The eyewear market in India is highly unorganised and flooded with unbranded products. Lenskart began in 2010 to make eyewear more accessible and affordable. Founder Peyush Bansal had quit his job at Microsoft US to set up the company. The numbers, now, speak for themselves. The company’s revenues almost doubled — from ₹485.5 crore in FY19 to ₹963.7 crore in FY20. Arch rival Titan — retailed under the Titan Eye Plus brand and launched in March 2007 —clocked ₹544 crore in sales in FY20. In fact, the omni-channel approach has worked for Lenskart. Along with an online presence, the company has 700 outlets in the country and expects to add 300 more in the next one year.
India is often called the blind capital of the world. About 40% of the world’s visually impaired people live in the country. The genesis of the idea behind Lenskart is that it is such a big problem. Vision is the biggest problem here, but unfortunately it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It sounds fancy to say that we’ve treated Malaria and dengue because they are diseases, but vision correction doesn’t get attention. Students continue to have poor vision because they never knew that they could see better, but that’s impacting their ability to study more. Similarly, we have evolved so much as an economy from Uber to Ola to Swiggy to Dunzo, 50% of these drivers have a vision correction problem, but they are not solving it. That was the motivation.
With problems as large as this, you cannot just make an impact at the top and hope for things to change. You need to make an impact on the root cause of things. In a lot of other businesses, you just make the service and start marketing it, but in eyewear a lot of ‘problem diagnosis’ is required. The core challenge was staying grounded and focussing on those problems. It remains even now. In fact, there are three core problems: One is access. We have very few shops for eyewear considering the number of people who need it. If you look at the number of mobile phone shops and the number of eyewear shops, you’ll know the difference. The second is awareness that it’s not such a big deal to get your eyes tested. The third is making it affordable.
Make Or Break Moment
About a year and a half after starting Lenskart, we started a few other businesses like selling watches, bags and jewellery. That was the ‘break’ moment for us because suddenly from a purpose-driven company that was solving such a large problem, we became a business company. And the ‘make’ was that we decided to get out of all of that within a year. We realised that this is not a big problem and this doesn’t have that sense of purpose that eyewear has. Sometimes to grow the business you try to do more things.
The Business Model
Instead of thinking about getting the business model right, we were thinking about how to solve the problem —how do we get more people to buy glasses, and how do we get them to buy from Lenskart. More than the business model, it was about picking up each of these problems and solving them. And I don’t think there is any other strategy that’s needed in a business at a late stage like ours. If you can say why people who are buying are buying and why people who are not buying are not buying… if you can keep answering those questions, most problems get resolved. That is our business model.
The challenge is always to find the right quality of tech talent. There’s a lot of tech talent in India, but you need people who can associate with the mission you are working on. Also, the kind of tech that is needed needs to evolve very fast. One of the things that we did was we went omni-channel. While 70-80% people use smartphones, less than 10% of them shop online. People look for assistance, and so we started stores, home service. It helped all those who had smartphones but were not buying online. They started buying from Lenskart.
For organisations that need to be disruptive and problem solving, you need people who are good fits in terms of your style of working — whether you need to take decisions fast, need to make mistakes fast, or need more tech orientation. So, it’s better to hire on those factors and give them challenges. Secondly, it’s important to hire people who are passionate, those who can drive change. And thirdly, there are cultural values like respect. You should not compromise on those for business because that sets the kind of culture you’re building, the kind of people who are coming in, etc. There are 1-5% people who will take your organisation to the next level. They are pretty much owners, as you are the founder. It’s important to hold on to such people, and invest time in making sure they become your partners in a growing business.
For us it was not that difficult because we were not looking for funding. Securing the first round of funding is easier if you are really solving a core problem, if you are focussed on your consumer experience. The more you chase funding, the less you will get it. The more you chase your customer, the more funding you would get.
Marketing & Sales Lessons
From a marketing perspective, it’s important to build a product, which, when a consumer gets it, they should feel good about. They want to share that with a few more people. There’s an aspiration. Once you have that and people enjoy your service, you package it well and give the right experience. Marketing is not necessarily Facebook and Google. A large part of marketing is your product, your customer experience, your look and feel, etc. Once that happens, your sales become easy. Organisations, entrepreneurs of young companies resort to marketing too soon. Even your price is your marketing, your packaging is your marketing.
When Did You Think You Had Arrived?
Around four years back, I was at the Bangalore airport at the security check. I was counting the number of people who were wearing our eyewear, and it was more than 50%. That moment I did feel that we are on to something bigger. Like we could create an impact similar to what a Maruti has created in India.
Riding Through Toughest Times
The toughest phase was when we were moving our factory/operations to a new technology platform years back. We were moving to a new ERP (enterprise resource planning) kind of a system… a new warehouse system. Somehow that transition did not go well. It wasn’t fully tested. At least for 10 days we were not able to serve our customers on time. We were serving duplicate orders, a lot of orders were sitting with us for 10 days, we were giving wrong specs, etc. That was the toughest period. It was a two-week process. It was just a mad house because we had all these customers who had put faith in us and given orders to us for their glasses, but we just had really screwed it up. I was in the office for two weeks; we were sleeping on the floor. We were getting orders out somehow, apologising to customers, returning their money, etc.
We want to serve at least 50% of India. We are on the journey and we have a right to win. We are also looking at localising more contacts, sunglasses, and even some parts of glasses. We are not looking at diversification into any other category. We want to stay committed. But we are looking at international markets. We are there in some already. Globally, four-billion people need specs and 2.5 billion don’t have them. So, we are looking at opening in more markets such as South-east Asia and West Asia. In the U.S., we are setting up an office to hire people there.