Bryan Manning of Two Blind Brothers: Before It was a Business, It was a Mission

Bryan Manning of Two Blind Brothers: Before It was a Business, It was Mission-Driven

Earlier this week, Facebook launched their 3.5 Degrees podcast focused on sharing stories of entrepreneurs building successful businesses and giving them an opportunity to have conversations with well-known successful business people in their industries.  It’s a really great idea and very well executed way of storytelling that is both entertaining and informative.

The inaugural podcast features Bryan and Bradford Manning of Two Blind Brothers, who created their T-shirt business from the start to donate 100% of their profits to help to retinal research to try and cure blindness.  This mission hits close to home for them, as they are both legally blind due to having Stargardt disease since they were very young.

A Mission-Driven Business

Bryan and Bradford shared with me how they got started with the business, the central role their mission plays in it, and how by having philanthropy at the core of their business they’ve been able to raise over $300,000 dollars in the fight to find a cure for blindness – even as a startup.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.  To hear the full interview click on the embedded Soundcloud player below.

Small Business Trends:  Let me first welcome Bryan and Bradford Manning. Thank you for joining me guys.

Bradford Manning: Hey, happy to be here. Thanks for having us.

Bryan Manning:  Yeah. I appreciate it.

Small Business Trends:  I want to hear all about what you guys are doing with 2 Blind Brothers and we’ll talk for a few minutes around that, but I also want to congratulate you guys on being the inaugural guests for the new Facebook podcast. That is really cool.

Bryan Manning:  It was such a pleasure to work with Facebook on this 3.5 Degrees podcast and getting to meet Blake, the founder of Toms Shoes who is a huge inspiration to our project 2 Blind Brothers when we were first getting going and actually also just sparked a lot of great conversations and made a lot of great change over the last what 12 to 15 years they’ve been around which is amazing.

Bradford Manning: Yeah, this is one of those situations where you want to be the guinea pig so we really loved it.

Small Business Trends:  Well, let’s talk a little bit about you guys and what you’re doing with Two Blind Brothers. Your story is really interesting. Maybe you can take us through the highlights of how you got to where you are today?

Bryan Manning:  Brad and I have a rare retinal eye disease called Stargardt disease that basically killed the cells in your center of your vision causing legal blindness. We were diagnosed about the age of seven and just lived our whole lives with this disease with each other, but then in about 2016, Brad and I coincidentally were together in New York shopping at a Bloomingdales and if you’ve never been shopping with somebody who’s blind or visually impaired, we kind of act like we’re five years old. We run around, you touch everything, you feel everything, you then find something you love and you pull it off the hanger then you try and figure out the price, the size, the color, if it’s a men’s shirt. I made that mistake too many times. What we end up doing was after Brad and I kind of separated in the store, we walked outside and we had bought the exact same shirt.

After we initially laughed over the whole situation, we kind of came to this realization that maybe there was something special in having to feel your way through the world. We decided in that moment to see if we can take this a step further. Let’s see if we can make some amazing clothing based on the sense of touch and then let’s take 100% of the profits from our clothing line Two Blind Brothers and donate it back to retinal research to try and cure blindness.

Small Business Trends:  That is a truly amazing story and I think if I recall from the podcast, you guys have already raised what, 200 thousand bucks in that regard?

Bryan Manning:  Since that podcast was filmed, we now hit about 300 thousand and we have a commitment and a discussion with the foundation fighting blindness for about another $250 thousand this year, but so far we’ve been able to help contribute to this fight to help cure blindness to the tune of $300,000. We can’t believe that it’s happened because this really started as a side charity project and was lifted up by the community, by people who empathized with the story and we’ve really been the beneficiaries of that momentum and that energy and the good will of the people that care about the mission.

Small Business Trends:  You built your business with a mission… on a mission. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of having that mission as core to the business as selling the t-shirt is?

Bryan Manning:  Before it was a business, it was a mission. We were supporters of the Foundation Fighting Blindness personally… this was really born out of fun and doing something nice for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. I think what we’ve been surprised at how these causes and mission driven projects resonate with the community that you’re speaking to. We naively and maybe ignorantly had no idea. This was about us wanting to contribute something back and it really became much more about our customers and the stake holders who care about this, giving them a vehicle to help contribute through and just in kind of one other huge cornerstone of the business has been the community piece. Because of the nature of some of the publicity, the families that are really in a tough spot, the recently diagnosed with one of these eye diseases or they have a son or daughter that’s recently diagnosed or they live their lives without knowing a lot of people that have these conditions.

They stumble upon us now online and we hear from them and we have a very active dialogue with a lot of people in this space and for us it’s been the most rewarding part of the business because in a way, we feel very grateful for being where we are today. We had resources, great parents, and for us to be able to kind of almost go back in time and give that advice to what would have been our former selves is something that really inspires passion in the office now.

