Successful entrepreneurs know that the ability to adapt to challenges is key to their success. There may be no better example of successfully pivoting your business than that of my friends, Wally and Adam Rizza.
It started in 1995, when a branch from my next-door neighbor’s tree broke my window. The family sent one of their sons, Wally Rizza, a quiet 20-year-old, to do the repairs.
Wally asked what I did. I told him I was the editor of Entrepreneur magazine. Several weeks later, Wally asked me to help him apply to open a kiosk selling sunglasses at one of the country’s first entertailment (yes, that’s what they called it) complexes, the Irvine Spectrum, in Irvine, Calif.
By November 1995, he’d started a company, Sunscape, and opened that kiosk. A week later, Wally’s 15-year-old brother, Adam, started working there—for free. Within the month, Wally made the high schooler a partner. A pattern emerged: Wally scouted new locations and opportunities, and Adam managed the kiosks.
In just a few years, they had 23 kiosks across Southern California, at hot spots like Universal City and Downtown Disney. Sales were good; profits were so-so. One reason: Wally was buying products from middlemen in Los Angeles. I told him they’d never make real money unless they went to China to buy direct.
Despite having no connections and little access to information (this was early in the age of the internet), Wally headed to an eyewear trade show in Hong Kong, where he heard about Wenzhou, an “eyewear town” in China. He immediately headed there, checked into an “Americanized” hotel, where he met Sunny, whose job entailed hanging out in hotel lobbies, waiting for entrepreneurs to check in. Sunny connected him to a factory where Sunscape still does business today.
“China is [now] much easier for competitors to access,” Adam says, recalling that initial journey. “Anyone can be an importer these days. You don’t even need to go to China. You can find suppliers online, using resources like Alibaba.com.”
From Retail to Wholesale
Importing directly from China improved Sunscape’s margins and profits. Then came 9/11. As the retail market started collapsing, the brothers realized they had to pivot to survive, and they began exploring wholesaling.
One day in 2002, the three of us visited a local mall to scope out stores catering to the junior market. “You need to be in every one of these stores,” I told them. “I have no idea how to make that happen, but you need to figure it out.”
They met a broker specializing in junior chains, and she got them into Claire’s, a store for tweens and teens. Other clients quickly followed, including well-known brands such as Urban Outfitters, Limited Too (now Justice), and Hot Topic. Directing all their efforts towards wholesaling fashion-forward, affordable sunglasses for teenagers, Wally, now chairman, and Adam, now president, got their products into Tilly’s, PacSun, and Nordstrom.
A Vision for Success
In 2008, the Great Recession created another speed bump: Teens weren’t spending as much. Pivoting yet again, the Rizzas targeted the military, getting their products on PX bases around the world. They also realized that while fashion sunglasses are never a necessity, reading glasses are. In 2012, they began targeting the 40+ market, selling readers into mass market stores like CVS and to the U.S. military.
In 2013, Adam said, “We realized we needed to diversify and added tech accessories, such as phone cases, cables and chargers to our merchandise mix.” But the following year, just as the tech side of the business was taking off, a longshoremen’s strike shut down Los Angeles Harbor. Sunscape products sat on ships with no personnel to unload them. The strike lasted through the lucrative holiday shopping season, preventing Sunscape from delivering $500,000 worth of seasonal merchandise. They later had to offload the goods at deep discounts.
For a small company, losing a half million dollars in sales is devastating—and demoralizing. But you have to soldier on. For 2018, their initial goals were to focus on the B2B market, and sell to club stores like Costco. But, as true entrepreneurs, Adam says, “We realized we needed to pivot again. When you max out your distribution channels, you need to create new ones.”
Instead of abandoning the B2C market, they embraced it, launching Sunbox, a “sunscription” company, where consumers can subscribe and get a reusable box of sunglasses or readers delivered monthly. “As the population ages,” Adam says, “readers will become a bigger part of the business.”
Eyes on the Horizon
Although they ship 3 – 5 million units a year, Adam says, “that’s still not enough.” For years their online presence has been minimal. Though Sunscape has an active Instagram account, they plan to build a better website and create a presence on Amazon.
Though he’s a Gen X’er, the 38-year-old single dad thinks like a millennial. Social causes are important to him. “My long-term goal is to build a solid brand and give back to the community. I plan to work half my life and spend the rest giving back.”
Despite the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial life, Adam says, he wouldn’t change a thing. “There’s nothing more exciting than being an entrepreneur,” he says. “As Reid Hoffman [cofounder of LinkedIn] says, ‘We jump off a cliff, and build a plane as we’re falling.’ What could be better than that?”
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Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com. A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.
Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.
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