Interview with Kilian Wagner Co-Founder & CEO of VIU
Part 2 of the Sparrow Ventures Portfolio-Nest-Series
We had a chat with Kilian Wagner, Co-Founder & CEO of the Swiss Eyewear Label VIU which unites brilliant design with a transparent manufacturing process and fair prices. Since September 2020 Sparrow Ventures has been an investor and partner in the premium eyewear brand, where each pair of glasses is designed in Switzerland before being handcrafted by a family-run business in the heart of the Italian Dolomite mountains or the Japanese island of Honshu. This is the second interview of our “Sparrow Ventures Portfolio-Nest-Series” where Kilian shares a bit about himself as a person, the journey of VIU, what is currently on the agenda for the team and what the future holds along with how it is to have Sparrow Ventures as an investor on board and his personal advice to new time founders.
In a few sentences, could you briefly introduce yourself and what motivates you?
I am Kilian, the CEO and Co-Founder of VIU, a Swiss Eyewear Label that I started together with friends about 9 years ago. Today we operate about 50 Flagship stores in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland with more than 300 employees. I am driven by the vision behind VIU to revolutionize the eyewear market and to provide our customers with high-quality, beautifully Swiss-designed eyewear at fair prices. What gets me up and excites me every morning is my curiosity and of course the fun I get from working in an organization where people are proud to be part of the journey and engaged to explore their potential.
What is an experience that shaped who you are today?
It’s difficult to boil it down to a single experience, but it’s the multitude of experiences that shape one’s character. When I was younger, the sport was my main motivation and clearly, there is a bit of competitiveness and willingness to win that coined who I am. Then came university where I met a lot of my closest friends that shaped my view of the world and with whom I explored cultures and different countries and with whom I shared many amazing moments. Ultimately my first job, where I worked 5 years at McKinsey & Company, learning the 1:1 of consulting and getting an in-depth understanding of different businesses. This in turn provided me with the toolset that helped me to set up VIU properly. And of course my now 9 years at VIU. Being an entrepreneur means seeing challenges as opportunities, staying optimistic, and being flexible in the approach to reaching your goals.
What do you do differently than others?
I think for me it is my optimism — I tend not to get stuck in difficulties but am able to focus on the positives to drive change and succeed.
How do you proceed if there is no right answer? How do you deal with stress and big challenges?
Clearly, there are always too many choices and often there does not even seem to be an obvious “right” answer. For me, the solution is to think in experiments, little tests you can use to get deeper insights, to explore new avenues, and then based on this to either double down or stop an initiative. As an example, originally we did not intend to build stores for VIU and wanted to do everything online only. Since we were looking for an office in the early days we decided to use the opportunity to test a combination of store & office. It took off like a rocketship and we learned that for prescription eyewear it is super critical to have physical touchpoints, that our customers appreciated and needed an in-store consultation and that offering eyesight tests were pivotal. Today we operate around 50 stores as a consequence of this early test.
How did it come to the founding of VIU?
We founded VIU because we felt that in today’s eyewear market you either are confronted with paying super high prices for great design & quality or you are ending up with a super low, cheap frame on your nose. We saw that the eyewear market is huge (DACH alone CHF 7bn annual sales volume) and that the market structures have been very change-resistant with the rise of eyewear chains like Fielmann being essentially the only innovation within the last 30 years. Seeing this it has been clear to us that there is a disruption opportunity if we can find a way to bypass existing structures and smartly combine online & offline channels. Thus we started VIU in 2013 offering super high-quality eyewear at fair prices by cutting out the middle-men and selling directly to our end customers.
What are some of the milestones for VIU that you are proud of?
Actually, we just launched the second generation of our “VIU Archetypes” 3D Printed Glasses, which are individually printed for each customer and allow customers to personalize their own frames. Within 4 weeks since the launch, already 1 in 10 optical VIU frames is now 3D Printed and I am super excited about this milestone. We are a frontrunner in this and hope to continue to grow further with the goal to build the “perfect” frame for each individual customer.
Was there maybe ever a moment that didn’t go as initially planned for VIU and that kept you up all night?
Clearly, the last 2 years have been very difficult for us as it has been for any business with retail / physical stores. There has been a lot of uncertainty with Covid and the first 6 months were continuous firefighting. However, we also learned a lot as an organization and I learned the hard way to manage crises.
What is currently happening at VIU?
After 2 years of Covid, we are now looking to restart our growth and expansion engines. This includes investing more in brand awareness again to get VIU into the heads of our target group. This is what I am focussing 150% of my energy on these days.
How did it come to win Sparrow Ventures as an investor for VIU?
We have been in discussions with Sparrow Ventures for a long time and there is a lot of shared belief in terms of the future of retail and values. In 2020 there was then the opportunity to join forces and bring Sparrow Ventures on board as an investor which we are very happy about.
Money aside ;) : how else did VIU benefit from having Sparrow Ventures as an investor partner?
We are in regular exchange with the Sparrow Ventures team and they are a sparring partner for us with ideas and challenge us positively on our thoughts — furthermore, there is clearly a tremendous amount of relevant retail experience at Migros which we can tap into.
What advice would you give someone starting a company?
Focus focus focus — don’t do everything at the same time, but focus on what really makes a difference.
What advice would you give founders to find a matching investor partner?
Ensure that you have a partner who 100% shares your vision and who is not looking for short-term financial return but provides you with time and patience to thrive towards your vision.
What does the future hold and what’s next for VIU?
As mentioned above, for us it is now about turning our growth and expansion engine back on and continuing to build our vision. The potential we see for VIU is still enormous and I am excited about building it together with our team!