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A 2019 report by the World Health Organisation states that more than a quarter of the world’s population suffers from vision impairment. While this certainly affects the quality of life, the report says it also leads to a loss in productivity.
Peyush Bansal, 38, co-founder and CEO of the 12-year-old eyewear retail chain Lenskart, wants to change this.
I meet Bansal on a balmy weekend morning at his spacious house in the heart of south Delhi, discussing his billion-dollar business over tea—in-person interviews don’t get more comfortable than this. “I am a homely person that way," says Bansal. “I love hosting people at home."
We are seated in Bansal’s home office. Dressed in a Polo T-shirt and cream trousers, he talks to us while quickly finishing his breakfast, which includes a bowl of poha. “We wanted to do something revolutionary (with Lenskart). It started by realising the fact that 40% of the world’s blind population lives in India. Seventy-five per cent of people in India who need specs don’t wear them," says Bansal, who also started the Lenskart Foundation in December 2020 with his wife, Nidhi, to increase access to primary eyecare, especially for children.
It’s fair to say Lenskart is on its way to revolutionising eyewear, not just in India but abroad too. Valued at around $4.5 billion (around ₹35,550 crore), the omni-chain eyewear retailer has around 1,200 stores across the country and abroad. According to a recent report in Mint, its most prominent competitor, Tata group’s Titan Eyeplus, has 760 stores. In 2021, Lenskart shipped around seven million pairs of eyewear, with the company growing 65% year-on-year.
Today, apart from a successful “click-and-mortar" business model, which includes its online store, mobile app and offline stores, the brand not only offers at-home eye-test services but also launched India’s first eyewear subscription service, OJOS Eyewear, in January.
Lenskart also recently closed a deal, reportedly worth $400 million, to buy a majority stake in the Japanese direct-to-consumer (D2C) eyewear brand Owndays, which should give it a firm footing in East Asian and South-East Asian markets. The brand is now making its presence felt in new store locations in India, apart from dabbling in the fashion industry through collaborations with designers and A-list Bollywood stars. Their latest campaign, for instance, features actor Alaya F.
There are plans to scale up manufacturing within the country, with a big, fully automated facility set to come up in Bhiwadi, Rajasthan, within a couple of months. Billed as the largest eyewear manufacturing plant in the world, it will allow Lenskart to ship up to 50 million pairs of eyewear every year. Bansal is right in the thick of it all.
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“There’s one facility in Gurgaon (Haryana) that is already running. The next one, which is going to open in Rajasthan soon, will allow us to serve more people. It will help us take supply and access to another level," he explains.
Bansal has always been on the lookout for new things. Before he started Lenskart with co-founder Amit Chaudhary—their third co-founder, Sumeet Kapahi, came on board later—he used to operate a “garage startup" in Delhi that dealt in student housing. This, after leaving a job as a product manager with Microsoft in Seattle, US.
“It was all going well. A dream job (Bansal was always fascinated by Microsoft Office), with a lot of learning. Around 2008, after having spent a year, I was beginning to feel that the work I was doing was incremental. I wanted to do something revolutionary—something like what Microsoft had done."
Bansal admits he also wanted to return to India to be closer to family. “Since I had gone to college (he studied engineering at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, from 2002-06) quite unprepared, I could see the difficulties in student housing," he explains. “I started initially with classifieds for student housing. You could find housing near your campus. That’s how the website came to be: SearchMyCampus.com."
Several students from Delhi University joined SearchMyCampus. Around the same time, 2008-09, Bansal enrolled for a one-year entrepreneurship programme at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.
Bansal says the startup, which came to be called Valyoo, was working completely on the “Microsoft value system" of “customer, customer, customer". He recalls: “I spent so much time on the Delhi University campus, distributing pamphlets, meeting students at McDonald’s, having actually never studied there. I know every road, gali and college in that area."
SearchMyCampus kept growing but Bansal was still searching for the next sector where he could create “value" with technology. An article that described India as the world’s blind capital happened to catch his eye and he asked an intern at Valyoo to develop a project around eyewear. “Some of these things just happen by chance because you are also willing to try. One thing led to another and we started to realise that people were actually ordering glasses online," he explains. Bansal then spent a few months understanding how the model worked, including conducting some market research in the US.
