Disrupting the contact lens industry – Q&A with Ashleigh Hinde, founder and CEO, Waldo

For a small business looking to enter the online retail market technology is crucial to help smaller retailers stand. We spoke to Ashleigh Hinde, founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer contact lens start-up, Waldo about how they chose the right eCommerce platform for them, what return on investment means, and how she disrupted the contact lens industry.

What is the Waldo story? How did you get started? How long have you been running? 

Waldo is a direct-to-consumer contact lens brand that wants to change the way people feel about buying contact lenses and the ocular health category more generally. 

I started Waldo whilst studying for my master’s at Harvard University. With burning eyes after a long day of staring at a screen, I realised I only had one pair of lenses left and went online to buy more and was really surprised at the cost of them and found the experience very confusing. I started wondering about my contact lenses – their cost; where they were made; the delivery cycle and why the price differed so dramatically by channel and country.

As it turns out, contact lenses have really complicated distribution channels and greedily high margins taken at every point in the distribution cycle, meaning that lens wearers, generally, lose out to big pharma.

By delivering high-quality daily contact lenses at an affordable price directly to the customer Waldo can cut out the distribution costs in delivery while delivering a much more flexible and tailorable service to our customers.  

Waldo launched in the UK in 2017, later expanding into Europe and most recently the US, offering daily disposable monthly lenses and has, to date, reached over 100,000 people worldwide.

How did you go about building customer trust with technology, compared to traditional ophthalmologists?

Contact lenses are such an intimate product, so people need a lot of reassurance when it comes to trusting a new brand of lenses they haven’t had any interaction with before. Ensuring our wearers have trust in our product and service has always been of utmost importance for us. Our lenses are produced in a world class ISO verified factory and are both FDA and CE approved.

Our lenses have been designed with our customers’ eye health in mind and offer the customer high oxygen permeability (allowing the eyes to breath) and moisture content to prevent the eyes from drying.

We have also designed our website with this in mind and we see user experience as being another critical way of building trust outside the lens itself. We display verified user reviews and stories so this is easily visible when you go on Waldo’s website. 

A huge part of instilling trust in our service is by ensuring our communication with customers is the best it can be. For example, our customer service team are on call Monday-Saturday and customers can speak to one of our team within 12 seconds (on average).

We have an extensive FAQs page, a customer service number and email address, plus an ‘ask the expert page’ where our in-house optician answers any questions our wearers have. These features combine to instill a sense of reassurance with customers that they can rely on us to always be accessible if they need us.

A big problem with the optical industry is how inaccessible it is compared to other categories. We are working hard to make it a category that customers can engage with and understand. 

Waldo offers a 10-day free trial of our daily contact lenses, which is a powerful way to get the product into the hands of customers to try for themselves. It’s a risk free exercise that has proven to build trust.

This combination of product trials, as well as a robust customer community and flexibility of the online platform for the customer to tailor their service to their own needs builds trust with our subscribers in light of not having a brick and mortar footprint of our own.  

How did you go about establishing what challenges your business needed to solve? What are the big challenges that small online retailers in particular face? 

Currently, the contact lens market is dominated by big pharmaceutical companies with complex distribution processes and third party companies doing the distribution between the customer and the manufacturer or brand, meaning that the customer is left with a product which is too expensive as everyone is taking a cut.

Since launch, we’ve been working hard to inform lens wearers that by opting for a Waldo lens plan, they’ll still have access to expert eyecare advice from our in-house optician, while benefiting from a completely tailorable subscription. We disrupted the industry on behalf of these lens wearers, who are now able to wear dailies (the most hygienic lenses) at a newly affordable price.

With so many eCommerce solutions on the market how do you narrow them down, and ultimately decide on the right solution?

We formed a few criteria to start with and went about it as we would any procurement process. Some of the things that were of utmost important to use were security of the platform, size of the platform (we wanted something big enough to be durable but not so big that it was inflexible), the number of integrations the platform allows and has access to; and how easy the platform is to work with.

Initially we went with a Shopify solution end to end using and leveraging the plug ins that were available with them such as Recharge for subscription management. As we have scaled and want more customisation and features for our customers, we have built our own subscription management software. 

What are the advantages of an all in one solution, versus piecing several solutions together – what was the right option for you and why? 

The advantages are inherent security and support with that platform. Unless you have a tech team in house, it is not necessarily worthwhile to build custom software from the beginning.

There will be loads of iterations from the first launch as you start to learn and understand what features customers are looking for, but only once you have that insight are you able to really start building customized technology. 

