VOL. 9 | NO. 37 | Saturday, September 10, 2016
The Eyes Have It
By Don Wade
Years ago, Peggy White drove around town in a replica MG3. The car got a lot of looks, and White got a lot of compliments. Today, however, it’s White’s face that is turning heads. Specifically, her eyeglasses and the chameleon-like makeover she can create from one day to another.
Eclectic Eye retail manager Lindy Faulkner repairs a set of sunglasses at the company's Midtown store in Cooper-Young.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Each morning before she heads out to start her day as a pharmaceutical senior sales rep, she sorts through her many pairs of eyeglasses – red frames, blue, black, green, gray and white – in different shapes and sizes.
“Whatever suit or dress I’m wearing, I pick my glasses to match,” said White, who is 66. “I don’t have to wear glasses full-time, but I wear them and I wanted something good-looking, something unique that made a statement.”
Go back more than 15 years to when Robbie Johnson Weinberg and her husband and optometrist Michael Weinberg were first thinking of opening an eyeglass “boutique” in Midtown. Peggy White, although they had not yet met, and people like her were just who they had in mind.
There was no shortage of naysayers when the Weinbergs spoke to real estate agents and Michael’s colleagues about the idea of planting their niche business in Midtown. The common wisdom then: set up shop in the suburbs east of the city.
“No way a business like this will work in Memphis,” Michael recalled his peers saying.
But their vision, if you will, was a different one. Michael had grown up working in his father’s optometry lab. Ken Weinberg, in fact, still operates his own practice. Robbie had a degree in art history from then-Memphis State and a long track record of managing local restaurants, including Paulette’s.
Armed with research from the University of Memphis that showed Midtown had enough income in the nearest ZIP codes to support the business they had in mind, and with the knowledge that Midtown was lacking a place to get both optometry care and stylish eyeglasses, they opened Eclectic Eye at 242 Cooper St. in 2002, signing a 10-year lease.
“Overton Square was dead,” Robbie said, recalling the state of things back then. “Jimmy Lewis and his (real estate) partner were developing this corner. Jimmy was involved with Midtown Yoga. He just got what we were doing and was developing this planned urban development. He and his partner boosted our confidence this could work.”
Robbie says their business plan set $350,000 as the target for revenue in the first year.
“We had done that by six months,” she said. “So trying to ramp up from that and keep a high level of service, figure out what labs were working for us (they have their own lab now), was incredibly challenging.
“They were great problems, but great problems doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any easier to deal with.”
Eclectic Eye co-founder Robbie Johnson Weinberg: 'I'm a huge fan of the city and don't take a position that one area is better than another.'
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared
Robbie Weinberg, who is co-founder and director of operations for Eclectic Eye, will share the story of their business success as part of her keynote address on Thursday, Sept. 15, at The Daily News Publishing Co. Small Business program that is part of the newspaper’s ongoing Seminar Series. The event begins at 3:30 p.m. at the Brooks Museum with a wine and cheese reception to follow. Registration is $25 and can be made at seminars.memphisdailynews.com.
Panelists for the Small Business Seminar will include Meka Egwuekwe, co-founder and executive director at CodeCrew; Elizabeth Lemmonds, director of talent programming at EPICenter Memphis; and Josh Horton, founder/director of Creative Works.
Weinberg believes Eclectic Eye’s experience can be instructive for others in small business or for people contemplating starting a business.
“Any small business runs the risk of operating in a vacuum or on an island,” she said. “The reality for a small business is to assemble the right team quickly, rely on other people’s expertise, don’t try to do it all yourself. You might need an accountant and you might need an IT person and it’s not all free.”
In 2014, the Greater Memphis Chamber started EPICenter – short for Memphis Entrepreneurship Powered Innovation Center. The goal was ambitious – creating 1,000 entrepreneurs and 50 new companies locally over the next decade.
For a community such as Memphis, that puts added emphasis on expanding reach to women and minorities.
“Not every entrepreneur has equal access to those resources,” EPICenter’s Lemmonds said. “Numbers locally and elsewhere bear out that minority and women business owners are disproportionately impacted. One of our core missions is to help level the playing field.”
Egwuekwe, a co-founder of CodeCrew, is open about the inequity and its impact. Not just in practical terms, but also in how it can sabotage an entrepreneur almost before he or she has gotten started.
“The single biggest challenge is that too many people often presume inferiority when it comes to women and minorities and the businesses they lead,” he said. “This is so pervasive a problem that even women and minorities themselves too often believe this lie, often doubt themselves and others like them.”
