LONDON – Contact-lens startup Waldo is launching on Tuesday, hoping to be the latest start-up to disrupt a market dominated by big, established players.
Waldo sells daily contact lenses online, but for less than the big brands. The lenses are delivered to customers’ doors within 48 hours, in compact, chic and recyclable packaging.
“We’re trying to inject fun and interest back into the eyewear industry,” says founder and Harvard graduate Ashleigh Hinde. “It’s a very complex customer journey at the moment, so we want to streamline that as much as possible.”
The contact lens industry in the UK is worth £290 million, and over 125 million people wear lenses globally. But the number of affordable and high quality daily options is limited, a problem Hinde attributes to the greed of big pharmaceutical companies. Waldo secured £600,000, pre-launch, in its first round of funding.
Hinde says she has always wanted to use dailies, which are often considered more hygienic, but hasn’t been able to afford to. The reason daily lenses are so expensive, she says, is a “a mixture of [big pharmaceutical companies’] insane mark ups and their really complex distribution channel.”
While big pharma does everything it can to maximise profits, Waldo plans to mark-up much less, while still being profitable, and streamline its supply chain to cut out third party distributors and retailers.
A month’s supply of Waldo’s contacts costs £12 per box, per eye, while retailer Specsavers sells pharma giant Johnson & Johnson’s dailies for between £15-20 per eye.
According to Hinde, opticians also mark-up on lenses, and pricing is “super inconsistent.” As a result, Waldo will only be sold online.
But Hinde is clear she won’t compromise on quality, and Waldo’s lenses, which cater for all prescriptions, match the standard of Johnson & Johnson’s dailies.
“I’ve worn contacts since I was 11 and my eyes are super sensitive. There was just no way I was willing to compromise even part of the manufacturing process for cost savings,” she says.
Although bi-weekly lenses appear slightly cheaper than Waldo’s dailies, when the cost of the cleaning solution and lense case are taken into account, says Hinde, the total price is about the same.
On top of that, using daily disposables is considered healthier and reduces the risk of infections and complications, according to Paul Harasymowycz, head of glaucoma research unit at the University of Montreal.
“Waldo provides the highest quality daily contact lenses, at a fraction of the cost of other brands out there,” says Harasymowycz.
Hinde concedes the profit margin is tight, and says Waldo’s distributor and marketing costs are bigger chunks of the budget than production itself.
But she highlights the importance of the customer experience and “building a relationship,” and says this must not be compromised to cut costs. Although a large portion of the company’s spend goes on fulfilling orders, Hinde emphasises this will reduce as the number of orders goes up.
Waldo currently has five employees, plus Hinde, but has a pipeline of talent ready to join the customer services team if Waldo’s customer base grows quickly. It doesn’t have a target number of customers for its first few months, but gaining 10,000 customers in the first six months, says Hinde, “would be great,” and could be catered for.
Changing the image of the lenses industry
Undercutting the big players is not Waldo’s only aim. The other element of the lenses industry Waldo wants to disrupt is its aesthetic.
“I pick up my lenses before I look at my phone, that’s how personal and necessary they are to me,” says Hinde. “But I’m picking them up in this really horrible box.” As long as the product is high quality, she continues, “why can’t it be fun?”
To look at, Waldo’s packaging is slick and minimal. But the company also wants to take away the stress involved in buying lenses, from a customer’s diagnosis to receiving an order.
“Going to the optician has sort of become like going to see the dentist,” says Hinde, “it’s viewed with the same sort of chore mentality and we really want to take that away.”
Waldo has an in-house optometrist who is available online to answer questions, but the company also has a customer services team who can find customers a local optician and book appointments for them.
“That’s still a very relationship-heavy interaction, and our aim is not to disrupt the role of the optometrist, it’s to disrupt the supply chain of pharmaceutical companies,” she says.
In terms of partnering with private opticians’ clinics, Hinde says the ease of buying contact lenses online means most opticians make most of their money on glasses and instore visits. Therefore, she says, by driving customers through their doors Waldo will be facilitating business that opticians might otherwise lose completely.
Waldo is currently developing an app and plans to open pop-up stores, where customers will be able to see an optician face to face and buy lenses. The company will initially only operate in the UK, but Hinde has plans to expand internationally.
She’s aware of the association with the children’s ‘Where’s Waldo’ book series, she says: “the ultimate PR would be to get him wearing contacts.”