Small Business Trends:  In the office. You have employees. How was it finding the right kind of employees to be a part of the mission? Not just folks who are looking for paychecks, but how important was it for you to hire people that believed in the mission beyond just them having great expertise or talent to bring to the business?

Bryan Manning:  First and foremost, being able to put up with Brad and I on a day in and day out basis is a big characteristic. Really I think you said it there is people who were passionate. I mean, our office is very much a family. Brad and I obviously are brothers. Court, my girlfriend works here. Courtney, one of her best or my sisters’ good friends from college works here. One of my friend’s girlfriends, Angela, works here. Brianna who came through another friend of ours. Everyone in the office is family and that’s been the most important part of it. It creates some hard moments, but at the end of the day, everybody is bought into the mission, is bought into the passion because they are so close to us and we want to run the business like that. We want every, even all of our customers to feel that same way. That we’re really just a family of people trying to help cure these diseases and by joining in and supporting us, you’re joining that family as well.

Small Business Trends:  Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced when it comes to making a decision that may be difficult from a pure business perspective, but is important because it kind of doesn’t fit in with your overall mission? How do you go about making that call and what kind of things go into making that call?

Bryan Manning:  It’s a great question and I think as we grow, we’ll hit more difficult examples of that. For us maybe in a fortunate sense, it really started with the core DNA being the mission and what is best for the research and the community. I mean, certainly we’ve had those questions, how aggressive do we try to grow? Do we hire? Do we take on all those expenses as a means of hitting some revenue goal that we have, but it all comes down to what our instinct is is that … we’ve actually solved that natural conflict that businesses have with their causes by basically saying we’re 100% cause driven. I mean, there are opportunities that come up, but we always try to err on the side of doing what’s right to the community and the mission first. Frankly, we’ve found that the more you give, the more you get. We would not be here if our mission wasn’t to help cure blindness. People wouldn’t have responded, the stake holders, the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

People have rallied and lifted us up because of that and that responsibility is not lost on us if that answers your question.

Small Business Trends:  It absolutely did. Thank you. One thing I want to circle back to your podcast that you did with Facebook. The interaction, the conversation you had with Toms founder Blake Mycoskie. I thought that was really cool to get your guys together and talking. What was maybe the one or two key things that you learned from Blake that you think you’ll be able to carry forward into what you guys are doing with Two Blind Brothers?

Bryan Manning:  I’ll answer one and then I’ll let Brad have the second so I don’t steal the whole spotlight here. The first and kind of the major thing Blake taught us even before talking to him was the ability of cause to be the greatest asset and the greatest tool that your business can have, but actually while speaking to him, I thought that he said something really interesting. That his big goal with Toms Shoes and doing any sort of interview and doing sort of information, he loves divulging all of the secrets that made him successful because if he can get another company to start up and grow a be a caused focused company, he can get a multiplicative effect on Toms Shoes. Toms might be able to donate however many shoes they have, but if 10 other companies grow just like them and they can make those donations. Brad and I really take that to heart is what we would love 50 more companies that are all trying to cure blindness because collectively, we can do a lot more good than just Brand and I on our own.

Bradford Manning:  If I had to think of a second one I would say that, and again, this actually occurred prior to our conversation with him because when we were starting this, obviously, when you say you’re starting a cause driven business, Toms is naturally brought into every conversation, but from our stand point, it gave us the confidence that passion can actually be a core ingredient to having a successful project. To some extent, we didn’t set out to start a large clothing business. This was really born out of passion and we’ve had that lesson sort of reiterated to us. No one in their … it’s hard to make the argument that the world needs an additional clothing brand. Why does one like ours end up getting the traction it has? Is it because it brings a set of values and a spirit that may not be reflected for those customers that resonate with us. I think we learned that lesson about passion from Blake at his experience with Toms.

Small Business Trends:  Yeah, it was a real fun conversation to listen to, just to hear you guys interact and exchange ideas and information so I appreciate that. One last question I guess. The Facebook podcast was really good. I really enjoyed it, but what do you want folks who listen to it to walk away from learning about what you guys are doing with Two Blind Brothers?

Bryan Manning:  What I really hope that people can take away and maybe I wish we went into greater detail on this on the podcast, but the combination of sharing our personal authentic story, tying it to a mission, developing a product that someone loves. This is totally replicable. We have tapped into a certain community and we’ve had the greatest adventure of our lives running it over the past three years. I hope that that person out there that hears the story and has that idea, understands that a platform like Facebook for example, you could put out a video that you don’t need to spend a fortune on. You can start small. You can reach niche audiences in a way that you couldn’t 10 years ago. It’s opened up this opportunity set for brands that have very specific focused missions or just products and we really hope that there will be somebody out there that is able to take their passion and get some of the same traction we’ve had by tapping into those audiences with their authentic stories.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.