Why Your Startup Idea Has an Expiration Date: An Interview With David Menning

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“…it’s only through continually seeking to innovate — to provide the latest opportunities to customers — that we will be able to continue to stay relevant in today’s ever-present cloud of zealous marketers vying for attention.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing David Menning, Co-CEO of the SmartBuyGlasses Optical Group who was one of the pioneers of bringing the eyewear purchasing experience online through their ecommerce websites. Having been at it for more than 10 years, the company now serves over 1.5 million visitors every month, is in 15 languages, and is changing the way people buy their glasses worldwide.

Thanks for doing this with us. What is your backstory?

After completing post-graduate studies with a MBA and a Master of Political Science I was working with the Australian Trade Commission on opening up European markets to Australian businesses. Whilst I loved the idea of taking business models from one market and launching them in another, my entrepreneurial flame had me always thinking about the next big thing. I got hooked on the incredibly expensive price of glasses (and sunglasses) and the crazy price in the retail store of these items vs the cost I imagined they were made for. I made it my goal to work out how to make eyewear affordable and accessible for everyone. Having started by looking at product supply, I then worked with my partners to build a business model that could scale and provide such products within an innovative e-commerce platform. Fast forward 10 years and many IT releases later, we are a company of over 150 people, all working for the common goal of helping our customers find what they love.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When we first opened our Italy office we procured an amazing cash deal on a little office with multiple floors in the middle of town. The office served as our company apartment as well as office with a room on the top floor which I used as my bedroom. The only problem was that the bathroom was on the ground floor. I never enjoyed running back upstairs after my morning shower, never knowing if one of our staff members would arrive at the office early to find me scurrying through the office with a towel around my waist.

Are you working on any meaningful nonprofit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We started giving one pair of glasses to a person in need with every pair sold in 2009. It was very rewarding to know that we could turn a retail sale into a clear and measurable socio-economic item that could have a profound life-changing effect on its recipient. Back when we started I think we were the first or one of the first companies that actually had such a social impact. Now this trend has become almost commonplace with many eyewear retailers now offering this feature—which is great to see. The question for us now is how we can continue to innovate by bringing more glasses to people in need, both in remote communities as well as in our local communities. These aspirations will continue to inspire us.

Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

The beautiful thing about selling glasses is that the product is so intimately tied to a person’s identity. Who a person is and how they represent themselves to others is displayed through the glasses on a person’s face. So whether through our retail activities actually selling someone a pair of glasses, or by providing a pair for free to someone in need, we are helping people see the world differently, and be their best self. If we can do this in an economical and effective way, it can improve a person’s life. That is all we would ever want to achieve, one pair of glasses at a time.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why?

  1. Choose something that you enjoy doing in life. Whatever it is that you choose to do, you will end up spending an awful lot of time doing it. Even though we are tempted by the latest job trends or the more attractive career path, the truth is that we excel in what we are passionate about. Success and growth naturally follow. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a person truly passionate about what they do. Find something you are passionate about and stick to it.
  2. Be open to opportunities when they present themselves. It’s so funny that most of the time opportunities present themselves at the most unanticipated moments. Typically, its these occasions that matter the most. It was the chance meeting of my fellow co-founders, the people I have met along the way, these situations and opportunities that have shaped my life. Only through being open to these opportunities was I able to build the growth and scale that I witness today.
  3. All journeys have challenges along the way. By approaching challenges as an opportunity to innovate, one can always find new ways to compete in the world. After the Brexit vote in 2016, the pound devalued and as we buy a lot of product from Italian manufacturers in euros we started getting hit with a 15 percent change of margin almost overnight. This led us to restructure our supply chain and marketing activities. This opportunity ultimately allowed us to improve our experience to our British customers.
  4. Continually Innovate. We used to think that e-commerce was the next big thing and now people are talking about custom fit, 3d-printed glasses, eye tests that can be done at home with one’s iPhone and many other innovations. We realize that it’s only through continually seeking to innovate—to provide the latest opportunities to customers—that we will be able to continue to stay relevant in today’s ever-present cloud of zealous marketers vying for attention. Businesses fail without innovation, because every great idea has an expiration date.
  5. Learn to take failure in stride. When I first started out in business I naturally reacted quite negatively to the idea of failure. I think that most young people are turned off the idea of entrepreneurship due to the risk and the fact that our schooling naturally teaches us that failure is bad and that we must work hard to succeed. But what schooling doesn’t really tell you is that it’s important to continue to fail in order to learn how to succeed. These days its fabulous that our team has adapted to a higher level of thinking, a testament to our desire to fail to continue learning and improving.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I’m still in awe at Jordan Kassalow who started an amazing social enterprise in 2001 called visionspring.org. They are a global social enterprise that train ‘Vision Entrepreneurs’, or low income men and women, to start micro-franchises. These micro-franchises conduct local eye tests in third world communities and villages, and sell very affordable glasses. By creating an active market in the developing world for eyeglasses distribution, Vision Spring solves many problems by assisting the end customer and also providing a social enterprise method of delivery. Whilst I love our attempts to continue donating glasses to people in need, I appreciate its flaws. Jordan designed a NGO that has provided close to four million pairs of glasses to people through a model that is both growing and providing valuable employment opportunities along the way.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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