After building Hmlet into a co-living company with a reported value over US$150 million, I was ready for time away from the pressure and pace of venture-backed startup life.
Right at this time, my best friend, who founded the sunglasses brand Rocket Eyewear, was having trouble with prescription orders, which required coordination between customers, optometrists and optical labs.
Whereas leading online eyewear stores offered guided checkout processes that accepted prescription files and showed customers many lens options, smaller eyewear brands couldn’t offer a similar experience without spending tens of thousands of dollars on custom plug-ins.
Inspired, we decided to build a public Shopify app that levels the playing field for independent eyewear brands, allowing them to compete with larger retailers.
Development began in June 2020, and we launched LensAdvizor on the Shopify App Store three months later. By June 2021, we were profitable with monthly revenues growing over 20 per cent a month.
Here are ten valuable lessons I learned from this experience.
A successful precedent is half the battle won
When customers are familiar with your idea, they require less “education” to understand your value proposition.
When we were pitching LensAdvizor to potential stores, our opening line referenced successful precedents by name: “Dear Store X, would you like to sell prescription lenses the same way leading online eyewear stores like Zenni Optical and Warby Parker do it?”
As a result, stores grasped our value proposition immediately and could see real-life examples of how our app would work (before we’d even built it).
Being first has its advantages
When you’re the first player in a market, you can launch a minimum viable product and iterate because there is no competition. You can solve your customer’s problem in a rudimentary way and still be 10X better than what existed before you.
In contrast, entering a crowded market requires your initial solution to at least match the benchmark established by existing players. To build the next Zoom, your solution would, at a minimum, have to offer video calling, chat, mute etc. before you add your X factor.
If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is
There’s a simple reason LensAdvizor is the only app of its kind: our market is tiny.
Before launch, we estimated around 700 eyewear stores on Shopify. Today, we serve over 50 per cent of the market.
Concocting a unique idea can feel exhilarating. Before you blaze your trail, however, try to understand why your idea does not exist.
In a world with over 8 billion people, there’s a high chance that someone has already thought of your idea and even tried to build it!
When you’re first, unknowns abound, and potential competitors scrutinise your every move.
The world is a Zoom call away, so validate before building
Before writing our first line of code, we contacted all 700 eyewear stores on Shopify and arranged 50 Zoom calls with interested users from Shanghai to Sao Paulo. Through this process, we built our app with the conviction that at least someone out there would use us.
Always be prepared to follow up
When we email potential customers, we always expect to have to send a follow-up. Just be a little thick-skinned. Some people are busy and forget to reply. Others don’t take you seriously until they’ve received two emails from you.
You could even email a third time, but there’s a fine line between being persistent and spammy.
(Subjective) “Make more money” is the strongest value proposition
In Mark Cuban’s words, “Sales cures all.” If your value proposition centres around increasing revenue or lowering expenses, you’ve grabbed my attention. On the other hand, if your value proposition is about convenience, I tend to label it as “nice to have” and de-prioritise it.
Customers have really high expectations of technology
Things are supposed to just work. In our experience, stores rarely praise us when LensAdvizor works and convey zero tolerance if bugs appear.
Forget office hours. Do things that don’t scale
We offer in-app chat support for LensAdvizor clients, and I respond to customer inquiries about 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Being always online can disrupt my day, but I continue to do so because customer conversations can reveal new ways to improve our app.
One morning, a store in Australia wanted to add images to their lenses; in the afternoon, a store from Taiwan needed help with installation, and in the evening, a Brazilian store wanted to translate their app from English into Portuguese.
Build just enough and listen to your customers
For launch, we replicated the user flows of Zenni Optical and Warby Parker and thought every store would be overjoyed. We were wrong.
As soon as we went live on Shopify, stores asked if they could reverse the flow so that customers could choose lenses before entering their prescription.
When you launch, you have hypotheses about what would be awesome, and you build it. However, there’s only so much you know before you’re just guessing.
Instead of obsessing over the future, build the foundation and listen to customers for next steps. Soon, patterns will appear, and you’ll know with conviction what features to prioritise.
Small can be sexy
Not every idea needs to command a billion-dollar valuation. Compared to Hmlet, LensAdvizor is a minnow.
However, whereas Hmlet required tens of millions of dollars in funding and hundreds of staff to run, LensAdvizor needed only a team of two to bootstrap and reach profitability.
As we continue to reinvest our profits into upgrading our app, we hope we can continue to be the leading solution in our nascent niche of online prescription eyewear.
Set your expectations, remember to breathe, and go for it!
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