James Murray Wells, the 24-year-old entrepreneur behind online spectacles retailer Glasses Direct, has appointed Albion as the company’s first retained advertising agency ahead of a renewed marketing push (MW last week). It is the latest step for the young man who started the business in 2004 with £1,000 from his student loan. Alarmed at the £150 price tag on spectacles on the high street, he discovered he could obtain the same glasses direct from a laboratory for about £7. Working from his parent’s living room, he set up a website from which customers could order spectacles themselves.
Since then, Glasses Direct has grown from a one-man operation to a serious player in the £2bn UK spectacles market. Now backed by private equity, its estimated revenue this year is between £4m and £7m, with projections of £10m for 2008.
The simple premise of Glasses Direct is that customers take an eye test at any high street optician. Then, using the prescription they receive, which opticians are obliged to hand over, they buy glasses on Glasses Direct’s website at a fraction of high street prices.
Not surprisingly Murray Wells has faced significant opposition from high street players such as Specsavers, which insiders claim was “agitated” by Glasses Direct. There has even been talk of a whispering conspiracy by rivals to force him out of business, alleging the operation went against industry guidelines.
Murray Wells says: “We have always positioned ourselves as a disruptive company, we have entered a market and exploded it.”
Last year, Murray Wells drafted in one of the industry’s biggest names, David Magliano, to guide Glasses Direct’s marketing strategy at board level (MW May 4, 2006). Though Magliano was the marketing brains behind London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, it was his experience with budget airline easyJet that Murray Wells thought had parallels with his company.
Similarly, when Murray Wells was looking for funding he approached investors that had experience in marketing “disruptive” companies. In July, Glasses Direct received a £2.9m investment from Index Ventures and Highland Capital, backers of Skype and online gambling operators Betfair.
Insiders say that while they face the prospect of having to undercut their own franchises in order to compete with Glasses Direct, Specsavers and Tesco are likely to enter the online glasses market in 2008.
Murray Wells welcomes the competition, saying that it will create growth in the market, and adds that his challenge is to be operationally ready to cope. He has recruited a full marketing team, including the former Virgin Mobile marketer Phil Gates, and moved into new premises. Albion has been appointed to create a strong brand.
Murray Wells says: “Traditionally, we’ve marketed ourselves as a value proposition, but we are now looking to position Glasses Direct as a fashionable, fun and funky glasses retailer. Now glasses are cheaper, customers can have more of them – sunglasses, different colours.” Murray Wells is aware that his visibility as a young entrepreneur who has shaken up a closed market is an asset to the company. He knows that if high street operators enter the online market using aggressive tactics it could work in Glasses Direct’s favour. He adds: “I’m an instrument of the company, if I can drive sales then it’s right that I do that, but I have always thought Glasses Direct has a life of its own, a quality product and a decent price.” Murray Wells concludes: “What we do is sell glasses and marketing is the heart of our company.”