It was the 500% markups that put Roger Hardy over the edge. He'd worked for a contact-lens manufacturer and watched consumers get gouged. Boxes of brand-name products would be sold to optometrists for $12.50, he says, and then resold to patients for $60 to $75.
To break what he calls a monopoly, he set up Clearly Contacts, an online contact-lens retailer that attracted early adopters who like trying out new businesses. A few years later, he expanded into prescription glasses. "Your iPhone should not cost less than your pair of glasses," he says. With gadgets, "there's intellectual property, there's patents, there's technology, there's electrodes...versus two little pieces of plastic, two little screws and two little pieces of glass."
Year founded: 2000 Home base: Vancouver Year it went public: 2008 Growth in eyeglass shipments in first quarter of 2011: 107% Glasses as a percentage of total sales: 13
Hardy initially thought contacts could never be sold online. "We fell into the same sort of hocus-pocus that opticians and optometrists tell everyone," he says. " 'Your eyes are so unique, you need to come and see me. I'm the only one who can care for you.' "
- Listen to early adopters. “If you want to make the jump to the mainstream market, you’ve got to wow early customers with more than just price,” Hardy says. To figure out how, he reached out to his customers by calling them at home. That was 2000. Fast-forward 10 years and communities such as Facebook groups make outreach much easier.
- Speed and ease of use matter. “We didn’t go out like the average dot-com and raise $100 million and spend it all on marketing in two years,” says Hardy. “We were fairly prudent in getting our offering correct and letting customers be our sales force.” The company sank $8 million into manufacturing equipment, and has increased its inventory from $10 million to $25 million. “It’s easier to serve an existing customer than get a new one,” says Hardy.
- Make it so easy they can’t say no. To make ordering glasses as simple as buying contacts, the company has a no-questions-asked return policy. Customers can also order a few pairs at a time to try out different styles. “We don’t want anyone to have a reason that they didn’t try it,” Hardy says.