Many businesses scale well beyond the ten million mark with all in one solutions like Shopify, so it is a really fast and easy way to get off the ground quickly and build an MVP as you scale the rest of the business. 

How important is digital/web marketing for your business? What type of solutions do you use? 

Fundamental. We are an e-commerce business as our core. We still use Shopify for some reporting alongside our customer software, Freshdesk for customer service and Klaviyo for email Marketing. On the Marketing front, Google has come far in expanding the utility of data studio, so we find this useful. 

With so many investment options for a retail brand – marketing, stock, technology – how would you recommend small retailers decide how to divide their budgets for the best return? 

It really depends on each business so it’s difficult to give overarching feedback, but as a general rule it is dangerous to get too much complexity in your sku mix and supply chain too early unless you have more than enough capital to support an inventory heavy business.

I would recommend small retailers to decide which products are their superstars (the products that have good gross margin, good customer feedback and a solid market need). Start with those products and get momentum with them to build a customer base and credibility.

Fundamentally, start with your core product(s). If you are an e-commerce business, I think technology forms part of the product stage because it is critical to your customer experience, but building a decent technology platform for e-commerce is fairly straightforward today. From there and once you have some customer feedback and credibility, look at scaling Marketing and iterating on technology.

How often do you re-evaluate your technology setup? How long should a small retailer give a system to start to show return on investment? 

We re-evaluate different parts of the business all the time. As a rule of thumb we have probably evaluated and changed our technology setup in some way every 4-6 months. Your technology system should show return on investment as soon as its built. If it’s not, then I would question if it’s been built to purpose. 

There are new eCommerce solutions on the market every day, how do retailers avoid spend too much time and money chasing the next big thing before they have the right foundations in place? 

Retailers can avoid that by setting the priorities of the business. If you are always looking for the next thing, you will fail to build on what the business has. When looking for a new platform, a procurement process should be followed with a very clear set of principles for what the objective of the procurement exercise is. 

It is very difficult to move to a new platform when the fundamentals aren’t in place. This should be priority. Technology is never perfect; there is always more to do but switching platforms is a very costly exercise both in terms of capital and in terms of time and opportunity cost.

While the team is finding and onboarding a new platform, they could be focused on sales or hiring (or another aspect of the business); and getting to know a new platform takes time too so this should always be factored into the pros and cons of platform switching. 

What IT team setup do you have – dedicated website/marketing team? Outsourced management?

We have agencies that handle the development of our websites alongside a growing internal team that includes project manager, developer and analyst.

How do you use technology to keep your inventory and supply chain moving, from tracking stock to customer delivery?

We carefully choose our logistics partners and one key consideration is their technical capabilities, to ensure a seamless and powerful partnership. We are investing more into leveraging this capability to allow us to be as reactive as possible when it comes to managing supply chain – a constantly evolving part of any growing business.

I would argue though that the technology in this area of the business needs to be pretty sophisticated and automated from the beginning. If you hold stock it needs to be properly tracked and managed. We would not onboard a logistics partner who didn’t have capable technology; not in the beginning and not now. 

The online retail market is incredibly competitive – how important is your front and back end website technology to converting visitors into buyers?

Ensuring that we have an interface that is simple and engaging for our users is crucial in converting would-be customers into trialists and making sure our customers understand our product and service. It’s essentially our store front so it’s critical.  It is then the strength of our backend platforms and database that allows us to retain those trialists into long-term customers and build custom features for our users

How has your technology platform/solution evolved over the past few years? What online retail technologies do you think hold the most value for smaller retailers?

We have built our own custom subscription management platform to bypass some of the restrictions of using leading ‘out the box’ solutions and since launch we have continued to develop and grow its capability exponentially to ensure it serves our ever-changing requirements. During the early growth phase, it’s important to choose technologies that both integrate well and scale, data and connectivity is key to growth.

With the continuous success of online marketplaces like Amazon, how can small retailers use technology to stand out? What are the key technologies they can use for their success?

The tech landscape is changing so rapidly it sometimes feels as if you need to be 5 steps ahead, but you need to start small and have a clear roadmap ahead. You can’t invest in everything at once so it is important you choose the right platforms first and the ones that will help you generate revenue. It is important to be just as ruthless with what you say yes to as what you say no to.

There is a time to be building what you have and a time to procure new tools. There are many multi-faceted tools designed to help get you off the ground quickly in areas such as eCommerce, payments and analytics before you start to choose specialised platforms for more tailored uses.

Small brands can stand out by building very clear messaging and a brand that cuts through the noise; then using out of the box solutions to start is a very viable way of getting traction. I don’t think it’s ever been easier to start an online business.

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