This Social Enterprise Donates 100% of Its Proceeds to Foundation Fighting Blindness
Two Blind Brothers is a social enterprise created by Bradford and Bryan Manning, two brothers who have been diagnosed with an eye condition called Stargardt's disease. Brad, who has a degree in finance, and Bryan, who has a degree in statistics, created Two Blind Brothers to make the softest clothing and donate 100% of the proceeds to retinal researchers finding cures for eye diseases through Foundation Fighting Blindness.
NonProfit PRO had the opportunity to talk to both Brad and Bryan in an exclusive interview to learn more about the social enterprise, how it built its brand and how it works with nonprofits.
Share your background and how the idea of Two Blind Brothers came about.
Brad: Bryan and I have a rare eye condition called Stargardt's disease, which is a juvenile form of macular degeneration where you generally lose your center vision over time. Oftentimes, people with Stargardt will keep a lot of their peripheral vision, but there are a lot of mutations, there's a lot of things that can happen, but that has been the case for Bryan and I, and that was sort of a rough moment for us. I'm five years older than Bryan, so I was diagnosed first. And the process to get diagnosed started because I had failed the kindergarten eye chart, which basically started this two-year-long hunt to figure out what had happened to my eyesight. This was a rare condition, and it took many doctors, many crazy opinions that weren't correct, but eventually, I ended up in an office with my mom and the doctor walked in and said, "Hey, I've got bad news. Your son's got this incurable eye disease, take him home, teach him Braille, give him a magnifier and best of luck." And that was sort of, the start of the story.
Bryan: And to fast forward quite a bit, Brad and I both went to middle school and high school, and we both ended up at the University of Virginia. I got a degree in statistics, Brad got a degree in finance, and prior to Two Blind Brothers, I was working in data sales for a big technology company, and Brad was doing finance at a small private equity fund — so a ton to do with fashion, of course. But we were shopping one day; I had moved to New York, and Brad was like, "We have to update your wardrobe. You don't look very good." And he wasn't wrong, but I also didn't feel good to hear that, so we went to Bloomingdale's. For any reader or anybody who's blind or visually impaired, the shopping is awful, because you can't see the prices, you can't see the sizes, you can't see what the brand is and so what you have to do is you have to take a picture, and it just takes forever to actually zero in on a garment.
Bryan: What we do instead is we run around and touch everything until we say, "Oh, that feels like quality, that feels good, that feels like something I'd want to wear." Then you pull it off the rack, and you do all of the work to figure out if you actually want to buy it. Well, on this day, Brad and I got separated, which if you put two visually impaired guys in a big room together with a lot of hallways, I bet you can imagine how quickly that happens. Well, we met outside the store and crazily enough, we actually had bought the exact same shirt. We talked about why, and we struck upon this idea of that sense of touch — because it was a very soft, comfortable, feeling shirt, and it just so happened that we both had felt it and said, "Wow, this is amazing!" So we struck upon this idea of what if there was something around this. What if we could make clothing that was extraordinarily soft and give 100% of the profit back to retinal researchers working on a cure for blindness, because now is the single most exciting time in retinal eye disease therapies in history. We're in the midst of a true medical revolution — people are being cured of blindness, from reading Braille, to reading print, which is just magical. And we wanted to try and help the next wave of researchers get there a little sooner.
What is a social enterprise, and how does it differ from a nonprofit?
Brad: The easiest way to understand it is that a nonprofit has a clear legal and tax standing as a 501(c)(3). When Bryan and I were setting this up, we did not come at this with a business plan. This wasn't a way for us to enrich ourselves; this was a way for us to have fun and do something good for a cause that we cared a lot about. And one of the things that we're looking at now is structure, because there's a lot of advantages to setting something up as an LLC — you get an incredible amount of flexibility. If we weren't giving all of our profits away, we could raise money from strategic investors, and we aren't confined by some of the rules related to how 501(c)(3)s operate their business. To the extent we want it, we have a lot of privacy on what we're doing and how we're operating the company. But the fact of the matter is, just outside of the actual legal and tax structure, I think one of the things that we've learned is that as technology and sort of the culture has moved forward, you can now sort of address customers and stakeholders in a much more nuanced and dynamic way.
Brad: If Bryan and I wanted to start something like this 10 or 15 years ago, our best bet would have been, "OK, let's come up with some big mainstream message, hire some expensive athlete or celebrity who is going help us cut through the noise." We'd do a big inventory buy, a big marketing buy in order to actually get some attention and convince major retailers, which were the only channel, to kind of embrace what we were doing. Now, we can actually start something very simply in our free time, on nights and weekends, that sort of speaks directly to people who care about an organization that's giving back, care about an organization that's helping combat blindness, in which 11 million Americans have a retinal eye disease. And I think the major difference is that we can just speak to people in a way that hits on things that they care about beyond just price and quality. And that's been a freedom and something that we've benefited from without really realizing it until we started to get traction — the more personal you are, the more advantage you have, especially with your small or nuanced audience.
Can you talk about how your partnership with Foundation Fighting Blindess developed and if you work with any other nonprofits?
Bryan: When Brad and I were first diagnosed 30 years ago, Foundation Fighting Blindness was really kind of just getting going, and I think even at that time, it was known by a slightly different name. But the thing that has always attached us so closely to it is its work and effort toward finding a cure. Brad and I are big believers in scientific advancement and we really love cutting-edge research that can be hypertranslational across diseases. And we think that supporting the scientists, supporting these early researchers, is not only going benefit the eye space, but a lot of the treatments that are discovered for the eye will be able to be used for a ton of different sources. Our parents were originally involved with them, and as Brad and I have gotten older, we've gotten more involved — Brad's on the board of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and I'm a national trustee. When you have a disease like this, or any sort of big challenge, you try and cling to what can give you a sense of hope.
