Women’s online eyeglass seller Rivet & Sway peers ahead with $2 million

Seattle retailers have helped transform the way people buy outdoor gear (REI); high-end fashion (Nordstrom) and everything else (Amazon.com).

Now, a new Seattle startup wants to overhaul the way women purchase prescription eyeglasses.

The company, Rivet & Sway, today is announcing that it has raised $2 million in fresh funding from investors that include New York-based Mousse Partners: San Francisco-based Baseline Ventures; and San Francisco-based Harrison Metal. Total funding now stands at $3.3 million. The company plans to use the new cash to hire 10 employees in 2013. It also plans to expand into sunglasses later this year.

Rivet & Sway is led by John Lusk, the former vice president of marketing at WhitePages and ex-group marketing manager at Microsoft. It competes against Warby Parker, which All Things D notes has raised $50 million.

“We are the only eyewear brand focused exclusively on women, and we plan on using this funding to invest even more heavily in improving the boutique online shopping experience for our customers,” said Lusk.

Rivet & Sway, which takes the first part of its name from Rosie the Riveter of World War Two fame, launched just six months ago. But it is already grabbing customers who like its streamlined approach to purchasing eyeglasses, with all frames costing $199. (As a Valentine’s Day special the company is currently offering $50 off all frames through Feb. 14th). Just three percent of sales in the prescription eyeglass market take place online at this point, so Lusk sees big opportunities ahead.

In addition, the startup is taking a page out of the customer service playbook of Nordstrom, REI and Amazon by allowing customers to test any three frames for free at their home.

Lusk has been around the block in the Seattle tech community for some time, and we caught up with him for our Startup Spotlight feature. Here’s more from that Q&A:

Inspiration hit us when: “Women told us that they couldn’t stand the prescription eyewear shopping experience. Steve Anderson (Baseline Ventures), Scott Armstrong (Brenthaven) and I knew that we wanted to focus on the prescription eyewear market.  When you see online channels comprising only 3 percent of a $16 billion consumer market, you immediately realize that a disruption opportunity exists.  We also knew that several online players were already in-market, targeting younger men and women with a <$100 price point.  So, unless we could compete with better technology (we couldn’t), or offer a lower price point (never compete on price), we knew we needed to find another way of entering the market.

We had a hunch that there might be an opportunity to target women, so we started doing tons of research.  We interviewed and surveyed optometrists, opticians, and hundreds of women to get their thoughts on the prescription eyewear shopping experience.  We also conducted numerous focus groups to garner additional feedback and insights.  Our conclusion: woman can’t stand the traditional process for buying glasses.  They view it as a painful errand that takes too much time and isn’t satisfying, especially when compared to shopping for shoes or a handbag.  And most of these women hated the fact that they were spending $300 – $800 on an experience that just wasn’t that easy or fun.  It’s not that they wanted lower prices; they just wanted to feel a lot better about the price they were paying for prescription eyewear and enjoy the process from beginning-to-end more than they were.

So rather than going after both men and women with a <$100 price point (which is what the majority of online entrants are doing), we felt there was a great opportunity to attract a specific segment of women by offering high quality frames and premium services, at a value price point women can trust. “

John Lusk

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Initially bootstrapped and then $3.3M in angel financing from Baseline Ventures, Harrison Metal. I’m a huge believer in bootstrapping. I bootstrapped my first company and went $130,000 into credit card debt bringing MouseDriver to market (a novelty computer mouse that looks like the head of a driver golf club).  Bootstrapping teaches you lessons.  It forces you to do things you hate and to pay attention to the details, even if you hate details.  It also makes you appreciate the experience more.  But one of the biggest lessons I learned during my MouseDriver experience is that consumer product companies, especially those doing their own design and manufacturing, need money to get to market quickly, especially if you’re manufacturing overseas.  I love working on a lean budget, in a lean environment, with a lean team.  It just suits me.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “The tangible answer is ‘our focus on female customers.’  We spent a ton of time researching the market, identifying solutions to the pain points, and structuring a thoughtful consumer offer.  Our entire offering is based on meeting the needs of time-strapped women who hate buying glasses in today’s environment.  Everything from our frame styles and colors, site design, editorial content, packaging, personal services, brand positioning and price point is based on what women told us they wanted to experience when shopping for glasses. The strategic answer is ‘our distribution channels’.  With any consumer product, it’s all about how you get the product into your customers’ hands.  And while we’ve launched with an online channel, we have big plans to secure and lock-up a number of offline distribution channels that we believe will be very hard for our competitors to penetrate.  And since we only target women, there are a number of very creative ways that we can build offline distribution channels.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Hiring Sarah Bryar.  Sarah is Rivet & Sway’s vice president of product and, in my honest opinion, one of the best technology executives out there.  She brings big time experience and knowledge from the likes of Amazon and Oracle and has the startup mentality of just executing and getting things done.  She’s been instrumental in getting Rivet & Sway to market – she was literally selecting our first frame collection colors her second day on the job. She has helped build out an incredible team and has been instrumental in making my vision for Rivet & Sway come to life.” 

