How Two Friends Launched a $2 Million Sunglasses Brand

It started with a salsa bowl, some cheap Australian sunglasses, and a little help from Kickstarter. Now, Sunski is making waves—and its founders are living the dream.

Oct 1, 2014
Outside Magazine

Sunski founders Stewart (left) and Charley's first business venture was actually an attempt to make a better salsa bowl.    Photo: Joe Pugliese

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With their upstart company Sunski, twentysomethings Tom Stewart and Michael Charley have seriously shaken up the sunglasses industry. How'd they pull that off? With perfect timing, some savvy branding, and a silly little bowl designed to help you get more dip on your chips. Oh hell, maybe it was just luck.

2004: During his junior year in high school, sketching on a napkin, Tom creates a concept for the perfect ceramic salsa bowl. It features a curved lip that helps keep the salsa on your chip after dipping.

Tom: "We'd commiserate over Gchat:'There must be something better out there.'"

May 2009: With the Great Recession in full swing, Michael and Tom graduate from Columbia University with degrees in economics and architecture, respectively. Michael scores a job deleting pornography from a social-networking site. Tom gets an internship studying digital fabrication under a Swiss architect in Zurich. Both are unhappy.

June 2009: The guys come up with a plan. They will mass-produce Tom’s salsa bowl. Product name: Salsabol. They research manufacturing facilities in China.

November 2009: Tom takes a three-month surf trip to Australia, collecting souvenirs along the way. At a beach shack, he buys a handful of cheap, brightly colored, vintage 1980s sunglasses. He starts wearing them all the time.

March 2010: First order of 3,000 Salsabols placed. They will be shipped from China to Tom’s grandfather’s house in New Jersey. 
(He has a big garage.)

May 2010: First shipment of Salsabols arrives. More than two-thirds of them are defective. The guys focus their energy on quality control.

June 2010: Both guys move into Tom’s childhood home in South Philadelphia, where they share Tom’s bedroom. Michael sleeps on an inflatable mattress on the floor. When the mattress is fully inflated, it’s impossible to open the door to the room. They build their website and start cold-calling retailers.

December 2010: Salsabol’s founders relocate to Lake Tahoe.

Michael: "We'd call East Coast businesses in the morning, ski from 9 A.M. until 3 P.M., then work into the evening."

May 2011: The guys move to San Francisco and find affordable apartments just before the Bay Area real estate rebound gets going.

Tom: "We wanted to be in a place where we could surf, sail, hike, and ski."

May 2011–March 2012: Salsabol limps along. The founders eat lots of Annie’s mac and cheese.

Tom: "We were 23-year-old guys going to trade shows, trying to sell a product for housemakers. It wasn't working."

April 2012: The guys are ready to give up on Salsabol. They go surfing. Afterward, they’re on the beach and Tom is wearing his vintage shades. A man walks up to him and says, “Those are rad sunglasses.” He’s the buyer for a local surf shop.

Tom: "That was it. We thought, Maybe we can get out of kitchenware and into a project we care about."

July 2012: Sunski launches on Kickstarter with an initial funding goal of $9,800. It reaches that in two days. Within two weeks, the campaign tops $30,000. By the end it brings in $157,000, giving Sunski the third-largest fundraising for fashion products at the time. 

Tom: "We got lucky. Our initial price was $30. At that time, there were two tiers for sunglasses: $10 no-name cheapos or $150 and up. Nobody was doing branded sunglasses between $30 and $60."

Summer 2012: Things start moving fast. Thanks to Salsabol, the guys already have relationships with a trusted manufacturer and freight shippers. Thanks to Tom’s training in Switzerland, he can create 3-D models. They target Christmas as the delivery date for the first Sunski sunglasses to consumers.

December 2012: After a near meltdown with the FDA—the guys had overlooked some critical paperwork—they receive 6,000 pairs of sunglasses. They cajole Michael’s sister, then a raft guide, to help them ship everything out to customers in a four-day marathon.

Tom: "We needed a space to handle shipping and found this studio that was supposed to be for artists. They asked us what our medium was, and we were like, 'Um... cardboard.'"

2013: Sunski’s distribution formula takes shape. A third are sold direct to consumers via, a third through U.S. retailers, and a third through international distributors.

2014: As of September, Sunski is on pace to sell 50,000 pairs of sunglasses by the end of the year. In August, the guys launch a new Sunski watch on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, with a goal of $23,000.

Tom: "The biggest benefit of launching a product on a crowdfunding platform isn't the money. It's the loyal customers. We get feedback on our products in a healthy environment."
Michael: "We owe a lot to Salsabol, even if it failed as a business. But I swear it was a fantastic product!"

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