Bradford and Bryan Manning: Two Blind Brothers Taking Care of Businessby Bill Holton
There are any number of good reasons why you might want to start a business. Perhaps you feel passionate about an idea, new product, or service. Perhaps you want to earn enough to retire early. Or you might yearn for the no-boss independence that entrepreneurship can offer, or the thrill and satisfaction of being able to say, “I built that.”
For Bradford and Bryan Manning, AKA Two Blind Brothers, the business idea began with a coincidence. “In 2016 I had just moved to Manhattan with my job selling banking software, and my brother, Bradford, was showing me around downtown," explains Bryan. "At one point we wandered into Bloomingdales, and that’s when we got separated.” Here Bradford picks up the story: “We finally caught up with each other outside the store. We both had shopping bags…and inside each was the exact same t-shirt. Same color, same design, the very same fabric.”
The brothers are both blind due to Stargardt's Disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration. Like many people with visual impairments, they do a lot of their shopping by touch, and, consequently, they wound up with the very same shirt because of the fabric. “It was extremely soft,” says Bradford.
They shared the story with friends. “We should go into business making super-soft t-shirts,” they joked, until one night one of their friends piped up: “You know, if you guys are serious, I can help you with the design and finding the right fabric.”
Bradford was working for a small private equity firm. Neither brother dared drop everything and risk everything on an unproven longshot. “Next to opening a restaurant, fashion is probably the riskiest business to enter,” says Bradford. But the brothers decided to take on the idea as a nights-and-weekend side project. They pitched in a few thousand bucks each as seed money, and since they were both active with Foundation for Fighting Blindness, from the start they planned to donate any profits to the organization.
Bradford and Bryan began checking out fabric swatches in sample books from companies around the world. They finally decided to create their own, a tri-blend material made of 66 percent bamboo, 28 percent cotton, and 6 percent spandex.
“Bamboo gives the fabric material a new level of softness beyond what typical cotton and silk can give you,” says Bryan. “That’s because bamboo fibers are long, circular, and they are not chemically treated, which means the fabric features no rough, grainy material that can irritate the skin.”
“We went through at least seven different prototypes, altering the length and style” says Bradford. “On one version we included a braille label, but it came back upside down.”
When the brothers were satisfied with the design, they engaged a local garment jobber to sew 200 shirts. Bradford built a Squarespace website, and he and Bryan began to hit up family and friends to “do us a favor and buy a shirt.”
Another friend helped out by shooting a video featuring the brothers telling their story and pitching their tees. “We re-edited the video and used social media to hit specific audiences, like people who are interested in high-quality t-shirts, Manhattan shoppers, and friends of blindness organizations,” says Bradford.
A local Fox news affiliate caught the video and produced and aired a feature of their own. “Sales picked up, but it was still just a trickle,” Bryan recalls.
Bradford’s work assistant helped out with shipping. “Again, we recut the news video and used social media to spread our message,” says Bradford. “And then the Ellen Degeneres Show called, and that nearly sank us.”
“They asked if we’d mind gifting 300 shirts to members of their audience,” Bryan still shudders. "That was pretty much our entire inventory,” adds Bradford. But they decided to go ahead.
Happily, during their segment on the Ellen show Ellen pulled out her checkbook and wound up buying $30,000 worth of t-shirts for the entire audience.
“That’s when the orders began to pour in—over a thousand, and we didn’t have any stock left,” says Bryan.
The brothers sent emails explaining the delay and offering to cancel orders if the customer wanted. “I think we wound up with two cancelations,” Bradford recalls.
The entrepreneurial ball was now rolling, and in short order the momentum grew with endorsements from Richard Branson, Ashton Kutcher, and another feature story on NBC News. It was time to expand.
“One of the first things we did was hire someone to redo the TwoBlindBrothers.com website,” says Bradford. “I had done an OK job on Squarespace, but their platform wasn’t the most accessible; there were a lot of problems. For example, the background on our product shots clashed with the visual theme of the site. We moved to Shopify, which not only has its own shopping cart, which Squarespace didn’t offer at the time, it also allowed us to start offering promotional discount codes.”
The brothers engaged an accountant to help make sense of their disorganized business records and keep their books, and brought on Bradford’s work assistant as their first full-time employee. Next was a friend who’d worked as a fashion buyer, who helped extend their line to other products, including three button pullovers, bottoms, and hoodies. The brothers themselves work for minimum wage, for the health insurance, and are currently in the process of converting the business from an LLC to a foundation similar to the one that sells Newman’s Own products so profits aren’t taxed before they can be donated.
In their three years in business, Two Blind Brothers has donated over $400,000 to Foundation Fighting Blindness. And despite the fact that Bradford and Bryan are not out to make a profit, they do have some words of encouragement and tried and tested advice for people with visual impairments who have been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
Tips for Entrepreneurs with Visual Impairments
Start SlowIn times of yore if you wanted to start a company with national or international reach you had to start with millions of dollars in capital, a formal business plan, lines of credit, office space, and an advertising agency. “These days you can launch a business from your laptop computer,” says Bryan. “You don’t have to go bet-the-farm all in. You can work your regular job and run your business part time nights and weekends. That’s how these Two Blind Brothers got started.”
Get Social“One of the reasons it’s so easy these days to build an audience or marketplace is the existence of social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest,” notes Bradford. “These platforms enable you to aim your marketing to an extremely niche customer base, which is perfect if the customers for your product or service are few and far between.” Perhaps you make novelty candles in the shape of bowling pins. Or maybe your medical transcription hours just got cut in half and you’d like to pick up the financial shortfall by transcribing podcasts so they can be indexed and searched. “Today’s social media enables you to reach out to any number of small but high-potential markets,” Bradford notes. “That’s what we were doing when we recut our videos and put them in front of different audiences, such as Manhattan shoppers, luxury t-shirt consumers, and supporters of blindness research.”
NetworkYou may not have all the skills you need to market, sell and ship those bowling pin candles, but these days it’s easier than ever to find free help. Can’t quite get the hang of creating an eBay store? The site features any number of help forums where users help each other. “We didn’t know what was involved in designing a producing a super-soft t-shirt, but we knew people who did, and they were willing to give us a leg up,” says Bryan.
Outsource, Outsource, Outsource!If you’re designing and selling hand-made sweaters, stick to your knitting, so to speak. Focus on what you do best, and hire others to do the rest. “We never screened insurance companies when it was time to offer health insurance,” says Bryan. “We hired an HR company, which left us more time to do what we do best: create new products and market them.” Is your podcast taking off and you’d like to begin offering searchable transcripts? Sure, you could hunt and peck out a few dozen words a minute, but how much content could you produce in the same hours it takes that medical transcriptionist looking for extra work to zip out a letter-perfect transcription?
On one point Bryan and Bradford agree wholeheartedly, “times have never been better for a blind individual to start his or her own business.”
“Maybe I can’t get a job running a register at Duane Reade, but I can use all of my accessibility skills and tools to create a product and market and sell it worldwide,” says Bradford. “Being visually impaired and being an entrepreneur have a lot in common,” adds Bryan. “Operating a successful business means being thrown into a world where you rely on independence and resourcefulness to survive and succeed. A good deal of entrepreneurship is creative problem-solving. You have to get comfortable facing new challenges, being assertive and creative."