Steve Dyson meets Asad Hamir, an entrepreneur who is turning the dreary world of the opticians’ practice into customer-friendly ‘eyewear boutiques’.
When Asad Hamir bounces into the room, he’s wearing the trendiest glasses I’ve ever seen since, well, since Elton John went ‘spectacles crazy’ on Top of the Pops in the 1980s. I wear glasses myself, and am having a big lack-of-confidence moment as my small, dark and out-dated pair face up to the huge, gold and silver Kite specs mounted on Hamir’s nose.
But then as the man behind Kite, the UK’s first ‘eyewear boutique’ that opened in London’s Stratford Westfield shopping mall in 2014, Hamir’s got to walk the talk. And for him, the ‘talk’ is all about changing the world of opticians: making glasses as fashionable a purchase as shoes or handbags, and turning what was a clinical experience into something more like a trip to your favourite café.
Hamir grew up in ‘eyewear’: he comes from a family of optometrists, and recalls selling his first pair of glasses at the age of 14. He also has entrepreneurship in his blood: his mum’s family came to the UK as Ugandan refugees in the 1970s, and the need to put food on the table for eight siblings drove her to start an opticians’ business. That’s now called the Eye Emporium, with 13 stores across London and the South-East of England.
“Having always been in optometry you get a love for the industry,” Hamir says. “But what I really enjoyed was design. When I was a teenager working in the family opticians, I used to try to persuade the reps to give me free pairs of the latest glasses, and I built up quite a collection of samples.”
Hamir studied optometry at City, University of London, and after graduating worked as a locum optometrist to save some cash towards his first business – which had nothing to do with eyewear. He launched Telenomics aged just 22 in 2008, working with business partners Amar and Adarsh Radia. The company began as an O2 franchise store but was soon designing and selling its own mobile phone accessories – everything from cases to power packs and cables.
Telenomics is now O2’s largest franchisee, and by developing its own product range it’s grown to employ 230 staff, serving some 130,000 customers and bringing in annual revenues of £46m. For many entrepreneurs, that success would be busy enough. But for Hamir, having a strong management team at Telenomics gave him the freedom to move into the industry he really wanted to conquer – eyewear.
He again partnered up with the Radia brothers to launch Kite, where he’s the majority shareholder. And this time it was no franchise: Kite was a start-up, with its own designs, its own manufacturing and supply contracts, and its own brand and sales premises.
Hamir says the idea behind Kite is remarkably simple: “As a customer, eyewear is quite an assisted sale, and a very personal one. From the frame, which is how someone looks, to the lenses, which are all about taking individual measurements.
“And yet the industry is so stuck in the past. I go to shows and see all the new trends coming through, but because the eyewear market is so safe in the UK, and because opticians control it, no-one wants to stock the ‘risky’ stuff.
“The trend only six years ago was rimless glasses. Then it moved to more modern acetate frames. Now it’s all about making a statement, and vintage is in, shapes from the 1980s. All the frames you weren’t able to sell are now the trendiest. But UK opticians just don’t get fashion. This was the entry point, the opportunity to try to disrupt and attack, because I know the public want the latest stuff to decorate themselves.”
Hamir also sees traditional opticians’ stores as “sterile and cumbersome”, where customers are placed on a conveyor belt to first choose frames, then get their eyes tested, and finally sitting down with staff who try to upsell them bespoke lenses – thinner, tinted, protected and various other options.
“Kite is the start of a journey to challenge the way things are currently done,” Hamir says. “At Kite, you walk in and immediately the store looks different – more fashionable. There’s a scent [Kite gently infuses the air with Molton Brown products], and background music tailored to our values: fresh and new.
“From the minute customers walk in, they’re offered a drink – coffee, tea, healthy juices, or water. And they’re greeted in a different way. Everything about Kite is attention to detail, from the music to the cleaning cloth, and this gives the customer another experience. Then comes the range of frames. In traditional opticians, there are so many. We’ve tried to be more minimal and so there’s not the same volume.
“Most opticians display frames in price groups, from low to high, but Kite started with a flat price of £150 – and that’s for everything. We focus on shapes and sizes. Once a customer finds the shape, they can then deep-dive into colours. There might be a single frame but two or three different colours. When they have their eyes tested, our opticians use the very best, latest equipment – such as the optomap for deep retinal screening.
“And when it comes to lenses, traditional opticians price the various options of thickness and coating, which can be confusing and something customers don’t like. At Kite, you know: you’ll always get the thinnest lenses for the same price. This is easier for the customer to understand.”
