Ombraz’ Co-Founders Jensen Brehm and Nikolai Paloni are doing more than upending the status quo for sunglasses. They’re also saving the planet one mangrove tree at a time and having a heck of a lot of fun in the process.
“Jensen and I are having a blast doing this,” Nikolai said. “I love waking up everyday.”
It’s not just the fact that they work out of a barn loft on a 3-acre lavender farm just minutes from downtown Seattle — a pad owned by Jensen’s 103-year-old grandma. Nor is it solely due to the epic zipline that starts in that second-story loft! (This author got to watch the zipline in action over FaceTime!)
The true thrill of building Ombraz comes from an enthusiastic reception to an altogether novel concept: armless sunglasses!
“The biggest win is convincing thousands of people to try a wacky pair of sunglasses that they saw on the Internet,” Nikolai said. “It’s resonating with them and that’s really incredible. We’re so grateful for everyone’s support. Our customers are our family at this point.”
In addition to raising more than $200K through their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign — which featured a hilarious video that went semi-viral — Ombraz also earned Backpacker Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Award and has been featured in every major outdoor industry publication from Outside Magazine to Gear Patrol.
“We just smiled and dialed for two weeks,” Nikolai said of Ombraz’ lean in-house PR effort, adding that they knew their idea was so novel that they had to get credibility from industry experts for people to be willing to take a risk on their unique sunnies.
This time last year, Ombraz was still fulfilling Indiegogo backer rewards — a rough process that involved putting in 16 hour days for 2.5 months. Now Ombraz’ armless sunglasses are sold on Garage Grown Gear, REI and Huckberry.
The idea to replace sunglass arms with a leather cord happened by accident, actually during a camel safari of all things.
Back in 2012, while living in India for a year, Jensen bought a pair of aviator sunglasses for his upcoming safari. On day one of that safari, someone sat on his sunglasses, snapping off the arms. For the rest of the safari, Jensen used a piece of twine to secure the lenses around his eyes.
“I couldn’t believe how well that make-shift MacGyver pair worked,” Jensen said. “It actually worked better than before.”
Jensen found that they didn’t inch down his nose, he could throw them in a bag or back pocket without worrying about breaking them, he could hang them around his neck when not in use, and they fit his small head size.
After the camel safari, he replaced the twine with an elegant leather cord and continued to use them. “I wore that same pair for 5 years and that meant a lot because I lose my wallet once a week,” Jensen said.
Jensen and Nikolai met while in college. After graduating, they teamed up on another business. “We loved working with each other,” Jensen said. “It felt like a great synergistic partnership as far as building a company goes.”
However, while successful, they soon realized that first business wasn’t scaleable. So they eventually shuttered it, pivoting their focus to Ombraz.
The hardest part of launching Ombraz proved to be designing the cord that secures the shades to peoples’ noggin. Nikolai and Jensen ended up testing 200 different iterations from 15 different suppliers before landing on their current setup. In addition to needing something that would stay put, they wanted a cord that had an elegant, artisanal feel.
It wasn’t just the cord that required inventing an entirely new way of doing things. Jensen and Nikolai have come up with unique knot-tying methods and elevated the industry standard for scratch resistance.
“I started calling around and ended up calling this company that makes aerospace-grade hard coating. We asked if they could modify it so we could apply it to our lenses. They did and boom!” Nikolai said.
Ombraz recently received a patent for their sunglass design. Through a partnership with a local boutique eyewear shop — the same one, in fact, that linked them up with the manufacturer who made their first frame prototypes — they’re also able to offer prescription lenses.
The list of accomplishments for this fledgeling brand is long, but doesn’t stop there. They’ve also teamed up with Eden Reforestation Projects to plant 115,000 mangrove trees in Madagascar — 20 trees for every pair of shades sold.
“We knew at the start that we wanted to build a business that had a net positive environmental impact,” Nikolai said.
“Each pair is not only carbon neutral but carbon negative,” Jensen said. “When you buy a pair of Ombraz it actually offsets the carbon for a round-trip ticket for two people from Seattle to Hawaii. We’re actually the most carbon negative product that we know of out there.”
Moving forward, Jensen and Nikolai have a clear and exciting vision for Ombraz. In the short-term, they plan to launch new frame styles and components. In the long-term, they hope to make sidearms obsolete.
“We want to be the Kleenex of armless sunglasses,” Nikolai said.
With Ombraz weighing in at a mere 20 grams, we wouldn’t be surprised if ultralight backpackers help lead the charge toward that future.