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The Trials of a CEO and Entrepreneur: How Glasses Direct Founder James Murray Wells Pioneered Digitalisation in Eyewear and Became an Officer of the OBEa

Accessibility to healthcare has certainly been a challenge throughout history.
By Gabrielle Johns
March 12, 2024

Accessibility to healthcare has certainly been a challenge throughout history. In fact, this state of affairs still holds true in the UK today, with the ongoing cost of living crisis and an underfunded NHS causing Brits to look elsewhere for medical attention or forego seeking healthcare altogether.

That's why today's healthcare startups are essential: they can come up with innovative solutions that can fill gaps public and private institutions cannot. Take the efforts of Forta Health. Using artificial intelligence, it's working to bridge healthcare disparities in areas that do not have adequate access to medical professionals.

Yet just as access to healthcare is a historic issue, so have been the attempts to fix it. This piece will pay homage to one entrepreneur and former CEO who, before most other companies, used the Internet to improve access to one especially costly aspect of healthcare: glasses. Here's how Glasses Direct founder James Murray Wells earned his place as an Officer of the OBE by pioneering digitalisation in eyewear.

Eyewear for everyone

Though the NHS provides free eyecare services, purchasing glasses themselves can get notoriously expensive. According to Albert Road Opticians, a pair with single vision lenses can cost up to £650, while one with varifocal lenses can cost a whopping £995. This isn't a new phenomenon: when Wells was at university in 2004, he realised he needed glasses—and ended up paying £150 (nearly £253 today) for his first pair. After reaching out to multiple eyewear manufacturers and technicians, Wells discovered that despite the hefty price he paid, it only took as little as £3 (around £5 today) to produce a pair of glasses.

The revelation saw Wells juggling research with studying for his finals as he sought ways to make glasses cheaper. Finally, he was able to sell them for £15 a pair—so, with the last £1000 from his student loan, he hired fellow students to design a website and spread the word of his business throughout Bristol. By the next summer, he had to outsource two call centres to take the massive amount of orders coming in. Within a year, Glasses Direct sold over 21,000 pairs of glasses.

The success Wells met with the founding of this startup was twofold. On the one hand, he was able to eliminate the markup costs usually applied by larger manufacturers, allowing him to sell affordable eyewear in a market where it's often prohibitively expensive. Yet Wells' true stroke of genius lay in using the Internet to tap into markets outside Glasses Direct's base in Wiltshire. At the time of its founding in 2004—the same year Facebook went online—the Internet was still coming into its own, with only around 50 million websites available compared to the more than 200,000 today. Wells took a calculated risk and digitalised his business in the early stages of both his startup and the Internet, long before doing so became mandatory amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This risk paid off. Today, Glasses Direct sells glasses frames and lenses at affordable prices. On its website, users can still avail of discount codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and free home trials on top of prices that are up to 49% cheaper than high street opticians. Now thriving under industry leader EssilorLuxottica, it's helping contribute accessible options to a growing market spurred by the increasing need for vision correction.

Where Wells went next

After 2004, Glasses Direct grew exponentially. The startup hit a £1 million turnover in its first year, earning Wells multiple distinctions. That includes entrepreneurship awards from Shell LiveWIRE, Wales and West Country, and Natwest Business, with Glasses Direct receiving the Startup Award for 2005. The startup was selling a pair of glasses every three minutes by 2009—making Wells the youngest-ever recipient of the Queen's Award for Achievement in Enterprise Promotion.

Come 2013, he had built Prescription Eyewear Limited around Glasses Direct, and it was reaching over 50 overseas markets and hitting up to £30 million in annual sales. At this point, he sold both entities to Cipio Partners. However, his ventures into the startup economy and the wider world of business didn't stop there. As his influence grew over the years, Wells instead took the opportunity to shape the UK's startup scene for the better.

Road to the OBE

Even during his time as the head of Glasses Direct, Wells served as a critical advocate for homegrown startups. On their behalf, he campaigned against government tax proposals to end taper relief and went on to serve both Labour and Conservative governments as an advisor for business and enterprise. By 2010, he co-founded StartUp Britain, a government campaign launched by David Cameron to encourage and support startup growth.

He became a keynote speaker and mentor after 2013, sharing his expertise with new startups through initiatives from organisations including Channel 4, the Federation of Small Businesses, and The Times. At the same time, he pays his success forward by continuing to invest in startups across the UK. These efforts didn't go unnoticed: by 2015, he was appointed an officer of the OBE.

James Murray Wells faced multiple complex challenges in founding a startup as a university student. Yet with a single goal in mind—making glasses more affordable—he was able to establish a market for online eyewear retail at a time it was virtually nonexistent, pioneering digitalisation as a business strategy in the industry. His current distinction as an officer of the OBE exemplifies how startups and their founders can go beyond addressing the problems they initially set out to solve by supporting other startups in the process.

For more startup insights, feel free to peruse our other features here on TechNews180.

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