Glasses Direct: Jamie Murray Wells

Following frustration at his optician, student James Murray Wells set out to make a difference

“It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind,” admits James Murray Wells, winner of the Startups Awards 2005.

In little over 12 months since using the final instalment of his student loan to start Glasses Direct, 22-year-old Murray Wells has burst the big opticians’ hold on the market and has investors queuing up to help blow it further apart.

Suspicious about how a pair of glasses – “essentially some wire and two pieces of glass” – could cost £250, Wells researched the optical market and found he could make them to the same quality for a fraction of the price. Manufacturers were initially reluctant to endanger their relationships with high street opticians, but eventually relented and Murray Wells started selling specs over the internet in September 2004. In a year he’d sold 22,000 pairs and saved UK consumers an estimated £2m.

Last time Murray Wells spoke to Growing Business for our September Young Guns feature, he expressed a determination to get “very big, very fast” and revealed he was seeking VC investment. “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. “That said, it’s clear Specsavers’ recent ‘Clear Price’ campaign is in response to us, but I think it’s appalling. They’re trying to copy us but without actually changing much and they’re still basically undermining their market.”

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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