Brillen.de, a bootstrapped, family-run company in Germany that has built an online business selling its own eyewear by tapping into a network of independent and local opticians, has raised €45 million ($49 million) in its first-ever VC funding. The money comes from a single, notable, investor, Technology Crossover Ventures (which has backed the likes of Facebook, Spotify, LinkedIn, WorldRemit and Zillow), and according to co-founder Daniel Thung will be used to take Brillen.de’s model to new international markets in Europe and beyond.
The company is not disclosing its valuation but says that it made “tens of millions” in revenues in the last 12 months from its existing business, which is currently live in Germany, Austria, UK and Spain. But SuperVista (Brillen.de’s parent company brand) is projecting to pass hundreds of millions in sales this year, and “it has been profitable since day one,” according to John Doran, a principal at TCV.
The last decade has seen a lot of disruption in how glasses are made and sold. Eyewear company Warby Parker has become something of a poster child for how online companies can harness the concept of vertical integration to disrupt traditional industries; there are dozens of other companies that sell contact lenses, glasses and eye care services online that are made by others; and on the street a lot of independent opticians are being supplanted by mega-chains.
And that’s before you consider that there are people working on ways of bringing the assessment phase directly to you to bypass the physical visits, or doing away with the whole concept of corrective lenses altogether.
Brillen.de is a somewhat unique idea in the context of these. The company, started in 2012 by independent opticians that came from a family of vision specialists (including an ophthalmologist who sits on the board and holds several patents in the field), isn’t aiming to put opticians out of business: instead, independent shops are a necessary component for selecting and fitting the eye wear that Brillen.de makes and sells.
And for these optometrists, it’s become an essential way of competing and staying relevant.
“A typical independent optometrist attracts only a few customers in their store per day,” Thung said. “We drive more customers to their stores. On average we double their customers per day. It is a win-win for them so we find our optometrists are extremely loyal to us.” In addition to developing the glasses themselves, Brillen.de also provides all the billing and customer management services for each buyer.
Putting family allegiances to one side, one main reason that Brillen.de is tied to working with physical shops is because of the kind of lens that it sells. It mainly focuses (sorry) on the progressive variety, which is the modern, smooth lens that includes prescriptions both for seeing up close and far away, depending on which part of the lens you are looking through. Getting measured and fitted for these lenses cannot be done virtually; it requires physical visits to opticians, and there are now about 700 of them that work with the company.
The idea of acting as a platform for independent contractors or specialists to find new customers sounds similar to a dozen other marketplace businesses — from cleaning/home care services like Handy and Thumbtack, or doctor finders like Zocdoc, through to transport services like Uber. But it’s a concept that hasn’t largely been applied to this segment of the market.
“We don’t have any direct competitors as there aren’t any other companies in Europe with an affiliated network of independent opticians like us,” Thung said. “We’re mostly competing with high street eyewear retailers such as Fielmann or Apollo.”
The market for corrective lenses is projected to be worth some €30 billion annually in Europe by 2017, according to Credit Suisse, and around $90 billion globally. But because of the complexity of making progressive lenses, these account for about two-thirds of that value, TCV’s Doran tells me. Brillen.de says that its progressive eyewear is typically 40-50% cheaper than its competitors.
The concept works, and part of TCV’s investment seems to be aimed at moving in and building it out before others get there first. “We’ve seen that Warby Parker is moving to our model,” Doran notes. “They have figured out that progressive lenses are where the money is, but they have discovered that it’s hard to sell them online. That’s why they have started opening stores.”
As part of the funding, Doran and TCV venture partner Simon Breakwell will both join Brillen.de’s board.