Poor eye health is a major problem in Singapore and it’s no longer a rare sight (pun intended) to see young children wearing spectacles.
According to the Singapore National Eye Centre, one in two children develops myopia by the age of 12, and 83 per cent will become myopic at age 18.
As people start buying spectacles at an earlier age, it becomes an increasingly expensive affair.
A pair of spectacles typically set you back hundreds of dollars, but homegrown startup foptics wants to change that notion.
Glasses Are Expensive Because Of High Markups
After graduating from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Raynald Zhang — known as Ray — worked as a civil engineer for two years, helping to build two underpasses in Singapore during his tenure.
When his scholarship bond with the construction company ended, he left the industry and took on a regular office job for another 1.5 years before having runway to build his own company.
The 29-year-old said that his perfect eyesight deteriorated in his final year due to all the late nights, which was spent doing “anything but studying,” he jested.
His vision became blurry, and he started seeing double images on the projector screens during lessons.
It’s clear that he needed to get a pair of glasses, but the hunt for an aesthetically-pleasing yet affordable one proved to be challenging.
(Most of the) affordable glasses were very utilitarian, (like) army style. I started questioning why glasses are so expensive, and found that the markups in this industry is just too high, (which is charged) at the expense of consumers.– Ray, founder of foptics
He wanted to fill the gap for affordable glasses in Singapore, so he started up foptics in mid-2016.
While there are many existing optical shops in Singapore, foptics is unique in a way that it focuses on three things: affordability, a variety of stylish glasses, as well as convenience via its e-commerce platform.
Other eyewear brands in Singapore focus on speed. Many promise to have your glasses ready in 30 minutes and that is good for emergencies.
We put more emphasis on our mission to offer affordable and stylish glasses. (We) found that many are okay with waiting three business days to have their glasses ready, (so an express service is not a priority to us).– Ray, founder of foptics
It sells a pair of glasses from as low as $35.90, which will be ready in just three days.
At such an affordable price point, it offers customers the liberty to shop for multiple pairs so they can switch up their accessories depending on their style or occasion.
He spent $300 to build a website and after garnering enough interest, he went on to launch foptics on a pre-order basis for about a year.
He broke even in the first month and has been profitable ever since.
Low Price Doesn’t Mean Bad Quality
According to Ray, foptics source for a curated mix of frames overseas while their lenses are sourced locally.
He also wants to debunk the misconception that low price equates to bad quality.
Justifying its $35.90 price point, Ray explained that he first surveyed the average prices of online apparels — which ranged between $35 and $40 — and used it as a benchmark.
Moreover, they wanted to set a price point that lowers the barrier of buying glasses online.
If glasses retain the same price point as other merchants, then the barrier to buy online is high. Although e-commerce is very common, buying glasses (online) is still nascent in Singapore so we needed (to create) a low barrier to encourage people to buy glasses online.
We have a healthy flow of returning customers online, so it proves that (this pricing strategy) works!– Ray, founder of foptics
However, the limitation about operating an online optical business is that they were unable to perform eye checks for customers.
This is a huge challenge as most customers are unaware of their prescription, so they would need to visit an optometrist to get their eyes checked first before purchasing glasses from foptics.
Furthermore, some customers also prefer to try on the frames first before making an online purchase.
Started Out On Carousell
Foptics first started on Carousell in May 2016 and has since grown to be one of the top glasses sellers on the platform.
Carousell has a good review system in place and as our review (count) grew, people trusted us more and were more willing to try buying glasses online.
(Here’s a) fun fact: one of the Carousell founders wears foptics, and he was very helpful (in spreading) the word for us, so many of his staff have come to us for glasses from time to time.– Ray, founder of foptics
Drawing inspiration from this, Ray figured that approaching offices in Singapore to host corporate roadshows was a great way to raise brand awareness for his fledgling startup.
He emphasised that word of mouth is a free, yet effective form of advertising so it’s important to leverage on it.
We work very closely with our corporate partners to visit offices and bring wellness-related services to them. We also had our business development team source for roadshows to get into and raise awareness.