In 2010, he co-founded Lenskart with Chaudhary, a colleague at SearchMyCampus. Kapahi, who had a background in optics, having worked with the eyewear conglomerate Luxottica, also came into the picture. “We thought that maybe this was ahead of its time. But still, let’s do it in India… Our vision statement was clear from the beginning: to revolutionise eyewear."
Lenskart started growing organically after that. “People were beginning to pick up the brand," says Bansal. “We got lucky again with IDG (Ventures)." In November 2011, Lenskart raised around $4 million from the venture capital firm.
Taking decisions based on instinct, his gut feeling, and keeping the product and customer in mind, is something Bansal does even today. It also comes across in the way he speaks – like a leader. “To be honest, we have never been a big strategy company. We have always had one simple philosophy—and there has been a bit of evolution here—which has worked for us: Listen to the customer. We have always been an agile company," he adds.
This quality was reflected in the way Lenskart operated during the lockdown months of the covid-19 pandemic, when around 80-100 employees lived and worked permanently from its manufacturing facility in Gurugram. “It was very tough initially. I remember having a Zoom call (with his team). The nation was shut but people would (still) need glasses," reasoned Bansal. Lenskart’s entire business moved from its stores to mobile phones. A new customer helpline was generated and all calls were routed to store employees who were at home, on their mobile phones. “We were the only opticians serving the country during that time and took Lenskart to remote corners of India. It turned out to be a good two-three months for us. We found new problems and new solutions."
New store locations are on the horizon today, thanks to the Owndays merger. Bansal says the D2C player is at the top in many South-East Asian markets, including Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan. He explains: “Are they slightly premium? Yes. But they still bring the same concept of making eyewear more accessible. They serve a large number of customers and probably have a 20% market share in Singapore. They really started democratising eyewear, similar to what we started doing in India."
In India, Lenskart, which has 150 stores in Tamil Nadu alone, recently opened a store in Nagaland. “Sales in cities like Nagaland are actually more than the metros. For them, it is the choice. They have heard about Lenskart already. The word of mouth travels fast," Bansal adds. Certainly, the Lenskart brand seems to be more visible than its competitors.
Having set off on a journey to make eyewear more accessible, Bansal says the next phase of transformation is to change the aspiration around eyewear. “The North-East is also big into fashion, and so is Lenskart.... We collaborated with fashion designer Rahul Mishra (for the Paris Haute Couture week in July). We are doing something with Masaba (Gupta) and a collection with (film director) Karan Johar," he adds.
Smart eyewear – another interesting trend – is still a “very fresh" category, he says, but with scope for innovation. “My personal view is that the most fundamental thing people want with their eyewear is that they want to look good."
I ask him about his definition of work-life balance. Like many founders and leaders, Bansal starts his day early, waking up by 4-5am. “I then work for a couple of hours. My mind is most active at that time, sending off emails or gathering my thoughts," he adds. By 7am, he starts his exercise routine, before getting on with the rest of his packed workday. “My day is pretty calendarised," he adds.
While he enjoys movies, Bansal rues that there are “hardly any good ones in theatres any more". Naturally, then, he spends a lot of time on OTT platforms. “He is a workaholic but loves binge-watching," says Nidhi, who is also chairperson of the Lenskart Foundation, as she joins us for tea later in the conversation.
The other thing Bansal loves doing is hosting people at home – a point he reiterated at the start of our hour-long chat. “Whatever’s convenient for me, basically," he says. “I just call everyone home. Aman (Gupta, co-founder of bOAt Lifestyle, who featured as one of the “sharks" with Bansal in the reality TV series Shark Tank India) stays nearby. They come over quite often. My wife has this rule: She will cook at home for everyone."
Speaking about Shark Tank India, Bansal says he was not thinking about RoI (return on investment) while listening to business ideas from entrepreneurs. His criteria was simple: looking for people who were grounded and willing to learn. “I should also be able to learn from them. If I felt that I don’t want to call them over on a Sunday and just chit-chat, toh mujhe maza nahi aayega (then I won’t enjoy it)," says Bansal. “I don’t have that FOMO (fear of missing out on a profitable business idea).... If I want to make money, uske liye Lenskart hai (there’s Lenskart)," he adds.
- FIRST PUBLISHED16.09.2022 | 07:00 AM IST