Growing from a single-person assembly line in an Atlanta apartment to now selling hundreds of thousands of pairs each year, Charleston-based Nectar Sunglasses wants you to sport your sunnies without fear of losing or breaking yet another pricey pair.
The company would not launch until 2012, but the road to Nectar's "Sweet Life" started in 2006, when founder Sean Holmes made the ultimate leap of faith. After playing baseball on scholarship for Virginia Commonwealth University, he left a semester before graduation and moved to Atlanta to follow an entrepreneurial hunch.
"I just had this gut feeling and told myself, 'I have to do this,'" Holmes said. "It was an opportunity I didn't want to miss out on."
- Ruta Smith
- Owner Sean Holmes says that he chose Charleston as home base because it fits the nectar brand
Under the guidance of mentor Keith Wellman, Holmes learned the basics of starting a business, the fundamentals of branding, building networks and relationships, and training his brain to create the mindset needed to run a company.
"A lot of it came through Keith's own experiences and from him feeding me books to grow and learn."
Using the knowledge from interning with Wellman, Holmes went on to start a physical fitness training business, dedicated to help people get in shape and eat right. However, the business didn't pan out, and Holmes shut it down after a year.
With a love for surfing, snowboarding, and skateboarding, Holmes came to the realization that sunglasses were an integral part of the culture of those sports. Everyone had a pair of shades and looked good wearing them. But just like the inherent risks involved with boardsports, there was another risk you took when buying those trendy sunglasses — the price you paid.
The correlation between good-looking sunglasses and the triple-digit prices attached to them didn't sit right with Holmes, and he decided to try to disrupt the industry.
In 2011, the idea of Nectar was born, dedicated to marketing "sweet glasses" to people enjoying "The Sweet Life."
- Nectar's TIDE
A year later, Nectar launched out of Holmes' Atlanta apartment. That apartment was not only the main office for Nectar, but also the assembly line and shipping center.
At launch, Nectar was built around the idea of customization to give each pair of shades their own unique design, while also stocking a few Nectar standards for those who want something simple and clean.
"I had boxes sitting all over my apartment, stacked like little towers with different pieces of sunglasses in each box," Holmes said. "When a customer order would come in through the website, I'd search the various boxes for the different pieces — like the left arm, right arm, frames — and literally assemble them by hand.
"When the order was finished, I wrapped the glasses in tissue paper and shipped them in those free USPS shipping boxes you can get from the post office.
"My thumbs would probably be falling off right now if I had continued doing that," Holmes laughed.
- Ruta Smith
- Housed in a tiny office space and warehouse, Nectar ships thousands of shades each year
But after filling custom orders and building each pair by hand over the course of Nectar's first year and a half, Holmes came to the conclusion that neither approach benefited the company.
"When we looked at the data for customized pairs, we realized there weren't many, and it ended up becoming a nightmare for inventory."
With no method or system to track the individual pieces of sunglasses, the customized orders affected the ability to fulfill orders for their standard line.
The hands-on experience of building and shipping orders gave Holmes an understanding of the complexities of the business, and inspired ways to make the company run more efficiently and smoothly. By designing the sunglasses in office, and teaming up with several overseas manufacturers for the past 4 years, Nectar's efficiency has improved from those days in Holmes' apartment.
- Nectar's Baeside
What used to be a solitary 6 minute process for fulfilling orders now takes a team of eight employees about 30 seconds, selling thousands of shades each year from their offices on James Island.
Success didn't come easy, though. The company spent years building its brand through various marketing efforts including social media advertising, branded content creation, influencer marketing, building relationships, and various other techniques that all helped the company to achieve international success.
Holmes had the option to move the company to California or to his home in Richmond, but he chose Charleston, which he felt was a part of the Nectar brand.
"We wanted to be doing what we were promoting, and Charleston felt like the place to do so," said Holmes. "It kept me near my roots, and was a place where I can go into the water and clear my head and not be bogged down or lost in the thick of everything."
These moments of clarity for Holmes are key parts of what he calls living that "Sweet Life."
"It shouldn't be a burden to wear sunglasses. People should be out experiencing things and finding moments in life to live for, not feeling guilty for buying expensive, name brand items to make them feel good," said Holmes about what makes Nectar different from other companies.
Today, Nectar shades sell online for $55 or less. For an added layer of insurance, Nectar offers lifetime replacements for $20, regardless of the design or pair.
"Doing this encourages people to live life and not worry about having to spend another $200 for another pair of sunglasses."
Their most popular pair is the classic wayfarer design, fitted for almost any face shape.
With the increased use of digital screens, Nectar's fastest-growing collection, the Cobalt Collection, features blue light-blocking filters, which are said to reduce digital eye strain.
- Ruta Smith
But with low prices, and companies like Ray Ban dominating the market, there may be some initial skepticism among consumers about the quality of Nectar's product.
"People just need to give us a chance. They won't know unless they try it. It's like restaurants — you have to eat there to figure out if you like them or not. With sunglasses, it's the same thing. You have to put them on first to see if you like them."
To expand their market and streamline their brand, Nectar plans to cut down on non-sunglasses products and start selling prescription lenses in the fall, bringing the company back to its roots in good-looking, high quality, and affordable shades.
Nectar is also donating a portion of proceeds to nonprofits working in the area like the Bee Cause Project, with hopes of expanding philanthropic efforts in the near future.
"We wanted to be a little more widespread and get involved with other organizations," Holmes said about Nectar's outreach plans. "We want to have a higher meaning than just a company that sells sunglasses."