If you asked Todd Smith seven or eight years ago what he'd be doing by 2010, the words "online sunglasses entrepreneur" probably would never have come out of his mouth.
"I left Pittsburgh and went to George Washington University to study finance," says the 27-year-old Point Breeze native. "I moved to San Francisco, got a job at Merrill Lynch and I was happy.
"I had a great job, a great circle of friends. And while I missed Pittsburgh, I was making a great life in the Bay Area."
Until, that is, the economy did to him what it has done to so many others. Smith was laid off, cast adrift by a company at the epicenter of the economic crisis. Smith began wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Smith, who says he "always had a little entrepreneurial streak in me," started to come up with ideas for his own enterprise. After a few of them didn't pan out -- like a food-themed show called Scratch and Sniff TV -- he got an epiphany while looking at the collection of sunglasses that he'd accrued over the years.
The sunglasses -- known as "stunners" in Bay Area vernacular -- were collected on trips he took with his friends. Some came from the Southern United States, others from trips to Rio and Mexico. "My friends and I would buy a ton of these stunners everywhere we'd go," he says. "We had tons of them."
The glasses weren't pricey name brands, but their designs often consisted of unorthodox colors and shapes. Smith thought if he loved them, others would too. But rather than just sell them online, he wanted to develop a new kind of business model.
"I grew up in the JCC [Jewish Community Center] in Pittsburgh, so that feeling of community is something that I've always been around," says Smith. "So why not form a community of stunner lovers?"
That community is known as the Stunner of the Month club -- or Stun Mo, as Smith calls it. There's a Web site (stunnerofthemonth.com), but you can't buy glasses there. It's a subscription service, sort of like Netflix, where for a monthly $9 fee you get a new pair of stunners every month sent to you at random.
You're not going to get $50 or $100 shades from Oakley or Ralph Lauren, Smith notes: "You don't have to pay prices like that to get cool, different, fashionable glasses. How many times have you paid that much for sunglasses only to sit on them a week later? If you sit on these, a new pair is on the way the next month."
After coming up with the idea, Smith and his friends embarked on the best part of the job -- shopping. He partnered with some friends -- "it's all for one in this venture" -- and began traveling around looking for glasses as far away as China. They met with manufacturers and set up supply pipelines to make sure that the glasses they are sending out are as unique as the enterprise itself.
"Most sunglasses are boring," Smith says. "We look for stunners that make a statement. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes it's over-the-top."
Since the site's launch last summer, response to the program has been favorable. The club has subscribers all over the country: Smith would not disclose numbers, but said business has grown at least 20 percent per month over the past six months.
When you sign up for a subscription, you enter whether you want male, female or unisex glasses. The stunners are sent to you based on a computer algorithm to make sure you never get the same pair twice.
The glasses come in a white rectangular box. Most months, subscribers also receive "anything else we can shove in that box," including stickers and a small key chain-sized screwdriver for on-the-run adjustments.
"A true gentleman has to be ready at a moment's notice because you never know when a young lady will need her stunners adjusted," quips Smith. "It's like you're James Bond, you have to have the right tools for the job."
As the year was winding down, Smith was preparing for "shopping trip 2.0," heading out to look for yet another pair of perfect glasses to lay on the masses.
"There are no limitations to stunnin'," he says. "It doesn't matter how old you are, you just need the right attitude and the right pair of glasses.
"I guarantee you right now if you drive by any PAT stop in the city, there will be a gray-haired granny in her oversized sunglasses. She may not know she's stunnin', but she is."
- Todd Smith, center in plaid shirt, stunnin' with some friends.