Have idea. Quit job. Start SunGod.
That’s what their bad-ass female boss Zoë Watkiss did when she started sunglass and snow goggle company SunGod. Little did she know their idea would become one of the UK’s most celebrated start-up success stories.
SunGod’s first crowdfunding campaign smashed a modest target of £8,700 by 949% or £82,588! It became the third most successful fashion project ever on Indigogo. That was in 2013. Since then they have created a solid pair of sunglasses for under £50 that comes with with a lifetime guarantee, sponsored the Freeride World Tour, and developing a network of online influencers, they call “pioneers’.
Basically, SunGod is one RAD company for adventure-seeking folk.
Get 10% off any SunGod product with code Stillstoked10
After reviewing their Classic 2 sunglasses and Pacebreakers, I came to realize their CEO was a woman with a similar story to me. We both grew up in the Southwest of London and felt an overwhelming urge to escape the city and move to the mountains.
As SunGod grew from strength to strength, I wanted to share Zoë’s story and find out the decisions she made to begin the journaling of starting her own brand and moving to the mountains – Something I know, many of my readers dream of doing… I was sure she would give some good advice. She did just that!
Try and prioritise the key things that will really move the dial.
SunGod CEO Zoë Watkiss interview
Hey Zoe, how did the idea to start SunGod come about?
I was working in an office job in London, but always looking for ways to escape and spend more time in the mountains. The idea for SunGod came from years of frustration with countless pairs of sunglasses. Good quality branded pairs cost well over £100, while cheap £10 knock-offs offered limited protection and always broke too easily. I knew we could bring a better product to market at a fairer price… So, after some initial research and planning, we launched on crowdfunding site Indiegogo and it went from there!
Watch the early SunGod pitch video
What were you doing career-wise, before SunGod?
After leaving university, I got a place on the grad scheme at L’Oreal. I worked there for 3 years before moving to Kao Brands, where I managed the John Frieda range in new online retail outlets as well as more established chains such as Morrisons and Waitrose. It gave me an amazing grounding in the commercials of how big brands work and I made some incredible friends along the way, but I think deep down I always wanted to run my own business!
I think the passion you have for your own business is really powerful, and combined with the progress you can make being so tangible, it’s easy to put everything into it and forget to take time out.
You now run the business out of Verbier. Would you say you have the work-life balance thing nailed?
Some weeks… yes!! I’m very lucky to call Verbier my home now. Having nature on your doorstep certainly breaks down the barriers to getting out there and making the most out of it. But I think it’s an ongoing challenge to attain the holy grail of work-life balance. Some weeks I ski a lot, do yoga before work and generally feel on top of everything while seemingly the business takes care of itself. Other weeks I can question why I live here when I’ve barely made it outside the office, let alone up the mountain!
I think the passion you have for your own business is really powerful and combined with the progress you can make being so tangible, it’s easy to put everything into it and forget to take time out. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I think I’m getting better at it!
How important was the crowdsourcing part of your start-up strategy?
Kickstarter was definitely a turning point for SunGod. When we launched the campaign, we had built up a loyal customer following, and it was great to be able to show them what we had been working on for so long! Crowdfunding is definitely more of a science than people think, and there was a lot of work and planning that went into the campaign. Ali and I hauled ourselves away in the mountains and barely left the house in the run-up to launch!! Rounding up all of our friends, all of their friends, work contacts, acquaintances and beyond really helped us gain momentum, and from there it just spread. I would definitely recommend crowdfunding to anyone looking to start a business or test an idea!
What was the hardest thing you encountered as a startup?
I think juggling all the different hats that as a small business owner you have to put on. After the first Indiegogo campaign, I remember drawing a mind map that filled two A4 pages of everything that needed to be done to deliver everyone’s sunglasses successfully, which was pretty overwhelming at the time!
For a while mind-mapping by categories was really important as there were just so many different things going on at the same time, so splitting them out like this, into categories really helped me visualise it all. There were countless all-nighters and times where I was frequently putting myself out of my comfort zone in areas I had zero experience. But conversely and looking back, that was also part of the journey!
I would definitely recommend starting a business with someone else, not only to share ideas but the ups and downs!
How did you stay motivated to keep going during these hard times?
I think the buzz surrounding the first crowdfunding campaign gave me a sort of adrenaline that kept me going, certainly as I was still going into work in London at the time and running on very little sleep! I was also lucky to have a business partner – and often when one of us was feeling the pressure, the other was feeling ready to smash it (thankfully!) and so I really relied on this. I would definitely recommend starting a business with someone else, not only to share ideas but the ups and downs!
What do you wish you knew then, that you know now?
That you simply can’t do it all. To take the pressure off, and try and prioritise the key things that will really move the dial.
You have a strong army of brand ambassadors or pioneers. What role do they play?
They are invaluable to us. They play a really integral role both in creating amazing content that captures the essence of our brand, as well as spreading the word to their loyal followers who aspire to lead similar lifestyles, and who really trust and value their opinions.
How is the SunGod brand and product different to the mainstream optics companies like Oakley?
Our goal is to disrupt the industry, and to develop the highest quality products at a fairer price, which the direct to customer model allows us to do. As well as being custom, our products are also covered by a lifetime guarantee, which is unrivaled in the market currently. Our frames are some of the most durable out there, but if you do manage to break them SunGod will repair them free of charge. Simple!
It takes patience sometimes and going against the grain, but that has been our philosophy from the beginning!
SunGod has grown to be a key player in the optics industry in such a short space of time – what do you think has been key to your success?
Focusing on what works for us. We’re a small team, and we know we can’t do it all, so what we choose to spend our time on is key. Not listening to what other people think we should do as a brand, but trusting our gut and only launching products when were 100% satisfied that they match the quality we’re striving for has been paramount. It takes patience sometimes and going against the grain, but that has been our philosophy from the beginning!
What is the best advice that anyone ever gave you and who was it from?
“If it was easy everyone would be doing it” – My Dad!
What three bits of advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting their own brand in the action sports industry?
- Test your concept first with a small budget to assess viability and demand
- Focus on the top 3 things daily that will really move your concept forward
- Launch on crowdfunding!
How is SunGod going to continue to innovate?
The customer is at the heart of everything we do, so listening to them and what they want to see from us next will continue to inform how we innovate. There is some exciting product innovation in the pipeline across our Summer and Winter ranges planned for later this year… hopefully, it will be worth the wait!
Thanks so much Zoë! This is a great insight into a courageous decision to start your own company that is hugely inspiring. What a journey you have had and what a brand and products you have built!