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Conversations: Christopher Birk, Barner

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Just last week, Christopher Birk (pictured above, left), Business Development Manager & Co-Founder of Barner, spoke keenly with us about his brand’s (very) new launch. Barner provides non-spectacle wearers (as well as an option for prescription wearers) with high quality eyewear to protect their eyes from harmful blue light – giving customers better sleep and a healthier life.

Name: Christopher Birk

Occupation: Business Development Manager & Co-Founder, Barner

Likes: Glasses, sushi, to travel, meeting new people, music, Coca Cola

Dislikes: Animal abuse, rainy weekends, Pepsi

Words to live by: “Be free”

Lydia Hanson: I just wanted to start off by congratulating you on the Barner Kickstarter campaign …that was launched only a matter of minutes ago? [Editor’s note: this interview took place on 17th October 2017]

Christopher Birk: Thank you very much – yes, I’m sure you can imagine how hectic it is over here. We’re really happy about the campaign, and we’re actually hoping to reach 100% in the first 24 hours.

Lydia Hanson: So let’s jump right in; can you tell us a little about Barner? How did the idea come about?

Christopher Birk: Sure, let’s start from the beginning. The idea came from one of my partners, Eduardo (Edu) Gaya, who has worked for many technology businesses – Samsung in Singapore, – and three and a half years ago, before moving to Google in Dublin found that he started having some pain, and eye dryness from being in front of the computer. He started investigating the causes of this. One of his colleagues in Samsung shared that he was wearing glasses that reflected blue light, which is harmful for the eyes and something that a lot of people don’t/didn’t know about.

So Edu tried it for a week and loved it. Once he moved to Google in Dublin,he purchased some glasses – without any prescription – to protect against the blue light. He started working with these glasses and really, really appreciated the difference.

There is a company here in Spain that started with the business strategy of selling sunglasses via e-commerce at very cheap prices. Edu saw this business model and thought, ‘why don’t I do that?’ But instead of doing cheap sunglasses, focus on the problem at hand (the over-exposure to blue light from computers) for those of us that don’t have a prescription and don’t usually wear glasses, as well as those who do. Then we can give people a product to protect themselves all day long; most of us spend all day working in front of computers, and turn our alarms off and check apps first thing in the morning on our phones, and check emails, Whatsapp, Instagram when we commute as well. We actually spend 8 hours 41 minutes per day in front of digital devices – and this is where the problem comes from.

So the idea was to create a finished product that anyone could use to protect themselves against digital devices. But instead of using low quality products, go with the highest quality available in the market.

Lydia Hanson: So the main idea is to protect against harmful blue light, for people who don’t have a prescription. Do you also offer glasses for those of us that do have a prescription?

Christopher Birk: Yes, of course, even though the main focus of the business was to give the product to someone who doesn’t have a prescription, because they don’t already have the option. If you are a prescription glasses wearer and visit your optometrist, he or she will ask, when you’re ordering your new glasses, whether you work in front of computers and then will offer you the technology. But if you don’t have prescription glasses, the only glasses you’ll be buying are sunglasses; you’d never be offered this kind of technology.

Lydia Hanson: Absolutely. I ask this as I’ve been a glasses wearer for decades so I’m just curious about whether I’d be able to buy a pair of Barner glasses.

I realise you’ve quite literally just launched the Kickstarter campaign, but I wondered whether you already have a handful of clients or users of the glasses who’ve seen benefits?

Christopher Birk: Well as of the last 15 minutes we have 40 backers of the campaign [laughing]. But Edu was the first ‘user’; he was working in Dublin and bought his glasses, then travelled to the New York office (when you work for Google, you are able to work in any global office) and accidentally left his glasses there. So when he went back to Dublin he started again feeling all of these symptoms – headaches, eyestrain, dry eyes, red eyes – and realised just how much he needed his glasses.

When we started working on the project, I was a little bit of a skeptic at the beginning, as I’d never really had problems with my vision. But when we sat down and worked hours after hours on the project, it was around 5 or 6 one evening and the letters I was seeing on the computer started moving everywhere. But now that I have the product and the technology on my eyes, I can work from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10 in the evening without any problems.

Lydia Hanson: That’s awesome. Everything we’ve talked about so far has been on sort of an individual level; will you/do you have plans on a company-wide level? If a business wants to bulk buy the product for their employees, is that something you’re offering?

Christopher Birk: Of course – it’s actually one of the pledge options on the Kickstarter campaign. We’ve been thinking about startups and bigger companies. We understand in this technology there’s a benefit for anyone and everyone, and most of the people in these businesses are working in front of computers. As the Business Development Manager, I’ve been visiting some companies to offer this technology; what I’ve come across is a lack of awareness around the problem. So it’s great to explain to businesses about the sicknesses appearing because of blue light, and the disruptive sleep patterns from staring at devices all day. A lot of people aren’t aware, so one of our main objectives is to create that awareness; we’re going to try and tell as many people as we can, and you’re kindly helping us in that.

A couple of months ago we saw that Essilor was making a great investment in television here to create this same awareness.

Our idea is to do e-commerce, and to do B2B – and tell businesses about the harmful effects of over-exposure to blue light on your employees, which in turn is harmful for the business. We know that these days there is a company culture – in Facebook, in Google etc. – in investing in the benefits of workers. Everybody wants to work in a company that takes care of them. This is the type of company we’re focusing on, as we think that’s where we’ll see more acceptance. But we’ll see – there’s development every day.

I know that other customers of the supplier I use are selling just the frame for €250-300, but we are selling for roughly half of that.

