Founder Curt Nichols and Glade Optics are rethinking ski goggles with manufacturing based in China — at least for now.
Nichols followed “a very traditional path in the corporate world” before bringing Glade Optics to market in 2016.
Consulting for the retail industry, he saw an opening in ski goggles after noticing a similarity between the advertising for Smith, Oakley, and Zeal. “They all market themselves in the same exact way,” says Nichols. “There’s a huge emphasis on a style of skiing that’s not very relatable to the average skier” — i.e., bombing double-black runs and backflipping off of jumps.
A direct-to-consumer brand, Glade Optics bucks that trend in both its straightforward messaging and products. “There was some opportunity, especially within the goggle and helmet categories, to potentially build a brand that was speaking to the average skier and snowboarder in a different way,” says Nichols.
Following two years of R&D on nights and weekends, lifelong skier Nichols moved from Boston to Breckenridge to launch the brand’s first product for the 2016-17 ski season. “Everyone around me is a potential customer,” he says. “The response was pretty fantastic,” he says.
Starting with a production run of 500 units of a single model, Glade Optics now makes “tens of thousands” of units at a time, says Nichols, as the catalog approaches 70 SKUs spanning four core goggles models along with helmets and sunglasses.
“We’re growing at 175 percent year-over-year, and we’ve been doing that since inception,” he says. “The only thing that’s constrained growth for us in the past has been inventory: We seem to run out of stock in mid-January every year, so we’ve been doubling, tripling, quadrupling our inventory purchases.”
Where Glade Optics manufactures
Glade manufactures its products in the worldwide epicenter of goggle manufacturing: Shenzhen, China. Smith, Oakley, and Anon — which together account for about 85 percent of market share in ski goggles — all manufacture there, and smaller brands have little option but to follow suit.
“The vetting process was a wild one,” says Nichols. “It took me a good two years to get this dialed in. It was frankly a very long series of awkward Skype calls and phone calls and emails.”
He ultimately connected with a “fantastic manufacturing partner” with the right capabilities and order minimums. That partner continues to make more than 75 percent of Glade’s products. “We have branched out to another manufacturing partner [in China] as well,” adds Nichols. “We don’t want to be overly reliant on any one of these players. It made sense to diversify.”
Expect that trend to continue into other countries for Glade. “As we have grown, I think we and a few other smaller brands have actually started to change that dynamic, where all of a sudden there’s a bit more competition, but there’s also competition on the manufacturing side,” says Nichols. “We’re starting to see some manufacturing capability pop up outside of China. We’re viewing that as potentially a pretty big competitive advantage for us, just because of the mess that’s going on in China right now in terms of getting goods here.”
Nichols says the seasonal nature of snowsports has led Glade Optics to diversify into more products. After launching new helmets and sunglasses in 2020, the company is doubling down.
Made under contract with a Utah-based company that owns a factory in China, the Boundary helmet will debut during the 2021-22 ski season. “We did a small pilot test last year to figure out what is selling,” says Nichols. “It was a smash success, so we’re going totally all in on that. We’re delivering a totally new helmet in about a month that has all the bells and whistles.”
The strategy behind Glade’s sunglasses — made by the same partners as the brand’s goggles — was “to even out the seasonality,” he adds. “Those sunglasses actually won Backpacker magazine’s best eyewear of the year. That was a pretty big indication that we’re making a high-quality product, we’re selling a lot of them, so let’s go all in on this next spring . We do have a far more robust line of sunglasses coming out next spring that includes eyewear that’s dedicated to mountain biking, there’s one that’s good for ski touring, there’s one that’s good for trail running, and lifestyle ones.”
Glade Optics has relied on a 3PL partner for warehousing and fulfillment, but Nichols has a vision of bringing those functions in-house at a single headquarters facility. “We’re slightly poking around within Colorado, looking for a good potential landing spot,” he says. “Somewhere in the middle of the country is where we want to be.”