Bryan: This idea that there are hyper-intelligent, amazing people, working tirelessly every day to try and find a cure for you — it can be a really big sense of hope and a really big desire to keep fighting and going forward and to be there when the day the cure arrives comes. So that's been just a phenomenal partnership with us, for us, and Brad and I also partner with organizations like Industries for the Blind. We had a long partnership with Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind in Dallas that employ 70% visually impaired workers who actually make a lot of our garments or make some of our garments, which is super fun, because we get to donate money toward researchers working on a cure, and try and help employ people today. We are always on the hunt to find other organizations like this that employ these visually impaired workers. Usually it's government contracts, but trying to find ways to work with them so that we can further that employment help as well as future share help.
Brad: The only thing I would add is that as it relates to other organizations, we basically try to participate as much as our calendar allows. One of the things that I think Bryan and I were naive about when we started this project is that the community piece and the role that we get to play in the blind and visually impaired community. It’s probably the thing that is the most fun and most exciting now, and so whenever we get a chance, we try to do what we can to help out an event, to help some sort of campaign pass along a message of lessons learned, and it's been a really rewarding part of the experience.
What has your marketing strategy been to promote Two Blind Brothers?
Brad: In retrospect, it worked really well for us, but at the time, it worked for different reasons than we thought it would. When we started this project, we had this big question: How are we going to represent what we're doing? How are we going to represent our brand? And you talk to any of our brand expert friends in New York City, they start breaking down what are the values, what are the principles, what are the elements you want to emphasize, how do you confine your mission into three empowerment words that will permeate your culture. We did none of that sort of sophisticated branding. We actually came from it from a totally different standpoint. Bryan and I discussed this, and we came up with the following. If we are going to live this project, we actually need it to reflect exactly who we are, how we feel and our own personal attitudes, and the brand really needs to just represent us, very honestly and genuinely. Otherwise, we won't enjoy it. If we have to stress elements that we don't believe in, if we have to speak to things that we just don't feel a passion for, there are other ways we could spend our time and contribute back to this cause.
Brad: What happened is it really started from a place of authenticity where we would just sort of speak candidly about it. We told our story, the good parts, the tough parts. And we didn't realize it when we were doing it, but since that moment, we've realized that is a powerful way to connect with a community, because it doesn't sound like a lot of traditional marketing and a lot of traditional advertising. Then there's this benefit we found with taking that message to these social media platforms, and we sort of developed a sophisticated way of making sure we can spread that message effectively. We use a lot of advertising on social media. And then I guess just the last thing I would add is that Bryan and I also quickly realized that for brands or anyone who wants to get a message out there, you have to rise above the noise, and that bar is a little bit higher than people think. Anything that we're trying to share as an ad, a message or a campaign that we're promoting, it really starts with the question of, "Is this going to get people's attention and outcompete the 10,000 other messages that they're going to hear that day?"
Bryan: It's interesting, Brad and I are often talking about how do you rise above the noise, and how do you make something interesting and spectacular for people? And the big thing that we always harp back to is really just telling a great story and really making people fall in love with that story or find interest in that story. We were trying to come up with a campaign that would put people in our shoes, because we get asked all the time, "What's it like to be visually impaired? How do you do a lot of things?" And we always came back to this idea that a lot of the best attributes, or the best lessons we've learned, in being visually impaired come from trusting people and little acts of trust. A cab driver to drop you off in the right street corner, a cashier to give you the correct change at a restaurant, the person who's walking across the street to actually see the cross sign instead of you just blindly following them. And so we decided to try and take that experience, those little acts of trust, and put it online. And so what we did is we blacked out our whole website, and we had just four price points. We called it the shop blind experience and explained this in a video, talking about trust, talking about how our goal was to provide, to give you that sensation, give you that unique experience.
Bryan: And I was absolutely shocked because we thought this was going to be a nice little media moment — some news organization would pick it up thinking it was a fun thing — but what actually happened was our sales and our conversions and the customer feedback was just absolutely enormous. It's become the absolute cornerstone of our entire business, and the more we've thought about it, it is just rising above that noise, not only from a content perspective but as well from a shopping perspective. It's unique, it's special, it's interesting, and now we get to go on TikTok, Facebook or YouTube, and we get to watch these unboxing where the first 15 seconds are abject terror for me, because I don't want them to open the box and be like, "Oh, I hate this." We don't get that very much, which is just so amazing, but it's been so fun to watch this idea of trust spread across so many people and seeing it be so commercially relevant for our business.
Any tips or advice for nonprofits on social media strategy?
Brad: My first piece of advice would be make an investment in testing paid advertising on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. The fact of the matter is we now very fortunately live in an age where whatever your nonprofit is, you can find that community in an efficient way on social media. There's tons of good questions about, "How do you get donors’ attention? What's the scale? How many of those people are going to donate?" But the fact of the matter is they are there, you can actually speak to them and you can test how they respond to what you're putting out. And if nonprofits aren't doing that yet, they really need to do that. That's how Bryan and I have built our entire project. And then the next piece I would say is that the more you can share the stories that are unforgettable about what you're doing, the better.
Brad: These can actually be better if underproduced. Somebody shooting a video with their iPhone actually lowers the viewer's defenses if it's something that's sort of scripted and orchestrated. Those are some of the lessons that we've learned. And a lot of extra bonus points for novelty or things that rise above the noise, things that don't look like every other post, every other kind of campaign that you've seen. "Oh, we do great work. Please contribute" — test and find that nuanced, novel message is worth its weight in that effort.