People

Duo start first direct-to-user brand of contact lenses here

When he ran out of contact lenses one day, the idea struck then management consultant Darryn Tan that perhaps more could be done to solve the woes of contact lens wearers.

"When I popped out my last pair, I thought to myself, that was $3 or $4 gone just like that," he recalled. "Surely there must be a better and cheaper way for the consumer to buy their lenses."

That was two years ago, and today Mr Tan and business partner Javad Namazie, both 39, own what is believed to be the first Singapore brand of contact lenses in the market.

The journey has not been easy for the founders of Two of a Kind, but in April the duo, who met in primary school and have no background in the optometric industry, launched the brand.

It is the first direct-to-consumer brand of contact lenses in Singapore, cutting out the middleman, and customers can opt for a subscription-based model.

Their lenses are made in Taiwan at a factory that has been approved by the Singapore authorities and prices for a month's supply of daily disposable contact lenses start at $50.

Most of the company's dealings are online, but customers are required to attend a prescription and fitting with the in-house optometrists before purchasing.

"It's a personal and intimate product, so we we want to do it right," said Mr Tan.

Since conceiving the idea, the duo, who both wear contact lenses, have not looked back. With the Internet as their guide and advice from industry stakeholders, they decided to try to change the consumer experience in the relatively traditional contact lens industry.

The market in Singapore has typically been dominated by established brands like Bausch and Lomb, and Johnson and Johnson.

Mr Tan said: "We wanted to take a traditional consumer product category that hadn't changed in decades and shake things up."

Admittedly, working out of Singapore, which is one of the most tightly regulated markets for contact lenses, posed challenges in terms of regulation and approvals, said Mr Namazie, who is a lawyer by training. He added: "To even get started we had to sort out quite a bit of paperwork. But again, we wanted to do it right."

Mr Tan said one of the most surprising things he found out while doing research was that while customers paid close to $4 for a pair of daily disposable contacts, the same pair could cost companies as little as 20 cents to manufacture.

"It would not hurt the big boys to sell lenses at the cost to serve, but no one is incentivised to do that. We're hoping to change that," said Mr Tan. Cost to serve is the total cost of bringing the product to the customer.

"I also thought to myself, we can get food on demand and store files remotely on a cloud (server), is there any reason why direct-to-consumer contact lenses are not around yet?

"Nobody was doing contact lens subscription and there was no reason for the status quo to remain."

But the idea of selling contact lenses online did raise eyebrows among some of the stakeholders they consulted at the initial stages.

Mr Namazie said: "The whole online contact lens industry had gained notoriety years earlier and the authorities had to clamp down on some bad hats. So professionals in the industry were very wary.

"There's the assumption that when you're online, you're not seeing the customers, there's no prescription, there's no fitting. So we made it a point to do everything by the book, and assure them that we are not some dodgy business."

The product is registered and the company emphasises that customers have to get a proper eye check-up and fitting at its shop in North Canal Road, near Hong Lim Park, before lenses are distributed.

"After that came across, people we spoke to warmed up pretty fast and began to see merit in the model. We had some good conversations, some helpful and insightful advice," said Mr Namazie.

As part of research, the duo tried out at least 30 brands of contact lenses from all over the world, and kept a detailed log on how the lenses felt throughout the day.

"Some days we ended up with red eyes, or we had to peel the lenses out of our eyes. Thankfully we didn't end up blind, but we discovered for ourselves that there were good and bad products out there," said Mr Namazie.

The venture is fully self-funded and is the first foray into business for the duo, who left their jobs to do this full-time about a year ago. Since launching the business three months ago, sales have totalled about $30,000, and revenues have doubled every month, said Mr Tan.

They have about 300 paying customers who have either purchased the product or signed up to receive the lenses on a subscription basis.

Mr Tan added: "So many other industries have changed and adapted over time. We don't want to be the guy who says, 'Oh yeah, Uber, I thought of that years ago'.

"That's sad. And I say this with an absolute understanding that at any point of time we might still fail, but at least we gave it a shot."