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Tiffany Montgomery
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Kurtis: The startup challenge in a branded world

By Tiffany Montgomery
November 13, 2007 5:58 AM

Kurtis Surf Goggles are trying to do a tough thing: Launch a new brand of eyewear in an industry dominated by heavy hitters with big marketing and R & D budgets.

Kurt ShipcottKurtis launched its googles designed to protect surfer's eyes in May. Co-owner Kurt Shipcott, right, got the idea after having surgery to remove a growth on his eye after years of surfing. O.C. natives Shipcott and partner Sue Schroeder, below, believe their googles stand out because they are flexible, lightweight, float and have a leash system.

So far, the two have landed product in a few eye doctor's offices and a handful of stores in Hawaii. They have also focused on direct online sales from their Web site.

They answered some questions for me about how they are trying to break in. Kurt, originally from Tustin, works out of Morro Bay, where the goggles are manufactured. Sue lives in Laguna Niguel.

What is unique about your product?

This eyewear was not created from a sunglass manufacturer's point of view, but rather from a surfer's point of view. All aspects of the design and function were created with surfing in mind.

In addition, Kurtis Surf Goggles have a flexible frame and lens, are soft on impact, float, and offer full peripheral vision. All Kurtis Surf Goggles have an adjustable head strap (melon StrapTM) to fit all ages and head sizes, and includes a leash system (QR Money LeashTM) so that you don't lose them in big surf.

Sue SchroederCo-owner Sue Schroder
How did you finance the startup?

This has been financed with personal savings, sweat and a lot of passion.

Are you still working from the garage?

Yes, we are in an 800-square-foot garage in Morro Bay that is a stone's throw from a fun surf break (allows for great R&D). We are pursuing the American Dream and so sacrifices in time and accommodations are necessary and similar to what Quiksilver and Volcom did in their early days.

Do you have competitors?

Some would say that the Oakley Water Jackets and Barz are competitors but those are regular rigid plastic sunglasses that have a strap attached.

What are the price points?

The retail price is $199 for the kit that includes the goggles, Melon Strap (head strap), QR Money Leash (neck leash), lens cloth, tips guide,and a ventilated storage container.

What have been the biggest challenges getting started?

There are three huge challenges to getting started - the product process, the category and the brand.

First, we had to develop a great prototype and test it amongst core surfers. We then spent years modifying Kurtis Surf Goggles for style and comfort. The whole process from prototyping to surf shop shelves has forced us to learn all aspects of building and running a company. From forming a LLC, to patent protection, trademark law, to finding suppliers that could do something completely new, to owning the tooling.

Second, surfers are not used to asking about surf goggles, so of paramount importance is the need to educate and give surfers and surf shop owners a reason to care about we are doing. Most surfers are not going to walk into a surf shop and ask if they have some form of surf goggles so we need to drive awareness that an option finally exists for them.

Third, is the challenge of building a brand identity and equity in a brand-heavy industry with brand-conscious consumers. We knew we needed to establish a clear reason-for-being, brand positioning and brand tagline, "No fried eyes."

While our product is clearly unique, the challenge we faced was making sure we had a clear communication strategy across all vehicles so that over time, people know who we are, what we stand for and can see the brand personality come shining through.

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