The Rivet & Sway team

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We just launched in August, so we haven’t had enough time to identify the ‘biggest’ mistake so far. That being said, we’ve made several small mistakes: assuming that the manufacturing process would go much faster, not investing more resources into Pinterest earlier, not turning on Adwords at launch, not initially launching with our Personal Stylist offering.  All of these are small mistakes that we’ve made that were based on our initial assumptions.  And at this stage, we’re still proving and disproving our initial assumptions, learning along the way, and modifying our future assumptions as we move forward.”

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Steve Jobs.  His vision, his dedication to the customer experience and his ruthless attention to even the smallest of details is something that any leader would love to replicate.  He was also a true visionary when it came to the retail experience, which is an area that Rivet & Sway plans to enter in the near future.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “Our world domination strategy starts when we’re profitable and can sustain at scale. Right now, our focus is on building a healthy business with strong fundamentals.”

Rivals should fear us because: “We have a strong team that understands the importance of integrating content and e-commerce.  We believe that content, both editorial and visual, is the equivalent of the fixtures, lighting and music that you might find in a boutique store.  We have amazing designers and content creators who can deliver a truly differentiated experience.”

We are truly unique because: “We’re focusing on a very targeted demographic segment.  Our competitors are focusing on both men and women, but our entire offering and experience was built with time-strapped women in mind.  Everything that we do and deliver is based on what women told us they wanted.  We started with a target audience and built the entire offer and brand architecture around that audience, not vice-versa.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “Building our supply chain and solidifying all of our backend operations were the biggest hurdles. We’ve got a pretty complex operational model that requires support from several partners that help us deliver our Home Try On kits and Prescription frames to our customers. And setting up all of these partners, getting them to bend over backwards for a startup and ‘teaching’ them how to package and fulfill on our product was a massive, frustrating hurdle that took time.  But we made it happen.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Be Patient.  Entrepreneurial success doesn’t happen overnight and the chances of somebody starting a company and generating revenue the next day are slim to none.  Yeah, it can happen, but like Google and Facebook, it’s just not normal to go from start-up to world domination in a short period of time.  Realize that starting a company will take lots of work, lots of sweat and usually, a decent amount of time.  And don’t worry if things aren’t going as fast as you’d like.  Stay focused, keep executing and deliver on your goals.”

Startup Spotlight is an occasional look at a Pacific Northwest startup company. Have an interesting new venture you want spotlighted in GeekWire? Fill out this questionnaire in a fun and engaging style that shows off your startup’s culture. (Remember to upload photos). Past profiles can be found here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottru Scott Ruthfield

    Huge congrats to John & Sarah – John’s right that hiring Sarah was a stroke of brilliance, and I can’t wait to see where they take R&S!

  • http://twitter.com/kavehg kaveh g.

    I find it curious that Warby Parker, very innovative & biggest player in this space, is not mentioned once in this article, nor given credit for popularizing ‘try pairs before you buy’ (5 not 3). Which ‘John’ left it out?

    • johnhcook

      They are mentioned. See this sentence: “It competes against Warby Parker, which All Things D notes has raised $50 million.”

      I added that shortly after the post appeared on the site, so maybe you were seeing an old cached version. Thanks for keeping us on our toes, though!

  • natille

    I do not understand why this is so revolutionary. Just do a search for online glasses for less and you will get a list of online retailer with different price points.

    How are they going to address the main issue with online shopping is the adjustment after the glasses have been bought to the individuals face.

  • Luxury RE for Me!

    Congrats to our space mates!!

  • http://blog.redfin.com/ GlennKelman

    Great post John and congratulations to John and the team. I love this idea!

  • Paul_Owen

    How do they justify a 2x price over Warby Parker? WP lets me try on 5 frames at a time, not just 3. Unless R&S has recognized designers’ frames, this is going to be a hard sell.

  • startup geek

    This is great news. Congratulations!

    Heard from the grapevine, Livemocha has let go their VP engineering and a few more engineers have quit.

  • Thiago

    That’s quite a lead for them! One of my friends is going to the optometrist this week. She may end up getting glasses from Rivet. There are a lot of options online, too. Thiago | http://www.tonywangoptometry.ca/en/