Darryn Tan and Javad Namazie both met each other back in primary school when they were students at Anglo-Chinese School. The two Singapore-born friends are now 41, which means their friendship has spanned over three decades.
Beyond being just friends, the two are also business partners. In 2018, they started Two Of A Kind (TWOOAK), which is believed to be the first homegrown brand of contact lenses in the market.
Prior to TWOOAK, Darryn had careers in both consulting and private equity, while Javad was a practicing lawyer.
So why did they choose to quit their corporate jobs to start a contact lens business?
According to Javad, TWOOAK was borne out of frustration and wanted it to help solve a personal pain point. They find that regular visits to the optician to stock up on lenses are a chore and that most lenses are not cheap.
There was no middle ground between quality and affordability, so the duo decided to offer “high quality lenses at direct-to-consumer prices”.
Direct-to-consumer model eliminates the usual mark-up
By cutting out the middleman and working directly with manufacturers, they can eliminate this trade-off. By saving on unnecessary mark-ups, they get to invest more in manufacturing to increase the product quality.
Based on their intensive research of over 18 months, TWOOAK found that traditional brands pegged a 15-times mark-up from factory to retail price.
Customers typically pay close to SGD 4 for a pair or daily disposable contact lenses, but companies only pay as low as SGD 0.20 to manufacture them.
While economies of scale and technology have driven manufacturing costs down over time, retail prices have continued to increase instead of decrease.
Javad explained that the existing supply chain involves many players—the manufacturer, agent, distributor, optical shop—and each one of them needs to make a profit at level of the supply chain.
However, the consumer is the one who bears the brunt of all this as they pay for these profit margins.
In contrast, TWOOAK manages its supply from end-to-end—they have control over everything that happens within the sourcing, trials, final delivery and on-going user support.
This lets them keep their costs down and pass on the savings to the customer.
First contact lens subscription service in Singapore
TWOOAK offers their lenses based on a subscription model so its users can rest assured that their lenses will be replenished on a regular schedule and conveniently delivered to their doorstep.
Their plans start from SGD 21 per sleeve of 30 clear daily disposable lenses, but users can also opt to purchase it a la carte for SGD 25 if they don’t wish to commit.
Another unique thing about TWOOAK is that they only offer a single product.
Called Basis, it is a daily disposable hydrogen contact lenses.
It is manufactured using a wet cast-moulding method which ensures the lenses are more consistent in their make and have a smoother surface finish, providing greater comfort overall.
It is also one of the only three contact lens products in the market that provide Class I UV protection—the highest certifiable standard of UV protection—blocking over 99% of UVB and over 90% of UVA rays.
When asked why they choose to offer daily contact lenses instead of monthly ones, Javad said that they supersede the latter in terms of hygiene, convenience and eye health.
Took one year to find a reliable manufacturer
When asked about business challenges, Darryn said that sourcing for a manufacturer was one of the most important parts of setting this up but it wasn’t an easy journey at all.
They spent an entire year trying to find someone reliable that could manufacture a great product.
Javad added that there are only a handful of manufacturers in the world who can make the standard and specifications of contact lenses they wanted to bring to market.
They ended up partnering a manufacturer with a 20-year track record, whose proprietary processes and technologies allowed them to make the kind of product they wanted.
Their lenses are manufactured in a global medical sciences manufacturing hub in Taiwan and are approved by the Health Sciences Authority of Singapore.
Javad stressed that they set very high standards when it comes to product, be it in terms of manufacturing quality and safety levels.
As someone who is new to the industry, “establishing legitimacy and earning trust” from stakeholders is very important—from manufacturing partners to consumers to “industry insiders” such as ophthalmologists and optometrists.
They are “customer obsessed”
As part of TWOOAK’s soft launch, the founding duo decided to keep the first month or so free for family and friends so they could work on fine-tuning their processes and resolve any teething issues.
When they officially launched in April 2018, their studio was practically empty for that month—only one or two people would visit on some days.
They learned very quickly on how to get the business off the ground: getting the word out and customer engagement.
Javad stressed that TWOOAK is big on consumer empowerment.
Particularly, they don’t want consumers to have to deal with overly-priced products or feel guilty for trying out samples.
This is why they offer new users free product trials and eye tests without any hard selling and any strings attached.
New customers are required to book an appointment for an eye examination with their in-house optometrist, before they are given a few complimentary pairs of lenses to try at home.
At TWOOAK, their optometrists make an effort to explain how the eye and contact lenses work so customers walk away with a better understanding about their eye health and eye care.
“Our mission is to treat our customers’ eyes like our own,” said Javad, adding that they are “customer obsessed.”
Project 2×2: Contact lens recycling initiative
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), only 4% of plastics are recycled in Singapore and the remainder ends up in landfills and incineration.
While daily disposables are the most hygienic and convenient iteration of the product, they are also the ones that generate quite a bit in plastic waste, in particular the blister packaging.
This is why they’ve come up with Singapore’s first contact lens recycling initiative, which was launched in October last year.
Called Project 2×2, it collects your used contact lens blisters (of any brand) and recycles them. The blisters are then processed into plastic pellets and repurposed into other applications and productions such as car bumpers or plastic bottles.
“With Project 2×2, the polypropylene blisters are collected and delivered already sorted at the consumer level, so minimal central sorting needs to take place. This is how we are able assure that what consumers collect and contribute will actually be recycled,” said Javad.
Once users have filled up their recycling envelope with the used blisters, they can opt to drop it off at the mailbox or the nearest advocate location.
“Advocate locations are a grassroots network of startups, proprietors, SME businesses and individuals that have kindly volunteered to host a drop off point at their place of work or business,” explained Javad.
To date, TWOOAK has a network of six drop-off locations and have received over 50,000 pieces from more than 200 people.
“It’s a very new initiative, but there’s been a lot of support.”
“We are proud to be the first to provide what consumers have deserved all along. It is our humble hope that other optical retail companies and brands follow suit, and that other non-optical consumer brands do so as well.”
Growing into a “million-dollar business”
While it’s still early days for them, Javad feels like they have had some “moderate success” and are now just a “couple of months away from being a million-dollar business.”
As a bootstrapped startup, their sales totaled to about $30,000 within the first three months of launch and revenues have doubled every month.
Fast forward to today, they serve a customer base of over 3,000 people and are currently running at 20% to 25% sales growth month over month.
While they’re happy with their success so far, the two are aware that they still have a long way to go.
“This is just the start,” said Darryn.
“We’re working hard to keep ourselves growing and are looking to introduce new products and enter into new markets later this year.”
In terms of other future plans, TWOOAK is also planning to open at least one more physical location as well as expand its product range to include colored contact lenses.
While they also have plans to introduce toric/astigmatism contact lenses in the longer term, these are dependent on whether it will be as good as their current contact lenses, in terms of both comfort and efficacy.
When asked to share a piece of business advice, Darryn said that success is a journey, but execution and action is everything.
“Appreciate and acknowledge that luck plays a role in any ‘wins’ along the way and when you have to take the ‘losses’ from time to time, ask yourself what you could’ve done better, then do it.”
Echoing Darryn, Javad said that while ideas are indeed cheap, execution is necessary.
This article first appeared in the Vulcan Post.