Introducing Ed Bird: Style and Substance
If you were to trawl through the RSPB Handbook of British Birds, you would find some pretty rare feathered-friends. However, I would challenge you to find a more intriguing breed than Exeter’s own Ed Bird, owner and founder of Bird Sunglasses.
Founded in March 2017 by Ed and his brothers, Bird Sunglasses has already won awards, and received national exposure in the media. It really is a company that has spread its wings and taken flight (don’t worry; there are plenty more bird puns where that came from!).
At a very basic level, their raison d’être is to make beautiful hand-crafted frames for sunglasses using sustainable materials and, sat at the core of their business, is an ethos and approach that inherently places people over profit.
During a couple of visits to our Grow Offices, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ed to pick his brains and find out more about his socially conscious, highly popular sunglasses brand.
Ed, thanks so much for coming to hang out. Perhaps a good place to start would be to find out a little about what drove you to launch your own lifestyle fashion brand?
Well, I come from a family of designers so, for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to create a product. We had also been brought up in our family to think about giving back to those around us and to have a social conscience. I had heard about the work that a charity called SolarAid were doing in parts of Africa, where 598 million people live without electricity, instead using toxic, dangerous and expensive fuel-powered lamps as a light-source.
One day, I made a connection in my mind between the idea of designing sunglasses (which shield your eyes from the sun) and providing households in Africa with clean light-sources. At a basic conceptual level, this is where Bird Sunglasses was born.
Bird and SolarAid then formed our unique ‘Share Your Sun’ partnership where, for every pair of Bird Sunglasses sold, a solar light is distributed to someone in the SolarAid network in either Malawi, Uganda or Zambia. As well as the benefits of replacing fuel-based lamps with solar lamps, SolarAid also allows recipient households to start saving money as they no longer need to pay for fuel for their lamps. They can then re-invest this money into food, education or further solar lamps. We recently worked out that, in our first year of trading, we personally helped 870 people in Africa in this way. This has been a real reason for celebration for our team. We are doing what we envisioned!
That’s great. And can you tell us a bit more about you – your background, and how you got to where you are now?
Sure thing Joff. I was born and bred in Cambridgeshire, and come from a large family with four siblings (three brothers and a sister) – we’re a really tight family unit.
We had a lot of fun growing up – always going on adventures. My parents were excellent at getting us up and out of the door to go and explore the world. I have many childhood memories of my parents packing us all into boats and going on expeditions down rivers. That sort of thing. This love for nature and the great outdoors was very formative for me and has stuck with me into my adulthood.
When I was 16, the plan was to go to art college. I really wanted to be a graphic designer – particularly an animator. But then over the summer I sort of fell into working in kitchens through a temp job washing dishes in a hotel. Our award-winning French Head Chef spotted I had potential and offered me a mentorship, paying for my qualifications and housing me for free in the hotel. I eventually worked my way up from Commis Chef to the position of Head Chef at this four-star hotel. So that was an unplanned but exciting start to my portfolio career…
Alongside cheffing, I’ve always been musical, I’ve been part of a few bands professionally over the years and currently drum in Exeter function band Bill Ding and the Skyscrapers.
So, what brought you to Exeter?
Well, as with many people, I relocated for love! My then girlfriend (now wife) Sarah was relocating to Exeter to do a Master’s degree at the Uni, so I decided to come with her and, soon after, we got married.
When I first arrived in Exeter, I found a job working for a Christian education charity called ICE, as their Schools Director. I’ve stayed in this role ever since and, even in recent years, have launched and run Bird Sunglasses alongside my career in education.
Soon after moving to Exeter, I also became involved with TEDxExeter, which has become quite a large part of my journey over the last five years or so.
That’s so cool Ed. I believe you have just celebrated your first birthday at Bird Sunglasses. Tell me how that first year has gone?
It’s been amazing, and we’ve loved every minute. I’d say it has been both challenging and rewarding, in equal measure. The fact that we are still here after 12 months is a marker of success for us and we just couldn’t have anticipated how well our brand has been received by both customers and the fashion community at large.
Things really kicked up a gear when we won a Crowdfunder competition as the ‘Best New Idea in Fashion’ which allowed us to launch a successful crowdfunding campaign. From there, we were featured in Forbes Magazine and The Mirror as well as being named by The Independent in their Top 15 Women’s Sunglasses and, eventually, placing second in the National Santander Entrepreneurship Awards 2017. Never has second place felt more like a win! We were over the moon.
And what was it about Bird Sunglasses that so effectively captured people’s attention, do you think?
I think that being a purposeful business really grabs attention and buy-in from people. Not only are they buying a top-quality product which is sustainably made, but they also get the added value of knowing that they are fulfilling a social cause too. Many other start-ups follow this pattern nowadays; doing good business, with a conscience.
On top of this, as a family of designers, we pride ourselves on our attention to detail – from the intricate detail on the frames to the cases and boxes that the sunglasses come in. Every detail is
meticulously thought through. I think that this eye for details has won us some fans too because our products are both stunning and unique as a result.
That’s all so exciting Ed. Talk me through some of the challenges that you have faced as I’m certain there must have been a few along the way?
You could say that! Any young company has its fair share of challenges and obstacles to overcome. For us, one of the main challenges that we have faced has been that we are an entirely part-time team. All of us who work for the business also work other jobs, so time is a precious commodity for our team.
Also, as most new businesses will know, funding is a real challenge as most lenders usually require at least two years of accounts before being willing to unlock funding or investment capital. We are a completely self-invested business so that brings its own pressures.
I guess, as a family of designers and creatives, we’re new to the worlds of marketing, retail and fashion too. So, it would be fair to describe the last year as a very steep, but exciting, learning curve!
So, from this first year of experience, what tips would you give to people who were considering setting up their own businesses?
I’d say that you need to trust your instincts but also seek advice from trusted advisors. Your opinion is vitally important but, sometimes, you need to look outside of yourself for the knowledge or experience that you require.
And what does the future hold for you and the team after such an exciting start to life in business?
Well, we’re excited to announce that we are moving into more retailers around the country, including being the only sunglasses stocked at the Eden Project. This is huge for us as we love what they stand for and there is a real synergy between their ethos and ours.
We’re also launching into prescription eyewear, which is potentially huge for us. We have just finished developing a range of frames specifically designed for prescription lenses (both clear and tinted). We’ve connected with a glazing house in Cardiff who are supplying all our lenses to make this possible.
And we’re going to keep building our team, along with exploring some exciting investment opportunities. We’re ready for the next level.
It feels like you are building a legacy, Ed. I wish you, your family and your business the very best for the future. Fly my pretties, FLY!
You can follow Ed’s journey @EdBird_EN or @shareyoursun on Twitter
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos by Joff Alexander-Frye, Harry Stoker and Ed Bird