The turnout can be quit hit-and-miss, but we’ve learnt to approach the right companies for a fruitful roadshow.– Ray, founder of foptics
To date, foptics has held corporate roadshows at ShopBack, Circles.Life, Paktor, CIMB Bank, Zara and Doctor Anywhere.
Optical Bizs In S’pore Require A Physical Store
Foptics was a side hustle till October 2018, when it opened its first physical store in Kovan.
Ray confessed that opening an outlet wasn’t part of his initial business plan. He was actually forced to do so due to the Singapore regulation which requires online optical businesses to have a physical space.
His long-time friend, who is the co-founder of F&B chain Greendot, advised him to start with an affordable, small space at Kovan to fulfil the requirement as well as test the impact of having a retail outlet.
Heeding his advice, Ray asked him to come onboard as a business partner. The latter now owns a minority stake in the company and handles a small part of the HR operations.
Although they didn’t pump in any money on marketing efforts, Ray said they still witnessed a steady stream of customers when they first opened.
He further described the Kovan outlet as a successful “experiment” — its only flaws were the size and location.
Due to space constraints, they often had to direct customers outside the store to avoid overcrowding.
Ray also received many complaints from customers regarding its “ulu” (remote) location, so he knew their next outlet has to be somewhere central and accessible.
Regardless, the fact that people kept coming back showed that foptics must be doing something right and solving a problem, Ray noted.
We knew our location wasn’t the most ideal to save on rent. (So as) to not waste precious resources, we had to really optimise our operations so we can be profitable quickly to fuel growth.
We were already profitable when we were (strictly) online, but going offline incurred substantial cost (so) we needed to ‘up’ our game to cover (the additional cost).– Ray, founder of foptics
He added that the physical store serves as a platform for customers to get to know them better and build trust.
Interacting with customers face-to-face help to establish a better client-customer relationship, and they will be more receptive to buying glasses online in the future.
In June 2019, foptics shifted to a new location in central Chinatown.
Unlike traditional optical shops, foptics have “weird opening hours” — they open from 5pm onwards on weekdays, and are closed on Saturdays.
The simple explanation behind this move is optimisation.
We optimise our overheads to cut cost and pass on the savings back to our customers, hence the attractive price point of our glasses.– Ray, founder of foptics
Customer Service Is Key
Ray emphasised that customer service is of utmost importance at foptics — one key takeaway he learnt from reading a book by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
He was inspired to model his company after Zappos, hoping to “sell customer service” beyond just eyewear.
At Zappos, new staff have to be a customer service officer first before taking on their permanent roles.
Foptics also adopt the same practice, whereby all staff – regardless of roles or departments – have to do retail on the ground.
Ray explains that there is “a lot of merit” in doing this. For instance, staff can get first-hand feedback on different aspects of the business from customers and make back-end changes accordingly.
Our hashtag #seebaehappy (a Hokkien pun on ‘very happy’) perfectly summarises our mission. At the end of the day, we just want our customers to be happy and start a long-term relationship with us.
Sometimes, the things we do for them might not be scaleable but what matters now is having happy customers walking away with a solid offering so they will willingly recommend us to family and friends.– Ray, founder of foptics
According to Ray, foptics now have over 3,500 unique customers and sell over 450 pairs of glasses a month.
Future Business Plans
When asked about future business plans, Ray said that they are looking at raising money to expand more aggressively.
Opening another outlet is not on their business map, however. Instead, they are looking at introducing new product lines to serve different needs.
While they are also toying with the idea of expanding overseas, Ray said that they are “not rushing into things”.
For those who wish to embark on an entrepreneurial journey like him, he advises them to not put too much emphasis on the business idea.
Don’t worry about not having a great idea at first. … Having a good idea is just 1% (of it). No company is successful (based on their idea alone), execution is everything.
Don’t be afraid to share your business idea; you never know what great feedback you’ll get.– Ray, founder of foptics
He recalled a chat with an acquaintance at a startup academy, who shared with him that ‘boring businesses make money’.
It’s true, and a great way to find business ideas is to look at traditional businesses and (think about) how to disrupt it. We live in an age where everything can be learnt online, so anyone can do it with the right determination and attitude.– Ray, founder of foptics
Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post / foptics