An Entrepreneur Builds a Brand in Eyewear

Julie Allinson was 42 when she started Eyebobs, which offers high-quality, funky reading glasses at reduced prices. Fourteen years later, her company occupies almost all of a 37,000-square foot building near downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Optical shops, clothing stores and even museum gift shops around the world carry Allinson’s eyeglasses.  She has a celebrity following that has included Katie Couric, Andrew Zimmern and the late Joan Rivers.

And what about the company’s name? As explained in this Forbes story written by Deborah L. Jacobs, “Eyebobs” is a play on Southern nicknames for guys — Jim Bob, Joe Bob, etc.  It also works for women who refer to their earrings as “earbobs.”  “I tell every guy named Robert that I named my company after him,” says Allinson.

In Forbes, she talks about the ingredients for starting a company. One is a strong support system that includes people who are risk-tolerant. If your family and closest friends are risk-averse, it’s better to talk to other entrepreneurs who can relate to what you’re going through.

Courage also is critical. If we analyze the risk, “no one would ever start a business — there are so many reasons not to,” Allinson says. Still, few things are more fulfilling than living and dying by your own sword.  “I don’t like other people telling me what to do,” she says.

She has a clear understanding of her target market.  As her website puts it, Eyebobs sells “eyewear for the irreverent and slightly jaded.”

“I don’t pretend to sell to all the Baby Boomers,” says Allinson, who’s now 56.  “I want to sell to the Baby Boomers like me who have some moxie.”

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A Chinese Entrepreneur Makes Movies to Take on Social Issues

Zhang Wei earned millions as an entrepreneur who made video intercom doorbell systems in Shenzhen, China. In 2006, things changed in a big way.

That’s when Zhang sold his company and started studying filmmaking. Today, the 49-year-old is a director who makes socially conscious movies.

As explained in this article, Zhang’s latest film is about the exploitation of Chinese assembly line workers, a subject rarely touched by China’s filmmakers. In “Factory Boss,” the owner of a toy company struggles to hold his business and himself together as he comes under intense pressure from local competitors, his workers, the media, officials and his own family.

“Factory Boss” is Zhang’s third movie. His first two, “Beijing Dream (2010) and “Shadow Monologue” (2011), also reflect his concern for social issues.

Unlike his earlier business, Zhang’s self-bankrolled movie career hasn’t been a money maker. But he doesn’t seem concerned with achieving commercial success or recognition. He has plans for several other films, including one about an autistic youth.

“I want to do stories that others won’t do,” Zhang says in the article. “Once I’m done with a film, I want to move on to the next one. I’ve started working on films only in middle age and I want to make as many as I can.”

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How One Couple Found a Business Idea Seven Thousand Miles from Home

By Lynne Strang, Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs

Meredith and Lee Hedrick

Meredith and Lee Hedrick

Doha, Qatar has megamalls, luxurious hotels and soaring skyscrapers. It also has a small- but-scrappy souvenir business with its own style.

Doha Designs is the brainchild of Lee and Meredith Hedrick, two Annandale, Virginia teachers on temporary assignment in Qatar. Since its launch a year and a half ago, the Hedricks’ startup has found a niche among Doha’s many Western expatriates seeking good-quality mementos of their time in the city.

International living seemed to be in the cards for Lee, 41 and Meredith, 40, from the beginning. Both studied international relations at Michigan State University and served in the U.S. Peace Corps – he in Senegal and she in Turkmenistan.

While in Senegal, Lee was a small business development volunteer and worked with government agencies to coordinate Peace Corps activities to meet the needs of local entrepreneurs. Over the years, the couple dabbled in importing bamboo, rugs and other goods and selling them at weekend fairs.

Eventually, they moved to the Washington, D.C. area where they worked briefly for an international development company. Each earned a master’s degree in secondary education from George Washington University and landed a high school teaching position (Lee teaches history while Meredith specializes in English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL). They bought a single-family home in a suburban neighborhood, became the parents of two boys and settled into a comfortable life.