Lydia Hanson: You mention cost. Is cost the same throughout the entire range? And how big is the range/styles?

Christopher Birk: For the Kickstarter campaign we have 3 different models, and each model comes in 3 different colours – totalling 9 choices.

Lydia Hanson: And the cost is the same throughout those 9 choices?

Christopher Birk: Yes, indeed. They’re all made from the same acetate, so they’re all the same price. We were looking at doing another model, but the cost was more expensive as there was metal detailing, but the current 9 are all the same price.

Lydia Hanson: Talking of the design, do you have plans to partner up with other fashion brands to create fashionable branded glasses, likely for a higher price? Again, I’m aware it’s all very early days still.

Christopher Birk: That’s one of our main ideas. We would love to launch a new style in collaboration with other brands.

I can tell you that for the three models we have right now we have used 3 ‘cool’ neighbourhood names: Williamsburg in New York, Shoreditch in London, and Kreuzberg in Berlin.

Lydia Hanson: Those territories are all very ‘cool’ – or ‘hipster’ I suppose. Are you targeting that younger, hipster generation?

Christopher Birk: No. The people we’re targeting are, for example, a ‘Googler’ (someone who works in Google) – so not the 19 to 25 year olds. I think the average age of an employee in Google is somewhere around 29. We’re focusing on people above, who might be financially stable with a steady career – people who start to appreciate quality products. We aren’t for the younger buyer who’s interested in a deal for ‘3 glasses for €40’ for example. I’m 31 years old and I’d rather buy one set of glasses that will last a long time. A ‘Barner’ let’s say is someone who is entrepreneurial, someone healthy, who at the same time likes going to music festivals, and making his passion his work. We like people with lots of energy, digital nomads, working for a month in Bali or going to the Alps skiing if that’s what they like.

We’re going to sell our product for €149, which isn’t impulsive, but if you know the quality around it you’re going to buy it.

Lydia Hanson: You mention about the idea that these glasses will last a long time. For the prescription option, that would be less of a factor. I have quite a strong prescription and I know that I tend to need to buy new glasses every year.

Christopher Birk: Sure. It’s not that I believe people won’t come back and buy new Barner glasses next year – it’s just something that isn’t going to be an impulsive purchase. Compared to other e-commerce sites that offer ‘happy hour’ type deals, the €149 from us is steeper. We believe that, when the new styles come out next year, or the year after, you’re going to buy it if you have the €149. We think that that repeat custom will come from the quality of the product.

Lydia Hanson: Of course – and if your plan is to partner with other fashion brands down the line, then you’ll likely find a situation where previous customers want to own all of the different Barner collaborations.

Speaking from a personal place, as a decades-long prescription wearer, €149 is pretty cheap for a pair of glasses!

Christopher Birk: Indeed. And as I mentioned earlier, other customers of my supplier are selling the frames at €250 to €300. We know we are offering our customers a premium quality Italian eyewear (which is the maximum quality), at a very fair price. And if you need a prescription, you only need to add €25.

I know what you’re saying – as a prescription glasses user you go to a store and like a certain frame at £200 let’s say, then you add your prescription in and it adds another £300 or so. So, depending on the prescription you have you’re glasses are anywhere from £400 upwards.

Lydia Hanson: Yes – a situation I know all too well!

Christopher Birk: [Laughing] You’ll have to buy some Barners!

Lydia Hanson: [Also laughing] Oh I have the Kickstarter page open in the background as we speak.

You are of course just starting out, and you’ve already shared a host of plans with us, but is there anything else you want to share that you think is important for our readers – and our industry – to hear?

Christopher Birk: I’m sure there is. My brain is in overdrive today, with the launch.

We’re starting with this product, to overcome something we believe is a problem. And what we want to do is to become a trustful brand.

[Coyly] If you follow our Kickstarter you might find some surprises coming soon.

We want to move onto kids later, because we know that blue light is also a big issue for kids now – even at schools they’re in front of iPads or computers all day long, which often continues when they get home. The only problem is that childrens’ eyes are weaker than adults’, and they are the ones who have to take care. So our next step will probably be glasses for kids, and then maybe sunglasses – who knows? We just started but we believe that what we’re doing is great. It’s just the beginning.

Lydia Hanson: Absolutely. So you and your co-founders created Barner as a reaction to an issue that you saw, and you obviously have plans to expand later on. Before I let you go, I just wondered whether there any other problems you see as huge issues that somebody (not necessarily you) needs to address in fashion?

Christopher Birk: More than a problem, what I see regarding the fashion industry is that nowadays sunglasses have lost their functionality to become a fashion complement. So, our idea, if we are doing a product we understand and everyone has to wear it all day long, we have to give the customer something that is aesthetic. That’s another reason we are offering such a good quality product, made with Italian acetate from Mazzucchelli – who are the most traditional acetate manufacturers in Italy. Mazzucchelli has factories in Italy and in China, but we told our supplier that we only wanted the Italian Mazzucchelli because it’s different from the Chinese. So, regarding fashion, we are pretty aware.

For us, we are solving a problem, but also giving a fashion complement people can be comfortable with, and proud of.

Lydia Hanson: Sure. Anything you wear on your face you have to love!

We really hope that your Kickstarter campaign is a success, and wish you all the best of luck.

Christopher Birk: Thank you – and we’re thankful for you shining a light on us.

*Less than 24 hours after this interview took place Barner’s Kickstarter campaign was fully funded, fulfilling Chris’ initial target.

Lydia Hanson Lydia Hanson has been part of the WhichPLM team for over four years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.