Darryn Tan and Javad Namazie both met each other back in primary school when they were students at Anglo-Chinese School (ACS).
The two Singapore-born friends are now 41, which means their friendship has spanned over three decades.
Beyond being just friends, the two are also business partners. In 2018, they started Two Of A Kind (TWOOAK), which is believed to be the first homegrown brand of contact lenses in the market.
Neither of us had any background in consumer retail of any kind, much less in the contact lens industry, but we’ve both taken the plunge, quit our jobs and thrown ourselves headlong into this.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
Prior to TWOOAK, Darryn had careers in both consulting and private equity, while Javad was a practicing lawyer.
So why did they choose to quit their corporate jobs to start a contact lens business?
According to Javad, TWOOAK was borne out of frustration and wanted it to help solve a personal pain point. They find that regular visits to the optician to stock up on lenses are a chore and that most lenses are not cheap.
As a contact lens wearer, your only two options were to choose between a) unreasonably expensive lenses, or b) trade quality for affordability and settle for cheap, low-grade contact lenses– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
There was no middle ground between quality and affordability, so the duo decided to offer “high quality lenses at direct-to-consumer prices”.
Direct-To-Consumer Model Eliminates The Usual 15x Markup
By cutting out the middleman and working directly with manufacturers, they can eliminate this trade-off. By saving on unnecessary mark-ups, they get to invest more in manufacturing to increase the product quality.
Based on their intensive research of over 18 months, TWOOAK found that traditional brands pegged a 15 times markup from factory to retail price.
Customers typically pay close to $4 for a pair or daily disposable contact lenses, but companies only pay as low as $0.20 to manufacture them.
While economies of scale and technology have driven manufacturing costs down over time, retail prices have continued to increase instead of decrease.
Javad explained that the existing supply chain involves many players — the manufacturer, agent, distributor, optical shop — and each one of them needs to make a profit at level of the supply chain.
However, the consumer is the one who bears the brunt of all this as they pay for these profit margins.
In contrast, TWOOAK manages its supply from end-to-end — they have control over everything that happens within the sourcing, trials, final delivery and on-going user support.
This lets them keep their costs down and pass on the savings to the customer.
The result is that, even though our contact lenses are more expensive to manufacture, we can still afford to sell high-quality products at affordable prices because we do away with the unnecessary intermediary markups between us and the end consumer.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
First Contact Lens Subscription Service In S’pore
TWOOAK offers their lenses based on a subscription model so its users can rest assured that their lenses will be replenished on a regular schedule and conveniently delivered to their doorstep.
Their plans start from $21 per sleeve of 30 clear daily disposable lenses, but users can also opt to purchase it a la carte for $25 if they don’t wish to commit.
Another unique thing about TWOOAK is that they only offer a single product.
Called Basis, it is a daily disposable hydrogen contact lenses.
It is manufactured using a wet cast-moulding method which ensures the lenses are more consistent in their make and have a smoother surface finish, providing greater comfort overall.
It is also one of the only three contact lens products in the market that provide Class I UV protection (the highest certifiable standard of UV protection), blocking over 99 per cent of UVB and over 90 per cent of UVA rays.
When asked why they choose to offer daily contact lenses instead of monthly ones, Javad said that they supersede the latter in terms of hygiene, convenience and eye health.
When used correctly, they carry a much lower incidence of eye infections and other eye health issues because it’s always a new, sterile contact lens that you’re putting into your eye.
A fresh new lens also doesn’t carry the protein buildup that reusable lenses develop over time. And of course, not having to clean and store lenses every day just makes your daily routines more efficient.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
Took One Year To Find A Reliable Manufacturer
When asked about business challenges, Darryn said that sourcing for a manufacturer was one of the most important parts of setting this up but it wasn’t an easy journey at all.
They spent an entire year trying to find someone reliable that could manufacture a great product.
We were our own guinea pigs. We literally tried a hundred or so products and prototype lenses on ourselves, kept notes, compared experiences, and made a shortlist of manufacturers to speak to.
To be honest, we met with a lot of people. Some were earnest but the product just wouldn’t cut it, (while) some had decent product but did not seem reliable.– Darryn Tan, co-founder of Two of a Kind
Javad added that there are only a handful of manufacturers in the world who can make the standard and specifications of contact lenses they wanted to bring to market.
They ended up partnering a manufacturer with a 20-year track record, whose proprietary processes and technologies allowed them to make the kind of product they wanted.
Their lenses are manufactured in a global medical sciences manufacturing hub in Taiwan and are approved by the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore.
Javad stressed that they set very high standards when it comes to product, be it in terms of manufacturing quality and safety levels.
As someone who is new to the industry, “establishing legitimacy and earning trust” from stakeholders is very important — from manufacturing partners to consumers to “industry insiders” such as ophthalmologists and optometrists.
Partnering with new companies like ourselves is not a priority for manufacturers who make hundreds of millions of lenses a year, who don’t really need “new” businesses — let alone new business models.
