Glasses Direct: James Murray Wells

At just 22-years-old James Murray Wells has come from nowhere and taken the world of optometry by storm

At just 22-years-old James Murray Wells has come from nowhere and taken the world of optometry by storm. The spectacular success of his company Glasses Direct led him to being named Startups Business of the Year 2005. He tells us about how he did it and why the investors are queuing up around the block to get involved in his company. Murray Wells was studying at the West of England University in Bristol when he discovered he needed reading glasses.

So he visited his nearest high street optician but was appalled when he found that his new metal frames, ‘essentially some wire and two pieces of glass’ cost £150. “I was managing on a student loan and £150 was a fortune – half a month’s rent. I just couldn’t understand why my glasses were so expensive, and my curiosity led me to investigate further.” He began to call manufacturers, opticians and industry insiders but he was met with a ‘wall of silence’.

But then a disgruntled employee at a laboratory in the north of England gave him the lowdown.

“He talked me through the industry,” says Murray Wells. “And it turned out that my £150 pair of glasses probably only cost about seven pounds to make.”

Murray Wells was supposed to be hammering the books in preparation for his finals but instead found himself immersed in the glasses industry.

He learnt about optometrical testing, how the frames are made and the lenses are cut.

He discovered that the market is around 70 per cent controlled by just four high street retailers: Vision Express, Boots, Dolland & Aitchison and Specsavers.

But, most significantly, he leant that he could make glasses for a fraction of the price that they were being sold on the high street. Murray Wells enlisted the help of some students at his university who helped him build the website and design the logo.

He then used the final instalment of his student loan and some money from his father to establish, they began trading in September 2004.

Manufacturers were initially reluctant to endanger their relationships with high street opticians but eventually they relented. In a year Glasses Direct had sold 22,000 pairs of spectacles and Murray Wells believes that this has saved UK consumers an estimated £2m.

“People generally can’t believe our Glasses Direct prices,” he says. “As the high street shops are maintaining retail prices at 10 to 20 times the cost price. “What I’m giving people is choice, and they are delighted,” he says. “An average pair of glasses is manufactured for less than £7, so I charge just over double. Even with advertising and overheads, I still make a profit.” His business has gone from strength to strength and he now employs 17 staff and turnover is around the £1m mark.

“It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind,” he admits. “But I have always been determined to get very big, very fast”.

To aid this expansion Glasses Direct are now seeking investment from Venture Capitalists, however he says that they are also seeking him.

“It’s been a lot easier than I ever thought it would be,” he says. “We’ve literally been getting new calls from potential investors every day. It’s wonderful and we’re in a very enviable position to choose who we want to work with.”

It’s not just a decision who to take money from. Murray Wells knows the next move is crucial.

“It’s not only about the investment, we need someone who will be helpful at board level and is experienced in dealing with big organisations, large marketing campaigns and has e-commerce expertise.”

Talks are ongoing, but Murray Wells expects a deal to be struck soon and says press reports of raising £5m “aren’t far off”.

A large bulk of the money will be spent on marketing.

“We’ve made massive strides but still only occupy 1% of a £1.7bn industry so we’re really still just a drop in the ocean. I want to move as quickly as possible as we know it’s only a matter of time before competitive entry occurs.”

The big players in the optical industry appear to have accepted is here to stay too – even if they’re not happy about it.

“They’ve changed tack a little and aren’t rubbishing us in the press as much as they were,” says Murray Wells.

Murray Wells remains undeterred by the high street’s desire to stamp him out, but is looking to shake off the David vs. Goliath tag.

“As well as marketing ourselves to the mass market we’re in talks with several major retail organisations and expect to announce a number of partnerships by the start of 2006.”

Subsequently, Murray Wells is strapping himself in for another 100mph 12 months and expects turnover to triple to £3m, and reach £10m by 2008.


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