Jacob Rosenberg of Tajima Direct: “Balance of work with enjoying your life”

I’ll start with the most difficult parts of being a “TwentySomething Founder”. Firstly, the balance of work with enjoying your life for the first time in the real world. Being a founder of a startup is a lot of work and you’re the only one who’s there and willing to do it, so it all falls […]

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I’ll start with the most difficult parts of being a “TwentySomething Founder”. 
Firstly, the balance of work with enjoying your life for the first time in the real world. Being a founder of a startup is a lot of work and you’re the only one who’s there and willing to do it, so it all falls on your shoulders — the successes and the failures. That makes it hard to remove yourself and keep a balanced life, which I find so important for productivity and overall happiness.

As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Rosenberg, a recent Stanford Graduate from the COVID-19 Class of 2020. While at Stanford, he captained the #1 nationally ranked Varsity Sailing Team and incubated the concept for his startup, Tajima Direct since his Junior year. He is now working full time as the Co-Founder and CEO of Tajima Direct | Premium Lens Replacement.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in sunny Southern California in a sunglass household. When I was born, my dad was a key leader at Oakley and my mom was an Olympic Windsurfer. When I was two, my dad left in pursuit of creating his own sunglass brand featuring a better-polarized lens technology than the industry and brands were offering. So, I grew up around sunglasses and entrepreneurship as he built his company, Kaenon Polarized. Spending my time surfing, sailing, and constantly on the water, sunglasses were a necessity and I saw firsthand the value of a superior polarized lens. Fast forward and I find myself as an undergraduate at Stanford University, surrounded by a vibrant startup culture, focused on incorporating the latest developments in technology into our increasingly digital-first world. All of these factors lead me to want to start my own company revolving around eyewear. The pieces all came together as my Dad had sold Kaenon and was now doing the B2B business for this patented lens technology he developed. It all seemed to make sense, why not offer this superior polarized lens technology direct to the consumer, so anyone can have the best vision in whatever sunglass or eyeglass frame they like most that reflect their own lifestyle and needs.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

The most interesting story that’s happened since we started building Tajima Direct has definitely been seeing Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris wearing our Tajima polarized lenses in her viral video while on the phone with Joe Biden right after they officially won the election. Part of the story of Tajima Direct is that my dad sells this patented polarized lens technology to select other sunglass companies through his B2B business noted above, including one company called Mykita. Kamala was wearing a pair of Mykita sunglasses with our Tajima lenses in them, which was very exciting and surprising to see. From this experience, I learned first that anything can happen and to be open-minded to the potential possibilities. Secondly, a big takeaway was how much my dad’s B2B business and this B2C business can be mutually beneficial in that people hear about ‘Tajima lenses’ from the brands he sells to as well as individual customers going through Tajima Direct’s direct to consumer side building up the brand equity in having a ‘Tajima lens’.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are two main elements that make Tajima Direct stand out from other eyewear companies. The first element is our product. We deliver a superior lens than many of our customers have ever worn before — whether that’s in a standard polarized sunglass lens or any of our prescription lenses including everyday clear lenses, polarized sunglass lenses, or light adaptive Transitions lenses. Secondly, we stand out from other companies through our customer service. When you need help with anything on our website, you can live chat with the two co-founders (my Dad and I) for help. We purposely communicate a lot to our customers throughout the process to provide the best experience we can — from letting them know we received their frames, to providing updates of what stages their lenses are at through the process, to answering any questions that they might have. We also try to communicate a lot with our customers so we can have a direct engagement with them. That direct engagement has allowed us to learn tons about what they like, don’t like, etc so we can continue to evolve our processes and offerings to create the best experience for that end consumer. All you need to do is read our reviews to see that the quality of our lenses and our strong customer service are the reasons we have nearly all 5-star reviews (all but one, where we got 4 stars). One story that reflects the quality of our lenses and our impeccable customer service was a customer we recently were able to provide new prescription lenses for. He was just turning 80 years old and forced to go online due to the pandemic. He was struggling to navigate online so I offered to get on a call with him (which we do for a large number of customers to make it easy for them and so we can offer our expertise), even getting so granular as to explaining each step of how to send an image on an iPhone so we could have a copy of his prescription. Fast forward a few weeks and he gives me a call back to let me know how astounded he is at the clarity, detail, and workmanship of his new clear prescription lenses. On the spot, we made him a second order for another pair of frames, but this time with our polarized prescription sunglass lenses. Needless to say, he was thrilled with that pair as well.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a few key Stanford professors being willing to mentor me and provide insight along the way. The first two would be Stanford d.school (design school) professors, Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley. Being busy with school and captain of the Stanford Sailing Team, the progress on building the business was slow until I went to the d.school for Perry and Jeremy’s Launchpad Office Hours in early February of 2019. We discussed the idea, which they liked, and they told me to throw out the business plan and start taking action using d.school design principles of quick experiments and iteration (Design Thinking / Learning). That was a pivotal moment for me in creating this company. They told me to come back the following week with a simple SquareSpace website that detailed the Pain Point I was solving and how our Key Feature addressed that pain. So, I did, and that is when our website/online store (the same SquareSpace site we still are using to date) was created. I continued to come back week over week to meet with them, discuss the week’s progress, and make a plan for the following week. Early on was a lot of testing product/market fit and understanding who the target user was and what their pain point was that we solved. Not only did they help me to roadmap and strategize to find product/market fit, but they also put me in touch with resources and experts I would have never had access to. I have continued to meet with them roughly every week (still continuing via Zoom today) since then. It has been perfect to have the combination of Perry and Jeremy because Perry brought experience and wisdom in consumer products through his background building Atlas Snowshoe Co. and Patagonia while Jeremy brought more creativity in designing different specific technologies and advanced ideas for referrals, chatbot messages, etc. I’ve also had other mentors, who were professors in classes I’ve taken who caught wind of what I was working on and offered to help. An example would be Jack Fuchs, a decorated finance and operations executive who was my professor for a class called Entrepreneurial Decision Making, which was the last class I took before graduating from Stanford. He’s been an amazing mentor with many connections and experience investing and working with companies at all stages of growth.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Yes, right now we’re really focusing on planning and setting up for a big 2021. The most exciting projects to set up for the growth we expect include our new website, which will go live at the end of January 2021. We have many updates in this new website, especially centered around the backend customer flow and order process making it much simpler and easier to order the lenses you want with only a few taps on your preferred device. We’re also currently working with a photographer and videographer to create some new and exciting imagery that will give our site and marketing a fresh look.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Personally, I believe as a society, we really need to focus more on preserving our planet through sustainability initiatives. Part of the reason for starting Tajima Direct was to eliminate the amount of waste the eyewear industry creates. Research shows Americans spend more than 4-billion dollars on sunglasses a year! When the sunglass lenses get damaged, they’re tossed even though the frames are in perfectly good shape. Our business model naturally promotes sustainability by having customers reuse old frames instead of buying a new pair and adding their old ones to the landfill pile. Better for the Earth with less waste, better for your wallet with the savings of replacing your lenses as opposed to buying a new pair, and better for your eyes because you’ll likely be getting a superior lens than you originally had.

Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Yes, my favorite book that’s impacted my life would be Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. In this book, he tells the story of how he built Nike. The first major reason I chose this book is that it gave me a sense of what the path to success really looks like — the hard work and grind he put in with perseverance to push through the naysayers and skeptics, taking the lows and struggles in stride while building off the highs and successes when they came. The second major reason comes from this quote in the book: “So why was selling shoes so different? Because I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in. People, sensing my belief, wanted some of that belief for themselves. Belief, I decided. Belief is irresistible.” The importance of belief in what you’re selling and making other people want to join in that belief is the special takeaway that has stuck with me, especially in this business of Tajima Direct. It’s far easier to sell our patented polarized lens technology because I truly believe these lenses allow you to view the beauty of nature and the world around us in a better way than the naked eye provides or any other sunglass lens out there. I think people gravitate towards that belief and want to see the #TajimaView for themselves.

Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each

I’ll start with the most difficult parts of being a “TwentySomething Founder”. 
Firstly, the balance of work with enjoying your life for the first time in the real world. Being a founder of a startup is a lot of work and you’re the only one who’s there and willing to do it, so it all falls on your shoulders — the successes and the failures. That makes it hard to remove yourself and keep a balanced life, which I find so important for productivity and overall happiness. 
Secondly, the most difficult part of being a young founder is the lack of real-world experience. This has caused me to simply have to go out and learn most of the initiatives we’re working on because they aren’t skills that you learn in school. Especially aspects like how to develop press and find a PR person or agency to work with. It can be incredibly daunting having that first intro call not knowing the outline of how it’s supposed to go or ever having done something like that before. Luckily in my case, I’ve been able to lean on my Dad’s 25 years of experience building brands and in the eyewear industry, which has proven to be invaluable to our path in building this company. 
With those difficult moments, there are also many incredibly rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. While I noted previously the amount of work involved and you being the only one to do it, it’s actually really exciting at the same time because at the startup level, you see so clearly the direct correlation between what you input into the company and the output results of your work. It’s pretty evident the more work you put in, the more sales, profits, etc you get out of it and that might be harder to attribute in a large company where you’re one of many working on one initiative. 
The second most rewarding part of being a young founder is seeing what you built from the ground up becoming a success. Having built a profitable company, being able to work for yourself, and knowing that you created it all initially from nothing is a rewarding feeling.

Finally, my favorite and most rewarding part of being a young founder is hearing from the happy customers. For example like noted above, being able to help the older generations who need new prescription lenses, but are truly scared of going to their eye doctor for fear of catching COVID, and then hearing how thrilled they are with their new vision feels really good. It’s knowing that we created a solution that wasn’t available for these people before we existed that makes it so rewarding hearing their happy comments and return feedback.

What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?

The first takeaway I would advise a twenty year old looking to found a business would be to just dive in and not be afraid to fail fast. In my mind, it’s not worth taking a lot of time to plan and think about it. Instead, get out there and try to test demand in whatever way you can to see if people would actually pay or use your ‘solution’ to their pain point. I believe it’s way better to experiment and fail quickly so you can learn from it and move on rather than take time to plan without knowing if it will work. My next takeaway for an aspiring young founder would be to get ready for a lot of hard work as there’s a lot to do with a few people, especially in the beginning. With that being said, it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s very rewarding work and at least for me, more enjoyable than other work I’ve previously done. Lastly, I would highly recommend surrounding yourself with great mentors and partners. I cannot stress enough the value in choosing the right partners who complement your skillsets and finding great mentors who have more experience than you do to help guide you.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Jeff Raider, the co-founder and co-CEO of Harry’s Razors and the co-founder of Warby Parker. I would find it fascinating because the companies he has successfully built have been model companies that we’ve examined and taken cues from on how to build our business. He successfully disrupted the eyewear industry with Warby Parker and then the razor industry with Harry’s so I feel I could learn so much from him that would really help us grow Tajima Direct and change even further how people think about eyewear.

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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