This “customer experience” is critical for Hamir, and a big part of that experience is customers instantly understanding the all-in approach to price; given that Kite only uses high-quality Carl Zeiss lenses, this took some negotiation, taking around 100 lens prices down to just five at the supplier stage, and then making this just one price for the customer.
Hamir gets up to draw a graph on a whiteboard to show me: the more extreme the prescription, the costlier the lense, but the majority of customers are not extreme, and so their lenses are cheaper. By building extremes into an average, Kite picked a price that covered everyone.
But how was the German lense expert persuaded to play ball? “This was a stale industry,” Hamir points out. “So, when you want to do something different, people are willing to hear you out. Carl Zeiss wanted to test growth, and wanted to work with innovative companies. They were open to that conversation. We caught them at the right time, and they were the right company.
“Kite is now on the same production lines as the likes of Cartier. The end product sells itself. People love the quality. The experience is great. And that’s then self-perpetuating. News spreads quickly through social media. And the brand grows – because loyal customers are telling other people. It’s a fashion brand, so it’s a long game, but people get to like the brand as well as the glasses.”
After nearly three years, Kite has a £1m-plus annual turnover and employs 27 staff. It plans to double in size by the end of 2017, opening stores in Shoreditch and Soho, and what Hamir says will be the UK’s first eyewear design studio.
As the brand evolves, Kite’s investing more in in-house designs, producing what Hamir says will be “really cool stuff” that “pushes the boundaries”. As a result, the company’s original all-in price of £150 will increase, but he says this will be done carefully in tiers – with customers still knowing the all-in price they are choosing.
“It was always the various lense prices that confused customers,” he says. “But by clearly giving different prices within a range of frames that has a mix of models and colours, people will always know what they’re about to spend. Traditional opticians relied on lenses to make the money, rather than the frame. We’re the other way around. Our lenses will all cost the same. It’s the frame that makes the money.”
Hamir also highlights how crucial people have been to making the business a success. For him, the key is working out how to recruit “awesome” teams, how to motivate them, how to keep them, and how to make sure they deliver what’s needed.
“You start off with recruitment,” says Hamir, who lives in Harrow with his wife, Sayyada, also an optician, and his two young children. “Manage it yourself, not through some recruitment agency. It’s about selling the role yourself.
“Then, when you get the right candidate, make sure they’re the right fit. It’s very easy to make the wrong choice, so regardless of how senior the role is we do trial days, or trial weeks, to see whether they’re the right fit for the team.
“Then comes motivation and leadership. We have a weekly stand up – where everyone talks about what they’re working on, and what their ‘blockers’ might be, so everyone’s aware of what everyone else is doing. And we have ‘pizza Thursdays’ for bonding, which is so important.
“Finally, it’s about aligning incentives and targets. Everyone has the same: revenue and customer experience. We send emails to every customer asking them to rate their experience. And twice a week we have mystery shoppers, and staff get to watch what they say.”
As well as Kite’s plans to double in size, the company’s developing the use of three-dimensional (3D) selective laser printers, where nylon powders can be instantly melted, shaped and printed out as spectacle frames. This will be another dramatic change for eyewear, moving what’s mainly an Italian manufacturing process to the UK.
That’s some years away, although a prototype of Kite’s 3D printed glasses will arrive in the next few months. Hamir’s strategy is to bring eyewear fashion directly to the UK, helping to create a home-grown eyewear design industry, expanding the volume of different models and ultimately leading consumers to buy more glasses.
“That’s what drives me – changing something,” says Hamir. “For me it’s not commercial, it’s about changing the industry, changing the way people perceive eyewear in the market, changing customers’ behaviour. That’s our purpose at Kite – to be at the forefront of bringing about that change and to create a new culture in eyewear.”
Hamir’s top tips for entrepreneurs
Find your higher purpose
“This needs to be almost out of reach, like the changes that Kite wants to make. That’s your north star. Everything comes off the back of that. Don’t deviate.”
“Have an extremely high attention to detail for the end user. Don’t accept anything but the best, such as the quality of finish on our frames. In the future, artificial intelligence will help, controlling the manufacturing process by software. This will be quicker, and more reliable.”
“Make sure you have enough cash, and a budget you don’t deviate from. I’m a big believer in financial models. Check them, hold people accountable, and celebrate when you’ve done well. Cash is king.”