The Truth About Proof: Eyewear Titans Spurn TV's Sharks

FRUITLAND, Idaho (KBOI) - The apple orchards that inspired the town's name are all but gone now.

But enter the huge processing building at Woodgrain Millwork and the din tells you that trees still matter, or at least the wood does.

In the eye of the production storm, human resources director Brooks Dame, grandson of the mill's founder, sits in his office and talks about being dreamy-eyed and restless.

Having swept the factory floor as a kid, he tells a reporter he wanted to carry on the family tradition, but in a different way.

"I thought, 'I want to do something with wood,'" he says, starched and serious.

He thought about the family trips to McCall and how much he and his four brothers love to ski.

He saw a pair of ski poles on the wall of a lodge and thought he could make a pair out of bamboo, but that early experiment didn't fly.

Then he saw a photo of old Japanese eyeglasses made of wood and decided he could adapt the idea to sunglasses.

In a nutshell, that was the birth of one of the Treasure Valley's greenest businesses.

Brooks enlisted the help of two brothers, Taylor and Tanner, both of whom were about to graduate from college.

The trio decided to call their fledgling company "Proof" because it mattered to them that you could indeed make something useful out of sustainable materials.

Tanner explains that they knew nothing about manufacturing eyewear. But it turned out not to be an issue.

"We got a lot of help from people in the industry," he says, grinning.

They also heard from eager marketers. Brooks still can't believe the response.

"They said, 'We want to put you on a famous person's face and we're like, 'Wow.'"

Suddenly, Proof sunglasses are showing up in magazines and on glossy faces like Beyonce's and Snoop Dogg's.

For Taylor, the interest among celebrities isn't hard to fathom.

He picks up a pair from a display case in Proof's tiny lobby and talks about their cache.

"These are sunglass specific," he says, turning them over in his hands.

"All of them come in polarized lenses and it's a five-ply Canadian maple skateboard deck that's been re-purposed into sunglasses."

In a room off the lobby, a couple of employees are packing and shipping dozens of pairs a day.

While the glasses themselves aren't made in Idaho, they are laser-etched and polished at the Eagle headquarters before being slipped into a fabric pouch and then inserted into a small wooden box, also made of recycled material.

The glasses retail for about $100 a pair, but a portion of the sales is invested in an eye clinic in India. The clinic operates satellite centers throughout the country, tending to rural patients who can't afford cataract surgery or general eye care.

Giving back is important to the Dame boys, but philanthropy doesn't come cheap.

So Brooks, being the idea man, turned to TV's "Shark Tank."

Reflecting on that decision, he says, "I thought, 'This is really cool; it's what America is built on.'"

He wrote to the producers, and the next thing they knew, the brothers were in Los Angeles pitching Proof to the sharks.

Brooks says production of their segment required a lot more time than you might expect if you've ever seen the show.

"They asked lots of questions and grilled us on every aspect of the business. It was like taking an exam," he says, shuddering at the thought.

The boys did their best to grab the interest of the five investors, men and women who have built vast empires with a combination of street smarts and sheer grit.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is one.

Kevin O'Leary, the self-proclaimed "Mr. Wonderful," is another.

The sharks listened to the trio from Boise with feigned interest until Brooks casually mentioned that they had racked up sales of more than $400,000 in the previous year.

The reaction was immediate and electric: The Dame brothers are legit, not neophyte dreamers looking for a few bucks to waste on bagel-makers or balloon bouquets.

Tanner added, somewhat hopefully, "Speaking of things that grow on trees, we need your money to make this dream come true."

That got a laugh, and then two offers, from O'Leary and Robert Herjavec, a Canadian entrepreneur.

O'Leary offered to give the boys the $150,000 they were asking for, but with a royalty.

"I like to get my money back as quickly as possible," O'Leary said pointedly.

Herjavec countered with a similar offer, but without the condition of a royalty.

"That's ridiculous at this point in your company," he said, demonstrating why he's often regarded as a kindly uncle to those who arrive at the Shark Tank looking for financial help.

Sitting in his office back in Eagle, Taylor says, "It was kind of like, do you want to do a deal with the angel or do a deal with the devil?"

So they turned to the man they trusted the most, their dad back in Idaho.

"He basically said, 'Hey, you're gonna give up some equity, but if they're gonna bring something to the table, know-how or money, it could be a good option for you."

In the end, the Dame brothers stuck to their guns and said no.

Taylor is matter-of-fact when he says, "Basically, they're buying our company at a yard sale, at an extremely discounted price."

The decision was a shock for O'Leary and Herjavec, and a bit unsettling for the brothers.

Brooks is still wide-eyed about the turn of events. It really stung as they made their way to the rental car.

"We walked out and it was kind of like, 'What just happened? We just turned down $150,000.'"

Though there was no deal with the TV titans, Brooks has no regrets.

"We made the right decision," he says with no trace of defensiveness. "We still own 100 percent of the company. We just have to go out and hustle and make this thing work."

That's all the proof you need to know the Dame brothers are committed to their product.

Or just ask Beyonce.