We think the tipping point for them was that our business plan contained proprietary insights that demonstrated an intimacy of the market and product landscape that surprised them – irrespective of no background or not.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
They Are “Customer Obsessed”
As part of TWOOAK’s soft launch, the founding duo decided to keep the first month or so free for family and friends so they could work on fine-tuning their processes and resolve any teething issues.
When they officially launched in April 2018, their studio was practically empty for that month — only one or two people would visit on some days.
It was totally disheartening, but rather than give up, we jumped hoops to fix the problem. I guess it’s something every entrepreneur learns quickly — you need to give people a reason to care.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
They learned very quickly on how to get the business off the ground: getting the word out and customer engagement.
Javad stressed that TWOOAK is big on consumer empowerment.
Buying behaviour and technologies have changed, but the industry has stagnated, and people’s needs are not being addressed in the way that they could be.
We felt strongly about fixing the customer experience and the things that the optical shops or the incumbent traditional brands don’t pay attention to.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
Particularly, they don’t want consumers to have to deal with overly-priced products or feel guilty for trying out samples.
This is why they offer new users free product trials and eye tests without any hard selling and any strings attached.
New customers are required to book an appointment for an eye examination with their in-house optometrist, before they are given a few complimentary pairs of lenses to try at home.
At TWOOAK, their optometrists make an effort to explain how the eye and contact lenses work so customers walk away with a better understanding about their eye health and eye care.
“Our mission is to treat our customers’ eyes like our own,” said Javad, adding that they are “customer obsessed.”
There’s no point coming up with a marketing gimmick to get people interested if you don’t have something of value for them, and there’s no point coming up with a huge campaign to get people to buy something they don’t need or won’t appreciate.
We try to be as straightforward as possible, give people a reason to check us out, and be as honest about our product.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
Project 2×2: Contact Lens Recycling Initiative
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), only four per cent of plastics are recycled in Singapore and the remainder ends up in landfills and incineration.
While daily disposables are the most hygienic and convenient iteration of the product, they are also the ones that generate quite a bit in plastic waste, in particular the blister packaging.
We’ve seen the stock build up on-site, with all the trial contact lenses our optometrists go through, but at the same time realised that we didn’t have a real option in terms of how to get them recycled.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
This is why they’ve come up with Singapore’s first contact lens recycling initiative, which was launched in October last year.
Called Project 2×2, it collects your used contact lens blisters (of any brand) and recycles them. The blisters are then processed into plastic pellets and repurposed into other applications and productions such as car bumpers or plastic bottles.
“With Project 2×2, the polypropylene blisters are collected and delivered already sorted at the consumer level, so minimal central sorting needs to take place. This is how we are able assure that what consumers collect and contribute will actually be recycled,” said Javad.
Once users have filled up their recycling envelope with the used blisters, they can opt to drop it off at the mailbox or the nearest advocate location.
“Advocate locations are a grassroots network of startups, proprietors, SME businesses and individuals that have kindly volunteered to host a drop off point at their place of work or business,” explained Javad.
To date, TWOOAK has a network of six drop-off locations and have received over 50,000 pieces from more than 200 people.
“It’s a very new initiative, but there’s been a lot of support.”
“We are proud to be the first to provide what consumers have deserved all along. It is our humble hope that other optical retail companies and brands follow suit, and that other non-optical consumer brands do so as well.”
Growing Into A “Million-Dollar Business”
While it’s still early days for them, Javad feels like they have had some “moderate success” and are now just a “couple of months away from being a million-dollar business.”
As a bootstrapped startup, their sales totalled to about $30,000 within the first three months of launch and revenues have doubled every month.
Fast forward to today, they serve a customer base of over 3,000 people and are currently running at 20 to 25 per cent sales growth month over month.
While they’re happy with their success so far, the two are aware that they still have a long way to go.
“This is just the start,” said Darryn.
“We’re working hard to keep ourselves growing and are looking to introduce new products and enter into new markets later this year.”
In terms of other future plans, TWOOAK is also planning to open at least one more physical location as well as expand its product range to include coloured contact lenses.
While they also have plans to introduce toric/astigmatism contact lenses in the longer term, these are dependent on whether it will be as good as their current contact lenses, in terms of both comfort and efficacy.
When asked to share a piece of business advice, Darryn said that success is a journey, but execution and action is everything.
“Appreciate and acknowledge that luck plays a role in any ‘wins’ along the way and when you have to take the ‘losses’ from time to time, ask yourself what you could’ve done better, then do it.”
Echoing Darryn, Javad said that while ideas are indeed cheap, execution is necessary.
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, break your back and do the work. It’s the best way to understand your own business, how to improve it and how to make the customer experience better.
If you just sit in an ivory tower and outsource everything, you’re doomed to fail because no one truly knows your business except you.– Javad Namazie, co-founder of Two of a Kind
Featured Image Credit: Two of a Kind