Ep. 257 - David Roger, Founder of Felix Gray, an E-commerce Eyewear Company on Launching a New Category of Eyewear and Other Startup Challenges
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On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with David Roger, founder of Felix Gray, the e-commerce eyewear company with proprietary blue light filtering technology. David and I talk about the founder's journey of launching a new category of eyewear and the challenges along the way. Let's get started.
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Interview Transcript with David Roger, Founder of Felix Gray
Brian Ardinger: [00:00:30] Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have David Roger. He is the founder of Felix Gray, an e-commerce eyewear company with proprietary blue light filtering technology. And he's got quite an interesting story. So welcome to the show, David.
David Roger: [00:00:57] Thanks so much for having me.
Brian Ardinger: [00:00:58] Our paths have not crossed until today, but a lot of our common network have in the past. You started your company, Felix Gray in 2016. Let's go back to the beginning and let's talk about how you got involved in becoming an entrepreneur.
David Roger: [00:01:13] In college, I initially thought I wanted to be a lawyer. That's what I went to school for and by sophomore year I realized I did not want to do that. And I kind of loved this idea of starting businesses. And this is the time where TechCrunch was starting to get really popular, and you'd read a lot of different things and different entrepreneurial things. And it was something really exciting.
I ended up starting my first business in college, which was a secondary school newspaper. And I had to sell print advertising to local stores and shops and businesses. And if you want to learn how tough selling is, try doing that.
And then when I left Cornell, I went and joined Venture for America, which is basically Teach for America, but applied to startups and entrepreneurship. Founded by Andrew Yang, who is running for democratic nominee couple of years ago and is now running actually for Mayor in the New York Mayor race. And so that's kind of how I got into entrepreneurship.
Brian Ardinger: [00:02:06] I think you started in Vegas, is that correct? Working with Tony Shay and the Downtown Project. And maybe tell us a little bit about that Vegas Tech Fund and some of the stuff that you've done in there.
David Roger: [00:02:17] Through Venture for America, they are in partnership with Tony's Downtown Project. And so that's how I got connected with them. I interviewed out there, really bought into the mission, really thought it was an amazing thing to fill a walkable livable downtown area, which is, Vegas is not known for that. It's basically all suburbs. And then essentially the strip, which is a transient first population.
And so, I thought that was an amazing mission. I was part of the biggest tech fund, but my primary job was on their operations team. Basically, when I got there, Tony had put in $350 million of his own money into revitalize the area, and we had no idea if projects that we had going on ranging from a million, to twenty-five million dollars, we're going to make money or lose money. It's kind of the wild west.
And they threw me in, and they said, go figure this out. And so, it was really cool. Great job right out of school. I will say it did mean that I was in front of Excel, building financial models, 12 hours a day. That's when my eyes started to absolutely kill me. I was looking around, looking at everyone else, complaining about the same things our eyes being tired at the end of the day, their eyes being dry, headaches, blurry vision.
And kind of looked and said, okay, why is this a thing. Everyone I know at work and half the people I know in my friend group that are in different jobs all around the country, why are we all complaining about the same thing?
That's when I started talking to Optometrists Ophthalmologists. Learned around what screens produced, which is blue light and glare and basically that caused a lot of these issues that get categorized as digital eye strain. So, if you get filtered blue light, you can eliminate glare. You create this more comfortable experience.
Brian Ardinger: [00:03:50] I love the genesis of that. But not every new idea becomes a company. And so how did you make that jump from, hey, I've got an individual problem from the standpoint of, you know, my eyes are getting strained from all the work I'm doing on screens to, hey, I think there's something here that I can create a company around?
David Roger: [00:04:08] So the first thing was really recognizing that problem. Right? So, recognize the problem myself and then recognize that problem in a lot of other people. Whether it was people complaining about it firsthand, or me saying, hey, do your eyes ever get exhausted at the end of the day? You ever deal with a headache?
And everyone's saying, yes. You're like, okay, there's something here. So, then I start to understand, okay, what is going on? So that's when I started talking to eye professionals for a better understanding what could be these root causes. And so when I'm talking to ophthalmologists and optometrists they are saying look, screens are a large driver behind this, and particularly what screens produce, light and glare.
And so like, look, you can filter blue light, and you can eliminate glare. You can create a more comfortable experience. There are these glasses out there, they're yellow or orange lenses, and basically, they're going to help. So, I look, and they're not only yellow and orange lenses, but they look like hunting goggles.
