned that one of our customers actually lives on Richard’s private Necker Island and invited us there on a tour. That was probably one of the most incredible experiences. The pictures we have from there will last a lifetime. But I would say most of my best keepsakes are the experiences that happen while traveling, as opposed to any particular item I’ve picked up. But that book really was foreshadowing that just a few days later, we would be on his island—randomly and completely out of the blue.
As someone who has developed two successful fashion brands now, what are your thoughts on American Made Supply Co.?
From the unboxing experience to wearing it, everything has been exceptional. The clothing fits perfectly—so comfortable, I’ve gotten many compliments, including people trying to steal my sweatshirt. It’s premium quality, it looks good, it makes you feel good, and can’t really say anything better about a piece of clothing. That’s what you want from it. They hit all three of those on the head. And I’ve been wearing it almost exclusively every day.
All your travel has obviously shaped your view of the world. So what does it mean to you to be “American Made”?
What it means to me is that we should never take anything for granted and that we are pretty lucky to live in such a beautiful country and have a lot of opportunities here that many in other countries don’t. And if you’re ever not happy in your situation, there’s hundreds of amazing places to live in America that you can easily move to. The opportunity to learn about anything you want, even something that just comes to mind, is everywhere. Especially living in New York, the fashion hub of the world, allowed me to go to school for it and learn about a new industry I had literally zero experience in. If I lived somewhere else, that might never have been possible.
By Rod Kurtz