The founder of Wellington-based optometry business Mr Foureyes Ravi Dass tells Aimee Shaw how his business is helping to ensure Kiwi kids have healthy eyes with his charitable initiative.
What is your business?
We sell glasses and prescription lens both online and offline, and run the business out of our garage at our home. The biggest business we do is people buying new lenses - not frames, but the heart of the business is the charitable side.
When a person buys a pair glasses from us we allocate another pair to our social charitable arm, Foureyes Foundation, which goes to a child of a New Zealand school.
What inspired you to start this kind of business?
We always felt that there was a need for both an alternative way for Kiwis to buy glasses, and for Kiwi children to be screened and treated for vision issues. I had a hunch there was a need for more work with school children to make sure their eyesight issues were identified and treated.
This is something I had personally come across in my years working as an optometrist in a number of practices - seeing kids who seemed to have slipped through the cracks and had vision problems that hadn't been identified, often with follow-on academic problems.
I grew up in a socially-minded family. My Mum is a big influence for me; she spent a lot of time supporting a charity that helps girls back in Fiji get a good education, and I know from that how much work it can be to be constantly fundraising.
From a business perspective I was interested in social enterprise models such as Toms Shoes, where giving is an integral, sustainable part of the business model. I liked the idea of helping customers get affordable glasses and lenses, but making it more than just a business transaction - I think of it as growing a supportive community.
We knew we wanted to do a buy-one-give-one model from early on and when my wife saw applications for a programme run by the Akina Foundation to accelerate social enterprises, we realised that's what we are - a social enterprise.
How big is the team and how long have you been operating?
It's just me and my wife Steph; we operate as a husband and wife team.
The business has been running under the Foureyes brand for a couple of years now. We were formerly a different name, but officially started running in March 2015, when we switched over.
You run the business from your garage, can you tell me about that?
People like seeing us in the workshop, which is where I make up the glasses. It's a more relaxed setting than a traditional optometry practice, our customers can browse without sales pressure, and if their kids are along, they often end up playing in our front garden with our kids while the parents look at glasses. It's quite a nice feeling, it's nice being able to integrate work and family life.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
The eye industry is a fairly competitive market. There are always bigger players.
Also, because we're building a business at the same time as a charity operation, finding time - and balance - is probably the biggest challenge. There's always more you could be doing, and especially for online businesses, the expectations are high for how engaged you will be as a business.
What are your long term plans for Mr Foureyes?
At the moment part of our competitive advantage comes from not operating a large, expensive retail store. However, as we grow we will likely want to offer a fuller range of services including full eye tests - that is something that would definitely be useful for the charity to be able to offer as well.
The more our business grows, the more schools we can work with, so we are ambitious to grow our business. But we still want to keep the personal side, which is what we love and what our customers value too.
There is plenty of scope in the future for the exciting use of newer technologies such as 3D printing to bring more personalisation to the industry. We've previously done some work with some very talented Creative Enterprise students at Massey University in Wellington, and we'd love to pursue 3D printing and other creative avenues further in the future.
What's the best thing about running your own business?
It's that we are supporting our dream of social goals.
We're both very charity-orientated and socially-minded and the fact that we've got people who buy from us who are also interested in supporting that goal - that flow-through effect. It feels good to knowing that we can offer glasses that not only help people out, but help those in need, too.
What advice do you give others thinking of starting a business?
Look for the gap in the market. We looked for where we could of fit in and the different things we could offer.