And if you put them on your face you look like one of the X Men. And I'm like, I can't wear that, and we'll show this to plenty of other people like, hey, this will solve your problems. They're like, I'm not wearing that. Right. So basically, the idea was okay, well, how do you create something that is functional, but also can look good.
At the flip side, there were a couple other things in the market at the time, and this is still the case today. But these clear lenses, basically the Optometrist, the Ophthalmologist, the real eyecare professional said this stuff is not really filtering real blue light. It's filtering 2 to 3% of blue light where it actually matters, which produces blue light. It is basically placebo. It's not worth buying. So, what I did then was said, okay, well, how can you marry the fashion function?
How can you create something that has a beautiful frame, but a really functional lens? And that's when I started working through a lot of networking with, with different lens suppliers and ended up developing a proprietary way of filtering blue light that can still have a clear lens. But be highly effective, right?
So, Felix Gray's lens, even today, filters 30% of blue light instead of 2% of blue light at the 455-nanometer range, which is where screens produce blue light. Right. So basically, we filter 15 times more blue light where it's important. And that's why 9 out of 10 people who wear Felix Gray report significant improvement, but that was the genesis.
So, it was okay, let's spend time building a great product off the bat. That's not only going to make your eyes feel great, but make you feel great. You feel confident in what you're wearing. And from there start.
Brian Ardinger: [00:06:34] And obviously there were some signals in the marketplace that e-commerce was taking off. Warby Parker, I think had just been around and being introduced to the concept of cheaper or less expensive frames that you would buy than going to the store and stuff. So, there's some signals in that.
How did you go from, and the concept of there's a problem here. I think I can solve it from technology perspective and then creating an e-commerce company? Those are different things as well. How did you go about building the team and experimenting your way to where you're at now?
David Roger: [00:07:01] Ecomm was definitely growing. I would say that the distinction between the fields where I was doing and a lot of what other direct to consumer was doing was direct to consumers basically saying here's a toothbrush, you've always bought a toothbrush, let's make a prettier looking toothbrush. And let's cut costs through the supply chain and then be able to deliver it to you and use, you know, Facebook advertising, et cetera, in order to get it off the ground.
We were basically creating a new category. We're saying, look, we believe that this is a big problem. After looking at lots of research through companies like the Vision Council, which is an independent group of optometrists and ophthalmologists, you’re learning that 60 to 70% of people are experiencing digital eyestrain. So you're realizing this is a big problem, but the market is really low. So, the awareness is not there.
The problem is obvious. It's just that no one has applied all that's known on that problem. And no one has brought a real great solution to the market. What we said is the best way to do that is to do that through a new age direct consumer model, as opposed to the traditional retail model.
Because especially when something is new, a retailer's not going to say, sure, I'm just going to buy this thing. You know, I’m going to help educate your potential customers. It doesn't work like that. Right? So, we had a lot better direct connections with the customer. If we could go straight to B to C.
Brian Ardinger: [00:08:20] My understanding is you got scrappy early stages when you're trying to start a new category, sometimes there's not investors that are interested in starting a new category and that. So, talk us through how you got off the ground?
David Roger: [00:08:31] I remember, you know, at the time Away Luggage had just raised $2 million pre revenue. My co-founder and I said, okay, look, we're two smart, you know, guys. He came from hedge funds. I came from an entrepreneurial background. And we said, look, we can go raise some money.
And we basically got laughed out of the room because people said, you're not going to start a new market. And especially we are selling specifically non-prescription glasses. So, people with either contacts or 20/20. So, you're not going to get people who don't wear glasses, to wear glasses. And so, we actually said, we believe in this product. We've tested it among friends and it's a really good success.
So, the first thing we did when we really got scrappy is when we launched in January 2016 in a closed beta, we actually did what we called an office trial. We worked with offices all around New York. Spotify, Uber, Barclays, LinkedIn. And we would go in and offer up to 50 pairs of glasses to employees for two-week free trial period.
We took care of everything. So really easy for a Culture HR team to just say, hey, this is a fun little perk. We don't have to do anything. And it's a nice thing to offer. And at the end of that program, people could either return them. We come and pick them up. Or they could use their own credit cards to buy.
