Vision quest
Ron Lando has energy, a great product, and a patent. But is that enough to protect his eyewear company?
By David Whitford, FSB editor-at-large

SAN FRANCISCO (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) -- It's easy to spot Ron Lando in a crowded bar. He told me that he'd be holding a catalog from CliC, his eyewear company, but I recognize him before I can see what he's reading. He's the only guy here wearing the same funny-looking glasses that I have on.

Lando describes them as "cool," by the way, not funny. Instead of hooking over the ears, CliCs wrap around the head. The side posts are adjustable. Strangest of all, they fasten in front, between the lenses, with a magnet. You don't take them off; you just pull them apart at the bridge and let them drop down around your neck. Meaning they're impossible to lose. And only $15.99 at Amazon!

vision_quest.03.jpg
Lando designed his glasses in one week.

I've been a fan since I bought mine a few months ago, and I'm not alone. Lando's six-year-old, six-person company (clicgoggles.com), with headquarters in Tiburon, Calif., had a breakout year in 2005, generating more than $5 million in U.S. sales and another $2 million overseas. CliC glasses have been spotted recently on CSI, Nip/Tuck, Will & Grace, Freedomland, and the Rolling Stones, who donned CliC reading glasses and sunglasses when last year's tour brought them to San Francisco.

Which means Lando, 52, who looks like Paul McCartney (he plays guitar in a '60s Brit-rock cover band, the Whining Bullies), is living a distinctly American dream: The one where you wake up one morning with an idea so simple, so right-, uh, over-your-nose obvious, you can't believe nobody ever thought of it before. You arm yourself every which way with patents. You take your invention to market. Voila, you're rich.

Of course, a lot can go wrong between ah-hah! and ka-ching!

"If your product has significant revenue potential, somebody's going to try to take a piece of it," states Andy Gibbs, founder of PatentCafe (patentcafe.com), a consulting firm. "The patents will be challenged, or they will be intentionally infringed with a response, 'So sue me.'" Happily, says Gibbs, small inventors win more court cases than they lose; unhappily, just trying an infringement case today costs each side an average $2 million.

Someday Lando may go head-to-head with a well-heeled copycat. He has, after all, no secret ingredient. Lando - a 20-year industry veteran who previously worked for his father's eyewear-design company - came up with the idea after just a week of focused fiddling. The only part missing was the fastener. "I was originally thinking about a hook or a snap," he says. He even considered Velcro. Regular magnets wouldn't work because they'd have to be as big as silver dollars. Then someone showed him a powerful neodymium magnet, which had just come on the market, and the whole thing snapped into place.

To protect himself, Lando went to Steve Schneider, director of the Sawyer Center in Santa Rosa (santarosa.edu/instruction/jtwd/sbdc/the_sawyer_center), a SBA-sponsored resource center for California inventors. Schneider did a patent search (the coast was clear), introduced Lando to a patent agent and patent lawyers, and showed him how to file for trademark protection, all at no cost. (Ultimately, Lando says, he spent about $250,000 on fees, lawyers, and other startup costs.)

In March 2000, Lando took a suitcase full of prototype goggles to the Ski Industry Association trade show in Las Vegas and came back with a sheaf of orders, including one for $100,000 from a national sporting goods chain. Suddenly Lando was in business, even though he had yet to secure a manufacturer.

"I immediately flew overseas," says Lando, "brought them my prototype, and said, 'Make this for me.' "

Originally Lando focused on ski goggles. Then Harley-Davidson proposed a licensing deal, and he moved into motorcycle goggles. In 2003 Lando had the bright idea of expanding into reading glasses; now they account for two-thirds of his business. The latest: sunglasses - a nearly $2 billion market.

"Everybody tells me that will be bigger than readers," Lando gushes. (He's staying away for now from prescription frames, which he views as a boutique business.)

Whether Lando can hang on long enough to reap the full benefit remains to be seen. What's clear is that he's willing to risk everything to maintain absolute control. Lando manufactures up to 360,000 units a month at a factory in Taiwan and prepacks for quick shipment by the dozen from a warehouse in San Francisco. He's cautious ("Whenever you act quickly, for some reason you make mistakes"), and he's not greedy ("I'm very comfortable right now with my size"). His salespeople are all independent reps he's known for years. He has no PR machine, no marketing staff, and no ad budget in the U.S.

"I've got basically one product," he says. "You want it or you don't. And we're the only people who have the product."

For now, anyway. But despite the risks, Lando doesn't listen to those who encourage him to sell his business before it gets snatched away.

"It's like my own baby," he says. "Nobody tells you how to raise your kid. This is my patent, and I'm going to do what I want to do. Somebody wants to give me 50 million bucks, I'll pull the pin. But I ain't pulling the pin for five million or ten million bucks." Lando fiddles with his glasses. He straightens his shoulders and puffs out his chest. "I'm doing everything right," he says. "Shame on me if I screw this up."

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.