'We turned glasses into eyewear, from a fix for a medical problem to a fashion accessory'

Peyush Bansal started Lenskart in 2010 when few sold eyeglasses online in India. Today, apart from the online platform, it has 400 offline stores, allows users to do virtual eyewear trials, has a manufacturing facility, and has funding from IDG Ventures, Unilazer Ventures, IFC, and others. Bansal says Lenskart is now ready to start running on its own profits, rather than investor money.

How did you think of starting Lenskart?

I studied in Delhi, and did engineering in Canada at McGill University. While doing engineering, an internship at Microsoft in Seattle got me excited about computer and software. After my graduation, I went to work at Microsoft in 2007. I was happy, but the work I was doing was incremental, not as revolutionary as I wanted it to be. I quit Microsoft and moved to India in 2008 to start out on my own. I started building a classifieds website for students first. It was like Quikr for college kids. It was scaling well, but we were simultaneously looking at other problems to solve. We liked to work on niche problems. Eyewear was something being written about a lot, but it was a category no one was working on. We used to hire interns during summers, and one summer we gave them the eyewear project. In 2010-11, we were working on both initiatives. At one point, IDG (venture capital firm) decided to fund us for Lenskart. So we decided to shut down the other piece.

Was your main focus then on selling eyewear online?

Yeah, I wanted to figure out why no one could sell it online. As we got deep into the problem, we realised there is a lot involved in spectacles - manufacturing of lenses, cutting those lenses, getting eye power of customers. Customers weren't buying online for a number of reasons - it was too expensive, they needed to have their vision checked. We started launching solutions to address these problems. We launched virtual try-on, then we launched our offline store two years ago. We worked backwards, from the problem to the solution.

Why did you build your own brand of specs instead of curating local opticians?

What we are doing is using online to increase accessibility. At some point, we will organise local opticians. Most people think eyewear is addressing a medical problem, that's why penetration is low. They need to see it as fashion. When we took that view of the category, that became our brand.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge was to find the right people when we didn't have money. We had to sell them the passion. Among investors, the initial reaction was that it was going to be no more than a Rs 40 crore business over the following five years, so not large enough. I think now we have made the investors realise it's already a Rs 600 crore business, and can be a Rs 6,000 crore business. Doubts don't exist any longer. The mindset changed when people realised we were not giving up and were exceeding our own targets.

Was launching the offline stores a turning point?

It significantly increased accessibility to the brand. Our stores are unique because we don't sell in the store, but only take orders. We are solving the problem of trial.

You've had a busy year, you raised $3.5 million, announced a target of Rs 600 crore business in 2017-18.

This year was about bringing a lot more discipline in the business. The worst thing is having large operations and not managing it well. Building infrastructure for the future is important. Our backend infrastructure is pretty complex. We need to do the lenswork post orders. We built a manufacturing facility in Gurugram that took nine months. It is the largest in Asia. That was a major step. We brought a lot of senior leadership. We made a tech investment in an Israel-based company that enables determination of the power of your eyes and lenses through a mobile phone. We are ready to start being sustainable, generate profits and reinvest those. I have lot of work to do on the cost side.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs?
The start of the journey needs to be right. The problem needs to be sizeable enough to solve. Funding is overrated in India. The qualification of a good business is not whether it has raised money, but whether the opportunity is large.

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