And we saw about one in three people without knowing about Felix Gray, without knowing about blue light, bought right off the bat. And then we always get emails like we'd always pick up on a Friday. And then by Monday, Tuesday, we'd always get all these emails saying, actually my eyes are killing me. Can you come back so I can buy those glasses? So, we knew we had something there.
Brian Ardinger: [00:10:02] So you did an Indiegogo campaign as well and raise some money from friends and family and then manufacturing and that's expensive. So how do you get off the ground with just selling individual orders?
David Roger: [00:10:13] That private beta happened after the Indigo campaign. When we did the Indiegogo campaign, we really didn't have a company at all. There's no supply chain in place yet. Basically, it was rough estimates of what we would need in order to place our first order quantities.
And we didn't even know what the suppliers were. We just knew that was roughly what it was going to be. And we would figure that out later. So, I think for us, we were in a position where we use Indiegogo very much as a friends and family way of raising some money.
People could contribute $50 here, $100 dollars there. And then, you know, some people, you know, friends of friends got interested, excited about the idea, but you know, you see some Indigo Campaigns that are really, really polished. They really know their supply chain. They know exactly what's going on.
They've already built prototypes. And now they're racing for, you know, that full kind of, I'd say seed round, right. It goes beyond actually just the production there's marketing expenses that they're looking to raise and things like that. We were very much like, hey, we don't know if this is going to work. Let's raise as little as possible off the bat.
We didn't raise our official seed round until a year after we launched. So again, 2016, right. So, we raised our first seed in March of 2017 once we started to have traction.
Brian Ardinger: [00:11:30] And so flash forward. We're what, five years or so into your journey? What are some of the lessons learned along the way? And then we can talk about where you're at today.
David Roger: [00:11:39] Starting with a really high-quality product, particularly one of ours that is proprietary and just works better than others, does mean a lot, right. Because at the end of the day, you can have best frames, the best marketing. If you don't have a great product, it can win, but it often doesn't, especially if you're trying to be scrappy.
You know, word of mouth is still our largest source of revenue from any individual channel. We do a lot of advertising on a lot of different channels, including podcasts, including, you know, Facebook, Instagram, Google influencers, things like that. So, it's not like we're not marketing. Just word of mouth still continues to be really strong.
Another thing I'd say is, you know, when we launch, we launched as a blue light company. We launched as a blue light product. We were really growing this market. Over time, I think it's important for brands to understand really at the core, what they stand for. For us that is this idea of your digital wellness, right.
So, we fundamentally believe in improving the relationship between people and their technology. We believe that like, if you are able to do that, you can help people live a happier, healthier, more productive life, and change the world, right. You're happier because your eyes aren't killing you at the end of the day.
We've even had the best review I ever got was a person saying that their marriage has gotten better with their spouse because they don't come home grumpy, cause their eyes aren't exhausted. And at the same time, you can also be more productive, right? So, you might have to burn the midnight oil to get a project done. And you're able to do that because your eyes aren’t fatigued. You're not dealing with that headache.
But at the core of what we stand for, it is really this idea of how do we help your digital being. If we care about the food we put into our bodies. We care about that exercise we get. Then we sit in front of our laptops or monitors for 10 plus hours a day, watch TV for a couple hours or on our phones for every minute in between.
We know that's not good for us. So why not have a healthy relationship during that day. And that is ultimately what drives new product development that's in the works. It ultimately drives the conversations that we want to have with customers, the type of partnerships we're looking to do. And so I do think that finding your brand North Star is very important.
Brian Ardinger: [00:13:51] So we've had a challenging year, as everybody has around the world. I always like to ask the founders, what have you learned over this past 18 months in COVID and that. How has that affected your business? How's it affected your ability to manage teams and grow what you're growing. What are your takeaways from where we've been and where we're coming out of?
David Roger: [00:14:09] Yeah, from a business standpoint, I think, you know, particularly in the beginning of the pandemic, everyone’s indoors, everyone's now learning to use Zoom. And, you know, we saw, you know, blue light, the category really exploded. I think now you're seeing kind of the opposite happen, where everyone is just focused on being outside and most people are vaccinated and which is to be expected.
You know, it makes sense, but the awareness overall has risen a great deal. A customer said, you know, 80% of our customers do their research beforehand. So, you know, as the space matures, there's a lot of competition out there from $20 products on Amazon that are honestly pretty crap, to like, you know, $150 products. And people are wondering because that price point is so wide. What are the differences? And a lot of times they'll do their research.
