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Clearly Contacts has clear vision for how to manage growth

Roger Hardy, Chariman and CEO of Coastal Contacts Inc. in the call center at his office in Vancouver, BC, August 31, 2007. Hardy's company sells contact lens products online.

lyle stafford/The Globe and Mail

In my last column, I talked about the challenges and opportunities facing a small entrepreneur when it comes to embracing growth. But what about a larger, fast-growing company that is disrupting a mega-market? How can it learn how to manage growth?

For Coastal Contacts Inc., which operates in Canada under the brand name Clearly Contacts, which sells contact lens and eyeglasses online, growth was immediate. In the first month of business in 2000, it had sales of $60,000. In the first year, sales were $2.5-million. They continued to soar, and are expected to climb another 20 per cent this year to $220-million.

This likely makes the Vancouver-based company the most successful e-commerce player in Canada.

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For co-founder Roger Hardy, the key challenge was managing growth, which can be a significant issue for any company that has landed upon a massive opportunity but needs to execute to seize it.

"There are a couple of keys to managing any company and growth," Mr. Hardy said during a recent interview. "The processes and systems you put in place are vital if you are going to experience growth, especially when it evolves to multiple people. My sister, the co-founder of the business, is a process engineer from the University of Waterloo who did an MBA. We joked we had manuals before we had any people."

As well, he said, "it is important to make sure you have a culture that rallies around the theme of what it is you are trying to do. For us, we have a strong culture for people who want to make a difference and change the world and like participating in our business, which is doing something cool and shaking it up a little bit."

Mr. Hardy came up with the idea to start Clearly Contacts while working on contract for a contact lens company. He noticed a box of contact lens made for $12 was being sold for $70 – a price he believed he could easily beat.

"In the late 1990s, when everyone was building websites, I built a website and starting selling contact [lenses]direct to customers. If someone was selling contact lenses for $70, I was thinking I could find a place in between."

To compete, Clearly Contacts built a business with enough inventory that it can take an order online, then ship it to the customer the next day. In an industry that has operated in the same fashion for decades, Clearly Contacts was a different and disruptive new player that now ranks among the biggest sellers of contact lenses in North America.

Not content with becoming a large player in the contact lens market, Clearly Contacts fuelled its growth when it decided three years ago to offer eyeglasses, a $20-billion business in North America. Mr. Hardy said the move into eyeglasses was propelled by demand from customers.

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To support the move into the eyeglasses business, Mr. Hardy said Clearly Contacts decided to make a major investment by building an eyeglass manufacturing facility in Vancouver, rather than use international suppliers.

"There are companies building eyeglasses in China, India and other places but it still takes seven days, and the quality is not there," he said. "We think we are the largest manufacturer in Vancouver by people and sales. We have a lot of automated technology. We put it in place because we think it gives us a competitive advantage over anybody offshore. There are a few conventions we are breaking, but we think the service piece is so important for customers."

This led to a $15-million investment to build what Mr. Hardy describes as the leading eyeglasses lab in North America.

"We are on the cutting edge to make a huge number of glasses very cost effectively," he said. "The driver in our growth is really becoming the eyeglasses business. What industry hasn't been shaped by the Internet? One industry after the other has been shaped by the Web, and only 1 per cent of eyeglasses are bought online globally. Today, we are 10 per cent of the Canadian market and growing quickly in Canada."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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About the Author
Content/Communications Strategist

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a strategic communications and content consultancy that works with start-ups and fast-growing companies looking to drive their marketing, communications and content activities. More

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