What does it take to be a visionary? For Sophie Boulanger, it meant looking at an established industry through a new lens. As the founder and CEO of Montreal-based BonLook, an eight-year-old eyewear line that is equal parts stylish and affordable, she has merged her passion for retail, her knowledge of eyewear manufacturing and her personal experience into a fast-growing, highly covetable brand.
After graduating from McGill University, the Quebec City native moved on to study for her master’s degree in fashion management in Milan, Italy. While working on a thesis about a global leader in eyewear with licences for major brands such as LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, Ray-Ban and Prada, she had a lightbulb moment. “Usually, what you see in frames that sell for $400 is that they’re very cheap to manufacture and a lot of value is lost in the chain,” says Boulanger. “I came to understand how the industry is structured, and I saw the potential for a direct-to-customer brand. We cut out all the middlemen: We design, manufacture and sell the finished product directly to the customer, and we cut a lot of the price increases.” Like, a lot.
By offering styles with a starting price point of $149, including prescription lenses, Boulanger (who has worn spectacles since she was a child) has helped reframe glasses and sunglasses from pricey singular necessities to accessible multi-pair accessories. “It always cost me a fortune to change my glasses,” she says. “I could only afford to do that every two or three years. Once I understood that the product itself isn’t very expensive to manufacture and it’s really the markup that kills you, I thought maybe something had to be done.” Coupled with the notion that people probably want the option of owning more than one pair of glasses, this is what ultimately sparked the idea for her new business model. (See things you can do to improve your vision.)
Beyond changing the way that an essential product is sold, Boulanger’s idea has had a ripple effect on customer behaviour. “Because it’s traditionally been a very expensive product, people had to spend a lot of time thinking about it,” she says. “It was as if you were going to have to wear the same pair of shoes every single day for two years for any event, whether it was to work, a gala or on vacation. We’re trying to change that and really make people see that they can have multiple pairs for all of their different needs and looks.”
Keeping It in the Family
Starting out exclusively online, Boulanger has worked alongside her brother, chief of operations Louis-Félix Boulanger, to run and grow their business. While she oversees product and brand development, he takes care of the tech and operations aspects. The chief executive officer credits BonLook’s success to being a family affair. “I always say I’m more front office and my brother is back office,” he says. “We share the same values and get along together. We have different strengths and really respect each other. Having that kind of balance and a partner I can lean on while building the business has been very important to me and my mental health.”
Buoyed by an additional funding partner over the past three years has brought on intense, rapid-fire growth. Today, there are 30 bricks-and-mortar locations across Canada, with nearly 350 employees on their payroll. Plus, there are more boutiques in the works to make the chic specs readily available from coast to coast.
Contentment counts, too, she says. To wake up in the morning happy about your day defines success. And as a merchant at heart, she is still thrilled when she spies her product during daily encounters. “The other day, I was on a plane and the flight attendant had on a pair of BonLook glasses,” she says. “The fact that she found something she liked—something that I helped create—makes me happy, so that makes me successful.” (Find out if eating more eggs can keep your eyes healthy.)
Don’t Be Perfect
For those who are aspiring to start their own businesses, Boulanger likes to impart the belief that “it’s better done than perfect,” she says. “For me, that sentence is very strong. It’s not about not doing quality work; it’s about getting stuff done. I find that a lot of female entrepreneurs want everything to be perfect, and a lot of male entrepreneurs just launch things and [have an attitude of] it’s not perfect. But I’ll improve it and they think they’ll just figure it out. Just release it. If you launch and think it’s perfect, you probably waited too long.” (See how a CEO’s love for food grew into a full-blown empire.)
Leading and growing a business brings its own set of challenges, but the biggest trial for Boulanger has been to find a work-life balance. Luckily, it’s not keeping her up at night. “I think it’s overrated,” she says. “Balance is a thing that doesn’t really exist; it’s always managing the imbalance. I’ve given so much time to my business in the past few years, and that’s been very successful. It definitely took a toll on other aspects of my life, but I’m OK with it and I’m happy.”
The Power of Exercise
What she wasn’t pleased with was how taxing entrepreneurship was on her health. So, nearly two years ago, Boulanger turned her ability to spot room for improvement to her own life. “At one point, I realized that to be efficient and give 100 percent at work, I needed to be in good shape,” she says. Having hit a mid-decade slump and slowed metabolism, Boulanger calls signing on with a private trainer a life-changing step. “When we started, I was really out of shape,” says Boulanger. “I was travelling to Asia and Europe a lot. I didn’t have a very healthy lifestyle, time to train or the motivation.”
Now, with two to four sessions booked into her weekly calendar, Boulanger has experienced a transformation. “Training has helped me have more energy, feel better about myself, develop better posture and have fewer headaches and migraines,” she says. “It’s now a very important part of my week to see her when I’m in Montreal.” A mix of cardio and circuits with weights has led to new-found strength. “I’m a skier, so I had strong legs but needed to build my upper body strength,” she says. With encouragement to step outside the gym, Boulanger has fallen in love with the mind-clearing power of training outdoors. “I’ve never been into working out by myself,” she says. “My trainer holds me accountable, and it’s the personal motivation that works.” (See the best ways to exercise in your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.)
Exploding from a teeny local kiosk to stores across the country is the type of expansion that most entrepreneurs dream of. Boulanger has, but only in step with putting in the hard work required. “To succeed, you need to have a clear idea of where you’re going,” she says, “and strategically see two, three or five years forward yet be flexible about the path you’re going to take.” She recalls running into an old friend who mentioned that he’d been following the rise of her business. “He said, ‘Wow, you must not believe what’s happening; you must not have seen it coming.’ And I said, ‘Well, no, I’ve seen it coming. This is highly planned. You can’t grow a business this much without planning it, but you need to be flexible along the way.’”
Be Willing to Adapt
Being flexible and focused is Boulanger’s preferred MO. “Because of the circumstances, competition, customers and economic changes, you need to constantly adapt to reach your end goal.” That goes double when global outposts are part of the big picture. “We have really big ambitions for this business, and we think we’ve nailed down a good business model,” says Boulanger. “Canada is a great place to build big retailers. We’ve seen that with Aritzia, Lululemon, Reitmans and Aldo Group. These are businesses that started from scratch and are [multi-million] and billion-dollar businesses.” But her passion runs well beyond the bottom line. “What I’m most proud of is that I’m building something in Canada and in Montreal and creating all these jobs,” she says. “It’s my contribution to society.”
Learn and Move on
We asked Boulanger what she wishes she knew when she first started—but she has no regrets. “I still feel that, given the same set of information and the same tools, we would have made the same decisions,” she says. “Of course, we made mistakes, but I’m really not someone who dwells on the past. I like to call them learnings—there are so many things we tried that didn’t work out.” Boulanger sees any hiccups as a lesson, accepts it and moves on. “I think it’s a trait that a lot of entrepreneurs have because it’s so tough,” she says. “If you don’t have that attitude, you won’t survive.”
Network, Network, Network
“The advice to nurture your network has served me really well over the years,” says Boulanger. “It’s what has brought me the most success. It’s helped me in every aspect of my business, from raising cash to having mentors to hiring employees and suppliers. It’s been fundamental and, if you want to succeed in any field, in business or professionally, it’s all about what relationships you nurture.”
Next, learn about a woman who quit her corporate job to work in the fitness industry.