So we're learning a lot about that. In terms of business and managing a team, you know, we've always had a fundamental philosophy of it's more important to get your work done and get your work done well than to just be in the office.
And so, while we had an office first culture, performance was not relying on if you showed up to the office or not. You had a plumber that needed to come, of course you could work from home for the day. If you just weren't feeling like coming in, you can work from home for the day. So, we already had, I'd say an innate level of trust with everyone on the team.
And so, when we switched to work from home, I think it was less of transition for us and less a transition for people that manage teams here, than it was for other companies where that cultural is less so. Now I will say that over time, you obviously miss those interactions with individual people, you miss just being able to get in touch.
And so, you know, we started doing randomized lunches every other week, so that you can kind of have these small group lunches. That was really nice. Also a nice thing is a lot of people are Slacking all the time now. And it was really nice to just Slack call or actually call someone because I liken it to just swiveling your chair around and then talking to the person next to you.
And we weren't able to do that anymore. And you lose so much if you're just texting. If you're just typing on Slack, you lose all that tone. So that was another thing that we learned over time. Like, hey, let's just get on a one-minute phone call. It doesn't have to blow up into this whole thing. It can just be a one-minute phone call to talk through something.
Brian Ardinger: [00:16:27] So coming out of it, are you going back to the office? Are you doing hybrid? Where are you sitting?
David Roger: [00:16:31] We'll end up having a hybrid. So, we're figuring that out right now, but it's clear that most people want some office environment, but they don't want to go back five days a week. We've also started hiring people outside of New York, which I think has been awesome.
It's a great way to expand the talent pool and the way that I see those things going is having a couple of off-sites every year to bring everyone together. And I actually think having multiple off-sites is really helpful anyway, because everyone, especially in a small company, working and being pretty busy.
Everyone is so heads down often. It's really hard to get people up and just kind of have their heads out of the sand. And that's, especially true of people who are, you know, at lower levels in the company. And that's really, really important to get their perspective too. And off-sites are a great way to do that.
Brian Ardinger: [00:17:21] Do you have any kind of go-to resources that you'd recommend for entrepreneurs or innovators out there that you rely on or use to keep you up to date and moving forward?
David Roger: [00:17:29] The best thing is your own network. And as you build that network, then you might become in text groups or Slack groups and different things so that, you know, what's going on. Whether that's marketing or supply chain, or leadership. I think surrounding yourself with a couple of key mentors is also really important to better understand how to build teams in particular.
So, I would say network more than anything. There's a couple of good newsletters and stuff like that. Fore Runner has a really good one. I always liked to read, Not Boring, which is not usually in the D to C space, but I think it's just very, very thoughtful and strategic.
And you can learn a lot about the thought that companies put into their strategy through newsletters like that. But I would say more than anything, it's building your own network because that's where the real value has to come from.
Brian Ardinger: [00:18:15] What's next for Felix Gray? What do you see coming out in the next few months, years? Where do you see the company going? And what's new and exciting in your world.
David Roger: [00:18:22] Yeah. So, we're really focused on the digital wellness space. So, you know, there'll be some things that we're going to launch a Warranty Program pretty soon. We'll launch accessories pretty soon. Really just additional things on the eyewear side. But we do have a couple of products that are not eyewear related that we're looking to launch one of them in actually like late summer, early fall.
It's a product that helps your long-term eye health and also helps your short-term eye comfort. So, it's kind of something that we look to be in addition to Felix Gray. And the way that we're thinking about the business overall is really this idea of we want to own and help facilitate the conversation around new digital wellbeing, and then create products that support that right products that support the fact that we weren't evolved to be in front of screens all day, every day. There are negative effects that are associated with that. And we want products that help mitigate the same effect.
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Brian Ardinger: [00:19:14] Well, David, thank you again for coming on Inside Outside Innovation to share your founder journey and give us some insights into where you see the world going. I really do appreciate it. If people want to find out more about yourself or about the company, what's the best way to do that?
David Roger: [00:19:27] You can follow us at Felix Gray. So, it's the same F E L I X, G R A Y S. Felix Gray was taken when we first started that. You obviously can sign up to our newsletter as well. Those are probably the best, two ways to follow the company.
Brian Ardinger: [00:19:43] Awesome. Well, thanks again for being on the show and looking forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come and appreciate all your time.
David Roger: [00:19:49] Thanks so much for having me. It was great.
Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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