Then in 2011, Meredith received an offer to teach in Doha for a year, with a possible extension of her contract. While the notion of moving almost 7,000 miles would be scary for some, the Hedricks felt the pull of wanderlust. They rented their home and, with their two young sons, embarked on an international adventure on the other side of the world.

Testing the Market

In Doha, the Hedrick family enjoyed many aspects of city’s culture. But after several months, Meredith realized her job wasn’t a fit. The couple also felt somewhat socially unfulfilled due to their work routines. They began exploring ideas for a side business that would expand their Doha network while providing another source of income.

Lee and Meredith, who describe themselves as “risk adverse,” tested the market for a souvenir business while Meredith still had a steady paycheck. The results from focus groups with local residents and other research suggested strong potential for their business idea.

Meredith Hedrick with a Doha Designs show display

Meredith Hedrick with a Doha Designs show display

One day, Meredith happened to be in a coffee shop and struck up a conversation with a woman who was buying eight or nine mugs to ship to her family and friends. “The person who comes up with a good Doha souvenir will become a millionaire,” the woman predicted. That chance encounter proved to be the final push for the Hedricks.

In February 2013, they launched Doha Designs as a part-time business (both Hedricks also teach at a local academy). Its signature item is a series of custom-designed vintage posters depicting Doha scenery. Other products include t-shirts, bags, postcards and handmade jewelry.

Doha Designs sells its products at local craft shows. It also has a few wholesale clients, including the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Qatar Gift Shop and the book store for Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The Hedricks believe they wouldn’t have opened a business had they moved to Doha when they were younger. “In our 20s, we didn’t have the same financial awareness and interests that we have now,” said Meredith. “At this stage in our lives, the business makes sense. There was a market need that we could meet fairly efficiently to earn extra money for the family, but not take too much time away from being with our kids.”

An understanding of each other’s strength and weaknesses is a key contributor to their success. Meredith oversees the show schedule, networking and wholesale clients while Lee manages the retail sales, finances and pricing. “We know what risks to take – and not to take – and have a good sense of our priorities” said Meredith.

They also know and accept the realities associated with their entrepreneurial endeavor. “When you own a business, you get a large share of the profits,” said Lee. “But you also get a large share of the headaches.”

Future Opportunities

The Hedricks aren’t sure what will happen to their business when they return to the United States. At least one retailer scheduled to open a location in Qatar’s new airport is interested in selling the couple’s products.

Regardless of Doha Designs’ future, Lee and Meredith’s worldwide travel seems destined to continue. So far, they’ve visited more than 50 countries and lived in five. All that international experience has influenced their view of life.

“We have faith that things will always work out and we aren’t so scared or intimidated by the unknown,” said Meredith.

“I like the proverb that goes something like, ‘If you can’t go through the door then go through the window, if you can’t go through the window go through the chimney,’” she added. “To me, it means there is always a way and don’t give up too easily.”

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Five Reasons to Start a Personal History Business

Tom Gilbert

Tom Gilbert

I recently interviewed four people who were at least 40 years old when they became personal historians. Their individual stories appear in this guest post written for Later Bloomer, Debra Eve’s blog.

Among the four are full-time and part-time personal historians whose areas of expertise range from memoir coaching to ethical wills. Some produce books for their clients; others focus on video or other formats.

Yet they all have the same basic mission: to help others tell their life stories so they can be passed along to the next generation.

The people who get into this business really enjoy it. Here’s why:

1) An emphasis on storytelling — “It’s always interesting because people’s stories are so varied,” said Tom Gilbert, who started Your Life is Your Story, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based personal history business, after a 30-year career in radio broadcasting.

2) Flexibility – Projects can be scheduled around other responsibilities.

3) Mobility – It’s possible to work from just about anywhere in the world.

4) Minimal overhead – New business owners can get going with basic office equipment.

5) An important purpose – Gratification comes from helping to preserve someone’s family history.

If the idea of a personal history business interests you, stop by the Association of Personal Historians’ website ( For another example of a late-blooming personal historian, check out this post about Jennifer Campbell of Heritage Memoirs.

