When I was talking to my friends that run The Brandery accelerator program about their new class, I remember doing a mental double take when they said they were investing in a glasses company. It certainly didn’t fit the mold I have come to expect from startup companies: software solutions to some market problem that hasn’t fully embraced the power of the Internet. After spending too much time in the software world, I forgot that lots of companies actually make stuff that you can touch. Silicon Valley isn’t a misnomer: they used to make things out of silicon there.
Of all this year’s Brandery companies, this glasses company (sorry, they have a name: Frameri) intrigued me the most. Not just because they have a cool product that I want (we’ll get to that in a minute), but simply for the reason that they were making something (literally, some thing) and that raised a lot of questions for me. Are physical product companies suited for the standard startup route? What do VCs look for in this kind of business? How do you cheaply test, launch, and scale a company that requires R&D, manufacturing, shipping, quality control, returns, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.? I talked to Kevin Habich, the CTO of Frameri, and asked him all these questions, but before we dive in, a word about what these guys actually do.
Frameri is taking a unique approach to eyewear, where they allow people to purchase one set of lenses that can quickly and reliably be switched into multiple frames (of which they have a great selection, all handcrafted in Italy). This system allows people to have multiple frames of all different styles without having to get more expensive prescription lenses. Frameri’s lenses have a hard polymer around the edges that was specifically designed to allow for thousands of effortless lens exchanges. Simply snap in and out and you’re ready to go. Smart. You can even get prescription sun lenses and swap those into your favorite frames without having to get a separate pair of glasses.
If you want to see (and order) the product, they have an Indiegogo campaign going right now for preorders. Check it out here.
Okay, back to the questions: Kevin’s first response to my list was that these were the exact same things they had been asking themselves and their advisors ever since they started; apparently (surprise!) there aren’t super easy answers to any of them, but the Frameri team has been smart about tackling the issues.
Problem: How do you test a minimum viable product for something that needs to be designed and manufactured?
Solution: “We sold (through our website) 15 pairs of modified frames from existing eyewear companies that were fitted with Frameri prototype lenses. That way we were able to test demand, test our website, and then have prototypes in the hands of beta customers to get validation and feedback.”
Problem: How do you set up a supply chain for a hypothetical product in a startup business with no revenue and a tiny budget?
Solution: “This is definitely the biggest challenge with the company: getting all those different pieces together without money. The key for us was in building relatinoships with the right people. We found an awesome product development company here in Cincinnati that really dove into the R&D and was able to come up with some amazing ideas for how to make the lenses work. Then we found an awesome manufacturing group in Italy and have built a good relationship with them. Both of these companies understand our situation and are being flexible, but it was a ton of work to find the right people, especially overseas.”
Problem: How do you get massive growth instead of just becoming one more glasses company?
Solution: “This is definitely a scalable business. Right now there is very little loyalty in the glasses market. Nobody cares whether they buy from Lens Crafters or America’s Best. But with us, when they go to buy glasses, they’re either going to be just buying new frames and keep their existing lenses, or they’re going to be adjusting their lenses but want to stick with the frames they already like. So they’ll be coming back to us in those cases because we’re making it easier and cheaper for them to get just the product they want. Then the business is good because the margins on those items are great, so that’s how we scale. Plus, and this is still hypothetical, we have some cool ideas around 3D printing that could be eventually be big for us.”
Frameri is just dipping their feet into the big issues they’ll have to tackle in order to grow a company like this, but it will definitely be worth the effort. They have a beautiful product and a smart team to back it up, so I’m expecting success. And there’s something about seeing a startup like this, that makes physical products, that just feels right. It feels like industry and economic productivity. I hope they can be a good model for how other companies can design, build, and distribute physical goods through the lean startup model, so that we can see more innovation in the products that we use every day.