Nathan Kondamuri got his first pair of glasses when he was 7 years old. “I remember really vividly just how awful that experience was,” he recalls. “It's really stigmatizing and daunting wearing glasses as a kid. There's not that many options. Every other product in your life — like your clothes, your shoes and sneakers — they’re exciting. Glasses are a static medical device.”
He shared the memory his senior year at Stanford with his best friend and classmate, Sophia Edelstein, a women who, he jokes, is “doomed with 20/20 vision.” They decided to launch a company offering personalized eyewear for kids. Customers would buy a pair of base frames with prescription lenses, and change the look by adding “Top Frames” featuring different colors and patterns.
“Your personality is changing all the time. Your interests are changing. The world is dynamic. You’re dynamic. So why shouldn’t your glasses be dynamic?” Kondamuri says.
The students declared themselves co-founders and co-CEOs of their new company, Pair Eyewear, and made their first prototype by hand in 2017, cutting frames from a sheet of acetate and painting the Top Frames with different shades of nail polish — pink, yellow and blue.
It took two years of product development and more than 100 prototypes before they starting selling their glasses online in the fall of 2019, offering a choice of five base frame styles for children that could be personalized with a selection of acetate Top Frames that snap on with magnets.
Then came their big break: Shark Tank. Two of the TV show's judges, Lori Greiner and Stich Fix founder Katrina Lake, invested $400,000 during an episode that aired in March 2020. At the time, Kondamuri and Edelstein had just two full-time employees. “We were literally the four of us watching the computer explode, watching sales come in,” Edelstein says. “It felt incredible.”
In response to demand, Pair started offering glasses to adults. Sales grew ten-fold from 2020 to 2021 and are expected to triple from 2021 to this year. The company, headquartered in New York City's Flatiron District, now has hundreds of thousands of customers, 100 employees and a manufacturing facility in California. Its website offers $60 base frames and $25 Top Frames in thousands of styles — from “gold confetti” and “classic cheetah” to licensed looks such as Sesame Street Elmo. The average Pair customer owns five Top Frames, the company says, while the most devoted own more than 100.
Now Pair is looking to take on eyewear giant Luxottica Group. While fellow startup Warby Parker may seem the more obvious rival, Luxottica is the true global giant, and it's aiming big.
Rick Yang, general partner and head of consumer investing for venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates, which co-led Pair’s $60 million Series B round announced in December 2021, says a growing appetite for personalization made the company very attractive, as did the new prominence of eyewear as a fashion statement in the age of Zoom, when no one can see your shoes.
But what sealed the deal was the co-founders’ ability to follow their intuition while hiring and relying on seasoned industry executives who can coach them and carry out the vision. “They walk that line very well,” Yang says.