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Lessons in innovation from Kirk & Kirk

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Kirk & Kirk is a Brighton-based eyewear brand that borrows from the past to make way for a bolder, brighter future. One where purchasing a new pair of glasses is an exciting process, and adorners feel down right awesome, the moment they put their specs on.

Kirk & Kirk is the only company in the world that hand-make frames from acrylic (a specific type of acrylic they created themselves). This means they can create their own colours too, and their glasses come in a whole range of shades and shapes.

They’ve been making statements for faces for over 20 years, but their roots run much deeper. Kirk has been a name in eyewear since 1919, when the Kirk Brothers pioneered the post-war optics industry in London.

I caught up with Jason Kirk, MD and co-founder of Kirk & Kirk, ahead of his talk at the Brighton Summit on October 11th. The theme is Crack On, and many business owners will know how difficult that can be, especially with so much global uncertainty.

To help, here are some key lessons for business growth and innovation from my chat with Jason.

Bring your own flavour to your industry

The Kirk family started in optics in 1919, Jason told me. After the First World War ended, Sydney and Percy Kirk were looking for something to do. They found an old sewing machine and had the idea that they could convert it into a lense cutter. From here, they helped to grow the optics industry in London and the UK.

The Kirk brothers were innovators in both product and approach to business. Their couriers were even the first to deliver by motorbike in 1920’s London.

“My grandfather decided whatever he did in his business, he would bring something new to the industry. We do the same, we always try to bring something new to the market.”

After finding some old frames created by the Kirk Brothers, Jason and Karen, the husband and wife team behind Kirk & Kirk, felt inspired by the designs, something they felt was missing from the modern market, and decided they would start an eyewear brand with a difference.

It was time to change the public perception of eyewear.

“For years people have looked at glasses like a grudge purchase. I’ve got to wear this. It shouldn’t be like that. It should be that you put a pair of glasses on and it makes you feel amazing. It should be the same as a pair of shoes, or carrying a bag.”

You will recognise a Kirk & Kirk frame when you see it. You don’t need a logo. And it is this ingenuity that has taken this Brighton-based brand, global.

Use inspiration from the past

The style of Kirk & Kirk frames will really appeal to vintage lovers, and many were inspired by frames from the 40s, 50s and 60s.

“We were looking at a lot of frames from the 50s and 60s, trying to work out how they created them with lots of weird angles and weird cuts on them, and we realised they were using a material we weren’t used to seeing.

“So we started investigating. And instead of finding the material, we created a new material. We created our own grade of acrylic. We create sheets with this Italian manufacturer and we take frames and we hand make them the old fashioned way, but using acrylic.”

Kirk & Kirk are the only eyewear company in the world that hand-make their frames from acrylic. This also allows them to create their own colours and textures, giving them a completely unique product. I ask Jason why more eyewear brands hadn’t followed suit.

“ Because it’s really difficult to do. It took us years to research the material and how to make it…when you put them on, you feel how light they are.”

Know your audience like you know your friends

“We really try hard to deal with the consumer in the way the consumer wants to deal with us,” Jason told me. “It’s understanding how to communicate with all these people in their own world. It’s not about our world, it’s about their world.”

Knowing their audience is an essential part of the company’s ethos and growth strategy. They’re not only selling a product, they’re dealing in emotion. The intention is every time someone puts on a Kirk & Kirk frame, they feel their absolute best. And different colours and shapes of frames are worn to reflect, or compliment, a person’s mood.

“It’s not really about the colour, it’s more about the emotion that the colour makes you feel,” Jason explained when I asked him about the bright orange pair he was wearing. His glasses, he said, reflected the sunshine and joviality of the final days of summer.

Collaboration over competition

Community is key, especially in less stable times. Inspired again by the attitude of Percy and Sydney Kirk, Jason talked about the importance of collaboration over competition.

“[The Kirk brothers] had a brilliant attitude. They decided if they helped other people open factories near them, London would become a centre of excellence. And it did.”

Percy and Sydney were very generous in the way they conducted their business. Percy Kirk would create marketing books and give them to opticians to use free of charge. He’d actively encourage them to promote their businesses, and as they all grew, so did the industry.

We spoke about Brighton, and how this attitude of collaboration is a big part of the business community here.

“People have a great attitude. There’s no sense of unnecessary pride. People are just getting on with it and trying really hard. And there’s a sense of community and that’s something we really need in business. You get that sense of people working together. If businesses are prepared to talk to each other and listen to each other, we can all help each other to succeed.”

We agreed we need to see even more of this, and look to create an even bigger impact outside of the city.

Crack on

Fear can be destructive, particularly in business.

It will sneak up on you and put a stop to progress, sometimes without you even knowing it. And it’s not always easy to ‘crack on’ when many things seem so uncertain, but as businesses, we gots to keep keeping on.

Jason agreed, “What do you do? Do you wait until everything has settled down before you move your business forward? Or do you attack things straight on. Can you make decisions without knowing where everything is going to be? Or do you just sit and wait? And you can’t sit and wait, because everything is moving forward. By definition, if you wait, you’re moving backwards.”

So, how do we keep moving in times of difficulty? Well, we shimmy ourselves along to The Brighton Summit for starters!

In his talk at The Brighton Summit, Jason will talk more about his lessons in innovation, inspiration and pure grit. I ask him for one key takeaway you’ll hear at his talk…”I’d like it if people would think differently about eyewear. And if they can take away all their preconceived ideas about eyewear.”

By Sophie Turton, The Joyful Web 

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