Kathy Tran-Riese Is Bridging a Gap in the Eyewear Market
Winnipeg-based entrepreneur Kathy Tran-Riese founded KayTran Eyewear in 2012, not long after finishing her MBA. The company was a passion project: Tran-Riese, who has a low nose bridge, had never been able to find eyewear that fit properly. She wanted people with the same face shape—many of whom are of Asian and African descent—to have better options, so she created those options herself. In KayTran’s early years, the company remained a side focus, but demand took off during the pandemic and Tran-Riese plunged into KayTran full-time. Actors Jessica Henwick (Glass Onion, Love and Monsters) and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels, Chicago) are among those spotted in KayTran frames. KayTran’s collection is set to double with an upcoming expansion of its optical offerings, and a new foray into genderless and men’s designs. We spoke to Tran-Riese about the gap she spotted in the eyewear market, and why giving her business time to grow was the key to her success.
I’ve had to wear glasses since I was four, but my whole life, I could never find anything that would fit my face shape. I have quite a low nose bridge that I inherited from my parents, and I also have wide and high cheekbones. When I was doing my MBA at Western, I went shopping for sunglasses and while there were plenty of frames at the optical store, I couldn’t find a pair that fit me. A store clerk told me that they don’t really make them for my face shape. It was demoralizing. I started to feel like there was something wrong with my face.
I was in an entrepreneurship class that year, and our final project was to develop a business plan. I wrote a plan to develop a line of women’s sunglasses tailored for Asian facial features and lower nose bridges. A lot of people don’t even realize they have a low nose bridge and that it’s why their glasses or sunglasses constantly slip down their face or sit on their cheeks. They may find that their eyelashes also constantly touch their lenses.
After researching what makes traditional frames poor-fitting, I pinpointed three major design changes to fix these issues. After I graduated in 2010, I spent about two years working on the eyewear line, but the industry isn’t easy to break into. Luckily, through research on the internet, I found a mentor to help me navigate the process—a lady who owns her own eyewear brand based out of the U.S. I flew down to New York to meet her and she connected me with a few different manufacturers who had been in the business for decades.
Related: How Do I Find a Mentor?
With those manufacturers, I prototyped a few designs—I was surprised to learn they were carved out of wood at first—and went back and forth to refine the product for at least a year. We’re a company based solely on the unique features our product offers to people, so we absolutely had to get it right.
KayTran Eyewear launched in 2012. I pitched independent retail stores and went to a trade show in New York to showcase the eyewear line. We got into a few stores in Toronto, Miami and New York, but I couldn’t sustain that kind of grassroots effort on a larger level, especially compared to the conglomerates out there with large sales teams. I quickly learned that in order to scale enough to be in a large amount of stores, I would need a large number of sales agents to represent the line. KayTran was my passion project, and I was building it while still working corporate finance and consulting jobs. In the following years, a lot of life changes happened. In 2014, I moved from Toronto to Winnipeg, where my husband is from. I also had two kids and had to take a pause from work. So I didn’t market the products as aggressively for several years—we eventually pivoted to just selling online.
But in 2021, we saw a huge lift in sales. The market had changed: Companies like Clearly and Warby Parker had made customers much more comfortable purchasing eyewear online. So we relaunched. We went all-in on direct-to-consumer and made our site more user-friendly. We also put a lot of resources into social media marketing, because we needed to educate people about what a low nose bridge is, so they’d know they could have a better fit. After relaunching, we expanded our reach to so many more customers across North America, and have now shipped to over 17 countries, including Singapore, the Philippines and Germany.
That year, I finally left my corporate job and dove into KayTran full time. Often, people who have aspirations to start a business feel like they have to quit their job and do it full time right away. But every journey towards building a business looks different. For me, it’s been over a decade now, with pauses and a relaunch. A business doesn’t have to be all-in, all at once—it can be something that’s grown over time.
In 2023, our year-to-date sales have grown 352 per cent versus 2022. We’ve seen a strong appetite for affordable optical and many requests for unisex and men’s options, so to support demand we’re launching our first men’s collection and our first full optical collection in the fall. I’ve seen an outpouring of comments from customers who had struggled their whole lives without proper fitting frames. They’re relieved to have options. A lot of them expressed that they felt seen, which was so moving. That ability to help them feel more confident about themselves—and to remind them there isn’t anything wrong with them—has made me proud to do this work.