Photography By Two Blind Brothers
Interview With Bryan and Bradford Manning
As children, Bryan Manning and Bradford Manning were both diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, which causes blindness. Undaunted, they forged successful careers before founding Two Blind Brothers, a clothing company that donates 100 percent of its profits to finding a cure for blindness.
Tell us about yourselves. Tell us about yourself.
Bryan: We grew up in Virginia and both graduated from UVA. Brad worked in New York as an investment banker and private equity manager. I was a sales representative for large data companies and moved to Boston and New York.
Were you diagnosed with Stargardt disease at the same time? What was the reaction of your parents?
Bryan: We were both diagnosed at age seven. Brad was diagnosed five years later than me.
Brad My vague memories of Bryan’s diagnosis are a part of what made me happy to have him as my companion. Our parents didn’t make us feel less capable. They are responsible for a lot of our success.
Bryan: As we’ve gotten older, we’ve been able to talk to our parents more candidly about that time. They knew we would pick up on any cues they gave us, so they assured us it would be difficult, but that we’d eventually figure it out. In secret, they were distraught. They kept the ship steady through the storm.
Our mom said that they would guide us in activities and friendships, but not tell us what we can or cannot do. I played football in high school. Brad got into swimming. Their efforts were crucial to our growth at that time. These skills are essential for running a business: being your own advocate, trying all you can, finding solutions to problems and adapting to difficult situations.
Where did the Two Blind Brothers idea come from?
Brad: It was a serendipitous moment. In 2016, Bryan and I were walking around New York talking about a kid named Yannick Duwe, who had a rare eye condition called Leber congenital amaurosis, which usually causes complete blindness. Yannick was among the first to be treated with gene therapy, which reversed his condition. We’d been friends with the Foundation Fighting Blindness for many years, and they had supported some of the early research.
We went to a clothing shop and lost our way. Shopping can be difficult for those who are blind or visually impaired. We realized that we had bought the same shirt twice before and thought it would be fun to make shopping easier. It wasn’t a business idea. It started with “Let’s do some good for the Foundation Fighting Blindness” and made shirts we liked to wear.
When did the business take off?
Brad: When we launched in May 2016 at a Foundation Fighting Blindness event, we had a website and products to sell to that community. Part-time videographer friend made a video about our story that we posted on social media. We started to receive a few inquiries from local media and noticed some traction.
Then, we received some very lucky publicity. We were invited to be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on January 4, 2017. This led to a lot of media coverage, including NBC Nightly News just two weeks later. We had six months worth of back orders by January. Other than a part time assistant, we had no employees. We invested in more staff, production upgrades, and a team to help build an ecommerce website.
Who gets credit for the Shop Blind Challenge?
Bryan: This is going to break my heart. Brad deserves credit.
Trust is essential when you’re blind or visually impaired. You have to believe that the man crossing the street can see and not just walk in traffic. That a cashier will give you the correct change and that the waiter will give you a good recommendation.
So we invented the “mystery box” concept. People would shop on our website without knowing what they would get. They had to trust us. We did it for two weeks in 2017 as a Black Friday idea. It’s authenticity, uniqueness, and the sheer fun of surprise resulted it being a big part of our business.
Brad: It’s actually around 90 percent of our business during the holidays.
What are some of your other popular items?
Brad: People love our socks. These socks are extremely soft and have a cool design around the heel that looks like a dot design. However, it is actually braille artwork. It says “Thanks for your help, we are closer to finding a cure
People also love our main collection items such as our Henleys and hoodies.” This triblend fabric is a great choice. People often claim it’s the most comfortable item in their wardrobe. Quality is an important principle in our brand. We also believe in research and empowerment. This has made us stand out as clothing brands.
Whose idea was it to put braille on your clothing?
Bryan: My wife’s. We tried to find ways to make the line more accessible. Most of our garments have braille at the bottom right-hand hem that indicates the shirt’s color. One woman approached us to sum up the importance of the shirt. She said that she could use an app to tell her, but she sometimes just wants to get dressed in a morning without any help. It was an amazing moment.
Brad: Bryan and I are greatly impacted by stories like this, which is not something we expected when we first started–but it’s what we get the most enjoyment out of now.
What does perspective mean to you, not just regarding your vision but your outlook on life?
Bryan: Great question. This has been a problem for us since the beginning. For example, how can you describe blue to someone who’s never actually seen it? A button is available on our website to give you an idea of how it feels when something is missing from your vision. You can navigate it but you need to be creative. Because this disease will be with me until there is a cure, I try my best to remain positive. It can have a huge impact on how you deal with it.
Your company’s focus is to find a cure for blindness. Tell us about that business perspective:
Brad: We always say that we’re not the greatest example if you want to make a lot of money because you’d never choose to compete in the clothing business and expect to succeed. Yet, to date, we’ve donated over $750,000 to the Foundation Fighting Blindness. We learned that passion is the key to attracting a community who are equally passionate about something.
How do you ultimately define success?
Bryan: When we first started, it was being able to donate money to help early-stage retinal researchers find a cure, and that’s still our top success metric. We also have business goals that we aim to achieve, and we don’t need outside capital. Community is the third important thing. Building, maintaining, and empowering our community is the lifeblood of our business. This is what makes us great. We can also inspire others to start businesses similar to ours, and raise awareness and funds for people with hearing loss, autism or dementia. That would be our greatest success.
Brad: And if the parents of a child who’s diagnosed with Stargardt’s sees our content or interviews and it helps them realize that it’s not as bad as they may think, then that’s a huge win for us.
For more info, visit twoblindbrothers.com