CodeCrew’s mission is to make the skill of software programming accessible and to make it easier for young people, particularly minorities, to have an opportunity to learn about it and see if it’s a career path and perhaps one day the foundation for starting a business.
“The great thing about tech is how much more equalizing the field is compared to other areas,” Egwuekwe said. “While women and minorities are woefully underrepresented, those who do manage to get access and experience can still be very successful entrepreneurs in tech. That's not to say that the problem doesn't exist in tech – it very much does – but I do think that the barriers to success can be more practically overcome in tech than perhaps in other spaces due to the high value of possessing these skills.”
Certainly, Eclectic Eye and CodeCrew are both examples of the founders forging ahead because they believed in what they were doing and where they were doing it. Horton, of Creative Works, says that’s about as Memphis as it gets.
“People who create products, places, and experiences rooted in conviction will be successful, compared to someone simply exploiting a financial opportunity in the market,” said Horton. “In Memphis, authenticity trumps almost anything.”
Eye on the Prize
While Eclectic Eye customer Peggy White embraced the marriage of style and substance with her eyewear, Doug Carpenter was a little reluctant at first. Carpenter is forward thinking in his business – he’s the principal of DCA (Doug Carpenter + Associates), a creative communication consulting firm – but he was old school about his fashion sense when it came to eyeglasses.
When he first went to Eclectic Eye eight years ago, he says they brought him up to date with new frames. He concedes he’s probably due for another update in his daily wear, but he also has become more adventurous and on those infrequent occasions when he wears a suit he now puts on his “Buddy Holly glasses,” or as his family and friends call them, his “party glasses.”
But Carpenter is most impressed with the way the Eclectic Eye office runs, that employees are practically tripping over one another to provide focused assistance, and all the follow-up after a visit, an exam, and a fitting.
“Their level of customer service is about as fine-tuned as anything I’ve experienced in any industry in the city,” Carpenter said.
It is perhaps why the business started fast and by 2006 Robbie and Michael Weinberg were opening a second location in a strip center in Collierville. In 2012, when their lease was up at the Midtown location, they purchased the building, which also houses a State Farm office.
“We have done tremendously here,” Robbie said. “We’ve always felt embraced by the community. We’ve always had growth-over-growth years. We were just committed to this area. So having Overton Square come back is a huge bonus.”
With growth comes evolution, but they have been careful, too. Initially, they accepted health insurance. They no longer do.
“Something had to change,” Michael said. “At some point, I was working for the insurance provider instead of the patient.”
In truth, it took several years for them to find out exactly who they are, who they can serve best, and how they can best serve them. Michael sees fewer than 10 patients a day now, but the business is more profitable than it was in the early years when he was seeing more patients.
The retail range of their frames is from $225 to $675, with a few frames stretching to $1,200. The average price is $400. Drawing on her art history background, Robbie calls their eyewear “little pieces of art for your face” and Eclectic Eye is very much a supporter of the arts; Robbie estimates that they have had about 90 art shows at their Midtown location since they opened.
Carpenter has attended several of them and wound up leaving with more eyeglasses – a pair of sunglasses for himself or his wife or his daughter. White also attends the shows.
“They will not let you walk out wearing something that does not look good on you,” White said.
“We have a strong network of independent opticals across the country,” Robbie said, adding that she travels to New York and other locales to stay ahead on styles and trends. “It needs to be independent. We’re an independent business. It’s not a big manufacturing retailer like a Luxottica that owns Ray-Ban.”
As an independent business owner, Robbie took a stand during the height of the Greensward controversy by putting up a banner outside the business in support of preserving the green space. She says she “felt a responsibility to be vocal about the importance of Overton Park for our entire community.
“It was not an easy position,” she said. “I did have a couple of irritated customers. One in particular whose husband worked for the zoo. Her livelihood is affected. I could empathize with her.”
Robbie and Michael live in Midtown, close enough to their office in fact that Robbie sometimes walks or bikes to work. But with an office in Collierville, too, the Weinbergs also view the small business community with a wide lens. So, for her part, Robbie will not buy into the notion that small businesses inside the loop and outside the loop are at least subconsciously pitted against one another.
“I don’t,” she said. “I’m a Memphian. I’m a huge fan of the city and don’t take a position that one area is better than another. There’s a lot of opportunity here for us to embrace. We’re all here to be successful across the city.”