Parents dive head first into retail eyewear startup
Couple motivated to create stylish glasses for son, who was born with rare eye disease.
With their first child, Ben and Laura Harrison were sent on a wild ride.
Following a normal pregnancy, Jonas was born in March 2013 with no prior indication anything was amiss. Labor lasted 30 hours and resulted in an emergency C-section, Jonas cried and the room was full of joy, at least until Ben Harrison handed the baby to his mother.
Laura Harrison’s first words after looking at Jonas were “Does he have pupils?”
A doctor checked Jonas out; he was perfect save for his eyes, but she had never seen anything like this. So, a pediatric ophthalmologist took him for a few hours but still couldn’t determine if he was blind and suggested he be taken to the University of Michigan or Northwestern University. At U-M, he was diagnosed with the rare Peters Anomaly. The doctors gave hope that he could possibly see some day with the right treatment, so the parents began looking for glasses.
“We just wanted him to look stylish if his eyes wouldn’t look normal, so if I could find him some cool glasses, maybe that could take away from the looks,” Ben Harrison said. “Looking at options in the kid space, it was underserved in stylish options; there was nothing on trend with what adults would wear.”
The Harrisons had settled in Grand Rapids as Ben finished his Master of Fine Arts in photography from Kendall College of Art and Design and had run a photography and website design company for eight years. With a background in graphic arts, photography and websites, the Harrisons went through several design rounds and launched Jonas Paul Eyewear in December 2013.
The business is aimed at giving children prescription glasses in stylish frames for under $100, much like Warby Parker’s model for adults. The company received two rounds of funding from Start Garden, as it launched in early 2014, then saw Series A investment in September 2015 and the Harrisons closed the photography business and sold the website development company. The investment group included former LensCrafters CEO Cliff Bartow.
The brand has been featured in national media, such as the Wall Street Journal and NBC Nightly News.
“We dove in head first,” Ben Harrison said. “It’s been a ride, but it’s cool to see how that felt like our world fell apart and had this reset and found this new direction in life.”
While it is largely a web-based retailer and wholesaler, Jonas Paul Eyewear also has a retail location at 1422 Wealthy St. SE. The brand is carried in several retailers across the U.S. and Canada and is in trial runs in several others, as well.
The company currently has 64 SKUs, with six styles, two sizes and a variety of colors.
With the direct-to-consumer model, parents avoid dragging children to retailers and receive a sizing kit for trial.
Ben Harrison said the business “has caught strides and is scaling rapidly.” Jonas Paul Eyewear has eight employees, including Ben and Laura Harrison.
As the business grows, Jonas is now 4 and has had 21 surgeries, including four transplants in his left eye, and has some functional vision in his right eye.
“He gets around well and is a very sharp kid,” Ben Harrison said. “He’s very audible, loves music and learning. He’s super into planets right now; he knows more about them than I do at 4 years old.
“He’s doing awesome. Now, we’re just trying to scale the business.”