Startups

Warby-As-A-Service? Backed By Reddit, Posterous Founders, Eponym Helps Brands Build And Distribute Their Own Eyewear

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Over the last few years, a new wave of startups has emerged to tackle a range of inefficient, ignored or offline segments within the massive world of fashion and retail. The maturation of the Web and digital commerce has allowed these startups to not only target specific niche groups of consumers and build communities and intimate relationships around these verticals, but to bypass brick-and-mortar gatekeepers and connect with customers directly through digital storefronts.

This landscape has produced a number of high-profile companies, from Bonobos, Modcloth, Nasty Gal and Fab to Everlane, BeachMint, Indochino and Zulily. Warby Parker, in particular, has created some waves in this space by offering an affordable alternative to pricey designer eyewear and building a strong, fashion-conscious brand around it. At the time Warby was founded, less than one percent of eyewear was sold online, which allowed it to take on the bigs (like Luxottica) by moving eyewear sales online — and wooing hipsters.

While Warby Parker and other online retailers have looked to stand out by staying laser-focused on their own brand, eponym is a testament to the fact that it still pays to think broad in online retail. And, while the prevailing notion in this space is that you have to be loud and hustle like mad to build a strong, incredibly meaningful brand just to stand out from the noise — and, in turn, that the more you focus, the more meaningful that relationship will be.

What’s cool about eponym is that it’s been happily flying under the radar for the last three years and is eschewing the laser-focused, single brand approach to succeeding in the eyewear market by creating a (B2B2C) services business. This is especially refreshing at a time when the excitement over the “consumerization” of everything (and consumer-facing business models) seems to have reached a fever pitch.

Unlike Warby Parker, for one, eponym is building a business around serving other brands, helping them build, launch and distribute their own designer eyewear lines. While eyewear behemoth Luxottica only owns and caters to big brands, eponym is going after the middle-tier. Not quite the mom-and-pops, but not quite as corporate as Oakley.

What’s more, while Warby has to mix it up to keep hipsters flocking and experiment with its sales channels, taking its online brand into offline retail and create pop up shops and so on, eponym is going straight after the platform model. Eponym Founder Andrew Lipovsky instead wants to create a software platform (as-a-service) around handling everything a brand needs to launch their own sexy, wooden-framed RayBan line.

The startup works with brands during every step of the production process, beginning by partnering with the brand’s design team to help whip up the plans and, once those are set, the team then creates a custom-designed website for the brand, which is powered by its own backend infrastructure. The platform offers in-store sales units for the brand’s retail stores, which support customer ordering by giving them their own iPads, which are distributed to all their retail outlets and are automatically connected to the startup’s eCommerce platform.

Brands are finicky and can just opt to do it themselves at any time, so to provide those extra incentives, the company handles all product trial and full-order fulfillment, customer service, CRM along with co-marketing for each brand. Those partnering with eponym are also encouraged to stay involved during the key stages, though Lipovsky says that the goal is to build a solution that’s as “turnkey” as possible.

But wait, if these brands aren’t just tiny mom-and-pop shops, why do they need eponym’s service, you ask? In fact, few actually can because it requires partners and familiarity with a range of specialized distribution channels. The other key differentiator is that, traditionally, if a customer comes into your store to buy some top-shelf eyewear, then the salespeople will have to take down your information, ask for your prescription, call your doctor to verify the prescription, send it to a lab to get the lenses made and then fitted, package and then ship.

Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 4.52.40 AM

There are a lot of touch-points and that’s not even the thornier use case, like home-try-ons, where consumers can order up to six pairs and try them on for free. Instead, eponym allows brands to actually deliver the end-product to their customers, selling them a pair of sunglasses and allowing them to buy the frame in the store and walk out the exit.

Simply put, this isn’t in the wheelhouse of most brands. So, if part of that process is outside the company’s core competency, they can fork that responsibility over to eponym, letting them take take care of building a great product experience around those initial designs.

As eponym is technically an umbrella company, it has spent the last three years building relationships and shoring up distribution channels and so on. It has two brands to date: a house brand (which they’ve developed themselves) called Classic Specs, which sells eyewear directly to consumers for $89, as well as well-known designer Steven Alan.

In concert with Alan, eponym has launched the guy’s eyewear line (called Steven Alan Optical), which has “been very successful thus far,” Lipovsky says.

As to the business potential? The founder says that revenues are now growing 50 percent month-over-month and that it has plans to launch “some exciting new things in the very near future.”

With its end-to-end eyewear services platform beginning to generate real revenue and attract some well-known brands, the startup was able to lock down $1 million in seed financing from a flock of angel investors, including Loopt co-founder Sam Altman, former engineering lead at Palantir, Posterous co-founder and Y Combinator partner, Garry Tan, Alexis Ohanian and Stuart Litwin — to name a few.

For the immediate future, the founder says, eponym will be focused on helping new customer Steven Alan build out a new line of handsome and comely spectacles. Each time the startup onboards a brand it has a better understanding of their needs, the data and the whole funnel itself. It also continues to add to its software platform, extending it to take as much of the manual, human-powered steps out of the process.

From what we gather, eponym’s own Classic Specs brand has been able to generate a nearly a half a million in revenue over a fairly short period of time. Once it is able to reproduce the original product/model quickly and officially and hits a groove in so doing, there’s no reason not to be optimistic about the eponym model’s chances.

When asked about his reason for investing, Reddit co-founder, (Hipmunk launcher) and angel investor Alexis Ohanian said that he was also impressed by the startup’s ability to bootstrap to healthy numbers, thanks to Classic Specs, before signing its first actual brand partner. The fact that this brand partner was Steven Alan was a bonus. Once they proved the platform model, Ohanian says, “the expansion path became pretty clear.”

Startups, take note: It turns out there are other ways to build a company, including through a “platform” model and a “services” business, and, sure, it might be a risky bet this early in the game, but one might even venture that this approach will one day eclipse Warby.

Steven Alan Optical

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