Fueled by ‘Shark Tank’ appearance, Boise’s Proof Eyewear grows

Proof Eyewear founder on working with family

Brooks Dame, who started the Boise sunglasses company, talks about how he and brothers and partners Tanner and Taylor Dame balance work and family.
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Brooks Dame, who started the Boise sunglasses company, talks about how he and brothers and partners Tanner and Taylor Dame balance work and family.

The three brothers who own Boise’s Proof Eyewear got their 15 minutes of fame — and a big sales boost — when they were chosen in 2013 to pitch for investment money on TV’s “Shark Tank.” Three years later, Brooks, Tanner and Taylor Dame have sustained Proof’s niche as a maker of hipster sunglasses made from wood and other biodegradable materials.

The Dame brothers play up their family’s history in the sawmill industry. Their grandfather, Merrill “Bud” Dame, started a sawmill and moulding company in Utah, then another sawmill in Oregon. That company grew into WoodGrain Millwork, a Fruitland company now owned by the brothers’ father and uncle. It has 2,600 employees and eight subsidiaries involved in sawmills, wood distribution and wood products, such as windows and doors.

Brooks Dame, now 37, started Proof Eyewear in his Eagle home in 2010. When sales picked up, he brought on Tanner, now 31. Taylor, 29, joined the company soon after. Each owns one-third of the company.

Today, Brooks Dame said the company is debt-free and profitable. He projects $1.6 million in sales this year and distributes to 600 stores in the U.S. and 200 across 200 countries. Sunglasses cost between $65 and $180 per pair.

Proof has nine full-time and three part-time employees at its headquarters at 314 S. 9th St. overlooking the new J.R. Simplot campus.

Tanner Dame works full time as CEO. Brooks and Taylor spend most of their time heading sales divisions for Woodgrain Millwork.

“We like to joke that we have sawdust in our veins,” Brooks Dame told the panel of wealthy celebrity investors on the reality show.

The brothers talked about the company’s past and future at their Downtown store.

Q: What’s the company’s Treasure Valley origin story?

BROOKS DAME: Proof started in my garage. Originally, I wanted to make bamboo ski poles. My mom had a pair of old wood ski poles, and I thought they were cool and that I could modernize them. I got some bamboo sticks, and I couldn’t get the baskets to attach very well. I realized that people only ski in the wintertime, and only certain people will be into bamboo ski poles. It probably isn’t a good business idea.

But it got me thinking about wood. It was starting to trend. Starting to see it in furniture more, people trying to bring out the natural grain of wood. I stumbled upon a pair of 18th- or 19th-century reading glasses from Japan. They were basically bamboo sticks with lenses in them. I thought, “This is really cool.”

The Dame brothers grew up across the Snake River from Fruitland in Ontario, now the name of Proof Eyewear’s most popular frame.

Q: So it was just you at first?

BROOKS: When Tanner graduated from college [Brigham Young University], he and his wife moved in with us for a few months. We started slinging glasses out of my garage. Every week, we’d ship a few more boxes. First we used a laundry basket. Then it was a large bag. About that time, Tanner took over operations, packaging, marketing and branding. That’s when it started taking off. Taylor came later.

Q: What are your roles now?

BROOKS: Tanner became CEO three weeks ago. Taylor and I are in a more consulting role and on the board now.

To win a Huffington Post essay contest, Brooks Dame wrote about his vision for Proof Eyewear as a vehicle for philanthropy. The prize? $25,000 worth of Hewlett-Packard computers. Dame won. He sold half of the computers to raise more than $10,000 in seed money.

Q: Tanner, you’d planned on working at WoodGrain after college. Why did you take on Proof as a full-time job instead?

TANNER DAME: It was a risk in that it wasn’t proven, but it was also exciting and unknown to jump without knowing what was going to happen. My wife and I moved in with Brooks for a few months to keep things affordable. It was nice my wife was willing [for Tanner] to take a substantial reduction in salary and benefits from what WoodGrain offers.

Q: What did the family think about Proof?

TANNER: Our dad said, “This is cool, but let’s focus on what’s important. You have to support your family. You have to make an income.” Until we went on “Shark Tank,” our dad thought it was more of a side project, a distraction.