You can also poke around such sites as Cowbird, ImaStory and StoryCorps to get a feel for personal history — and to read some wonderful stories about life.

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Donny Osmond’s New Role: Entrepreneur

Singer Donny Osmond has done a lot in his life since the release of his first smash single — Puppy Love — back in 1972.  He’s acted on stage, raced cars and hosted talk shows. He even won Dancing with the Stars in 2009.

Now the 57-year-old entertainer has just announced his first app to go along with the upcoming release of The Soundtrack of My Life, his 60th album.

As explained in this interview, the Donny Osmond app “is an interactive social media tool that will give users a sneak peek at the songs on Osmond’s album, complete with an anecdote about why each song is important to him.” Users can download the app for free from iTunes and Google.

While he’s enjoyed the diverseness of his career, Osmond says he is — first and foremost — a singer. He’s excited about the new album but knows it could bring pressure to do another.

“Every time you have a success you will say, well, try topping that,” he said. “That’s the nature of success. You know you have to keep moving forward.”

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How a Ski Instructor’s Bum Knee Launched a New Product

In 2002, Kim Gustafson left an international career in office equipment sales and marketing to become a ski instructor in Vail, Colorado. But at age 54, his knees (which had undergone two reconstructive surgeries) weren’t so young anymore. His new gig required him to wear a cumbersome knee brace while on the ski slopes.

As explained in this article from Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine, the brace got him thinking about whether there might be a more comfortable way to support his knee. In 2004, he visited the Steadman Philippon Research Institute, where a couple of researchers happened to be looking at the idea of a fabric-based knee brace.

Gustafson teamed up with the researchers to create the Opedix Knee-Tec tight, which provides breathable, moisture-wicking support for the knee area. At first, the tights’ primary users were ski instructors and other professional ski personnel. All that changed after this piece ran in The New York Times last December.

“Sales went through the roof,” said Gustafson, who’s now 65. Opedix, the company he founded, sells the knee brace online for $225. He now has a second product: orthopedic Core-Tec shorts that realign the pelvis and reduce back pain.

And Kim Gustafson? He seems to be enjoying his multi-faceted life as a product inventor, entrepreneur and ski instructor.

“It’s so much more rewarding and fun than being in office equipment,” he said.


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TV Shows for Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs

Most business owners don’t have much downtime.  When an unexpected break or a free night occurs, it feels good to relax and stretch out on the couch – and maybe watch a little TV.

A while ago, I was channel surfing one evening and happened to stumble upon the first episode of “The Men Who Built America,” The History Channel’s series about John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. Each show builds upon the next, explaining how these business titans rose from obscurity and built companies that shaped America.  It’s a terrific series that may air again at some point.

In the meantime, entrepreneurs can find plenty of other TV programs about starting a business, or a new adventure later in life.  Here are a few shows that educate, inspire and/or entertain.

Your Business (MSNBC) – Hosted by JJ Ramberg, this show profiles small business owners and offers advice from business experts and investors.

Growing Bolder TV – Spotlights ordinary people in search of extraordinary lives. As Growing Bolder’s website puts it, “It’s not about age; it’s about attitude.”

BarHunters (Discovery Channel) — First-time bar owners pursue their dream of opening a bar with the help of expert Tom Powers.

How I Made My Millions (CNBC) — Reveals how everyday people have taken ordinary ideas and turned them in extraordinary businesses. Focuses on companies that have surpassed $1 million.

Cake Boss (TLC) –This half‐hour focuses on Buddy Valastro as he manages his booming business, Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, NJ, along with his big Italian family – including his mother and sisters – who run the shop with him.

Shark Tank (ABC) — The “Sharks” — tough, self-made, multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons — give budding entrepreneurs the chance to make their dreams come true and potentially secure business deals that could make them millionaires.

Undercover Boss (CBS) — A reality series that follows high-level corporate executives as they slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own companies.

Life Reimagined TODAY with Jane Pauley (NBC) – Pauley is back once a month on the TODAY show as AARP’s contributor. Her segment “shines a spotlight on people in midlife who are reimagining their lives, creating real possibilities and pursuing their dreams.”


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