Forbes article on CEO John Jerit
Less than two years ago, John Jerit, owner of American Paper Optics, the largest manufacturer of 3D and safe solar eclipse glasses, wasn't sure he'd live to see 2017.
A cancer diagnosis not only knocked him sideways, but also put into perspective that he may not get to see the one event that he literally has been waiting for his whole life, and geared his business for; August 21, 2017, the date when a total solar eclipse will cross the US, from coast to coast for the first time since 1979.
He has set himself an ambitious goal of selling 100 million pairs of the solar safe glasses, which filter out 100% of harmful ultra-violet and infrared rays and 99.999% of intense visible light, providing the safest way to view the cosmic event. Suddenly that goal looked out of reach.
A psychology graduate from Louisiana State University Jerit had always had a passion for business. He says: “I cut my teeth working for an American fireworks company in Mississippi, and was a partner in a three-restaurant development in the mid-80s, which gave me an opportunity to experience what it was like to be a business owner right out of college.”
However, it was after fishing a pair of diffraction glasses out of a trashcan that he came up with his business idea. Coining the name ‘3-D Fireworks Glasses’ he went onto sell more than 10,000 pairs of them at a fireworks event in Memphis.
In 1990 he launched his business American Paper Optics with just two employees, and like many small business startups, found a lack of capital one of the greatest challenges.
“As I was paying employees out of my pocket, I was trying to find a way to create revenue,” he says. “It was very slim for the first nine months, however in 1991 we secured a major project to produce 13 million 3D glasses for the ‘Freddy’s Dead: Nightmare on Elm Street’ franchise. The profits from that project allowed me to hit the ground running.
“I’d say it’s my inner carnie-showman that propelled me to start American Paper Optics, and 26 years later, I’m still realising my passion for bringing optical joy to the planet, one 3D glass at a time.”
A once-in-a-lifetime event, the 2017 total solar eclipse presented Jerit with his biggest business opportunity yet. He says: “With a potential for 300 million people to experience it, I set out to sell at least 100 million eclipse glasses to protect people’s eyes as they enjoy it.”
Then in 2015, his plans came to a sudden halt when he received a devastating cancer diagnosis.
He says: “A cancer diagnosis for anyone is unexpected and can lead to a state of confusion and indecision about treatment and your own future. I knew if I had the surgery, my chances for a healthy life were greater than delaying treatment. So from a business-planning standpoint, I knew I had to immediately step up our marketing activity in case I was going to be out for any extended period of time.
“Luckily, I have a great staff, and for the month or so that I was unable to work at peak, they picked up my slack. In terms of life planning, the obvious thing was getting my affairs in order for my kids’ future. Then, I set a goal to survive cancer, view this historic total solar eclipse and market and sell as many glasses as I possibly could.”
Thankfully, after treatment, Jerit got the ‘all clear’, and immediately redoubled efforts at American Paper Optics, ramping up for mass production of tens of millions of eclipse glasses, both custom-branded and in their own commemorative style.
He says: “We’ve already produced millions of eclipse glasses, and fresh orders are coming in daily. We are marketing our products all over the US, via retailers, distributors, and online at our own websites, including eclipseglasses.com, and building a presence on Amazon at the consumer level.
“If we continue at this pace, we have a great shot at hitting the 100 million mark, although we still need a couple of key corporate sponsors to get us over the top. It is such a great giveaway to build goodwill and advance the whole STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiative.”
All along the coast to coast total-eclipse corridor on August 21, the sun and moon will be aligned, creating a corona, with the outer edge of the moon sparkling. The total eclipse will last only a couple of minutes or so, but darkness will fall, along with the temperatures.
Once the cosmic event is over, though, American Paper Optics won’t be sitting idle, and will launch immediately into production of its famous holiday glasses, used for viewing holiday and Christmas lights.
With revenues of $10 million, and an expanding workforce – the current 40 employees will increase to more than 60 in the next few months to manage the demand of the eclipse – the future for the Bartlett, Tennessee-based firm is looking as majestic as the celestial events that it helps to celebrate.
Jerit adds: “Of course, there are eclipses all over the world every year, so there will be other great opportunities to sell our Safe Solar Glasses at those sites, including the next total solar eclipse taking place on July 2, 2019, in South America.”
- Jason Lewin