BROOKS: Now, it’s a big source of pride. He has about 10 pairs in his desk they give away when customers come in. I think he’s pretty proud of the fact that his boys created this thing and have a spot Downtown, that we’re employing people.

We’re not the highest end of high fashion. We’re in Idaho. We want something that fits the average person.

Proof Eyewear CEO Tanner Dame

Q: Did you grow up working at WoodGrain?

TANNER: We spent every summer out in the mill. Our friends would get jobs at McDonald’s. We started at age 12. We were too young to be involved in the manufacturing, so our dad started us picking up cigarette butts in the parking lot, stuff like that.

Q: How did you prepare for “Shark Tank?”

BROOKS: We watched all of seasons and took notes to get a sense for what kind of questions, say, Mark Cuban would ask. We figured out our exact costs because we knew they’d ask.

We’d seen some where they tore people apart. We didn’t want to look like fools. The week before the episode, the teaser aired, showing Daymon [John] asking, “Do you have any sales?” and it cuts to me [stammering], and it cuts to Tanner looking like a deer in the headlights. I looked at my wife and said, “This is going to be a bloodbath.” I was worried that this could kill the brand.

Q: On the show, you sought $150,000 to build inventory in exchange for 10 percent share of the company. You received two offers, both for larger shares of the company, that you turned down. How did you make that decision?

TAYLOR DAME: You could tell from the offer that they valued our company at $500,000, and we were on track to reach that in sales that year. We huddled up and said, “This doesn’t make sense.”

BROOKS: We left with two offers. We hopped in the rental car and drove down the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway]. We were quiet for a while. We wondered, “Did we do the right thing? We’re a young company, and we just walked away from six figures.” We really needed the money to make it all go. We went to Costco and got hot dogs.

Q: What do you remember about the night that your episode aired on TV?

BROOKS: There was elation, because we were finally seeing how the show shook out — pretty favorably. But by time it aired in the Mountain Time Zone, our website crashed from traffic.

We went into gorilla mode. We went to the shop, got the hosting people on the line. We were there until maybe 3 in the morning trying to get the website back up. By around 1 the next day, the site was back up. But we felt like we missed an opportunity.

Q: Did the exposure boost business?

TANNER: We had 1.2 million visitors to our website in the week after the show. We were in the shop the next day answering Twitter and filling orders. We were taking big garbage bags of orders to the Post Office. The boost was huge. It put us at a higher level than before, especially opportunities with the media.

Q: Your business — being cool — seems terrifying and mercurial. How do you ensure the brand stays cool?

TANNER: The sales team is constantly talking to reps, talking to people in the industry. They might say, “Our collection is small, and we need to offer a wider frame.” We also have customer feedback, pointing out issues or trends. We come together as a team twice a year and take that feedback on personal styles and likes and see how that fits within what’s trending. At that point, we decide if it has longevity and will make money in the end.

It’s probably not the Mecca for fashion or for innovative products, but we draw inspiration from Boise, from the mountains to the rivers to the outdoor activities in our backyard.

Proof Eyewear CEO Tanner Dame

Q: Does the research make it any less scary to release a new design?

TAYLOR: We try to follow the trends, and sometimes we put out a frame that’s a little bit edgy, or more on the cutting edge of what’s trending, and it’s a flop. When we try new things, if it doesn’t pick up sales quickly, we kill it. The Ontario frame is still one of our most popular frames. We have our core five or six frames we know are our bread and butter.

Q: Have you taken investor money since?

BROOKS: No. We’re pretty fiercely independent. We don’t want anybody to say, “Hey, now that I’m an investor, go in this other direction” We like being able to control our own destiny. It’s fly or die for us. We’ll either make it or we won’t.

Q: Have you received offers to sell the company?

BROOKS: We had a lot of venture capitalists approach us after “Shark Tank.” We’ve had Goldman Sachs and some of the big financial companies reach out to us. We haven’t come out and said, “No, we’re not interested in that.” But we haven’t pursued it.

We feel we’re just hitting our stride. We feel like a startup in a lot of ways, even though we’ve been around nearly six years. We want to grow the brand authentically.