Two years ago, while other students were revising for their exams, James Murray Wells must have cut an unusual figure in Bristol University library, researching everything from how glasses were made to how much they cost to manufacture. He knew he was on to something. He had just bought a pair of spectacles, "and literally thought this is ridiculous. They were 150 quid. It was way too much a bit of wire and a bit of glass and I just thought I can do this better".
From a modest investment...
Convinced he could make and sell them cheaper, he found a manufacturer willing to produce his glasses and sent them a prescription. A week later, they appeared in the post. They had cost £5. "I knew the thing could work. I'd demonstrated it," he says. So, investing the last £1,000 of his student loan, he hired his first employee, a student web developer, to create the company's first website from Wells' bedroom. By August it was up and running, when he and his friends set about leafleting the streets of Bristol with details of their glasses selling for £15.
The response was astonishing and it wasn't long before his parent's house
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had turned into a beehive of activity. "Within a few weeks, we had thousands of calls coming in. By the end of the summer, we were hiring two call centres. I had eight people working from home and all my student mates helping me out. I had dispatches in the living room, I had my mum cooking bacon buttieswe were putting up desks in my sister's bedroom. So it was really exciting.
...to turnover of £3m
"Luckily, the business was quite cash generative," he says. By September, he was signing the deeds to his first office block. Customers paid with credit cards online, which meant Wells received the money straight away. He had also negotiated with suppliers so they wouldn't demand payment for orders for 30 days. Now that he had proved that the business could work, he could go out and look for further investment. He raised around £100,000 from friends, family, and an old boss from a factory job he had done one summer at University. While they knew it was a good idea, they could never have predicted just how good. "We always knew that the consumer proposition was very strong, we were going to save people around £150 a time," says Wells.
"What we didn't know was how quickly it would grow, that by Christmas (2004) we would have sold 30,000 glasses."
They've since sold 120,000, with Glasses Direct heading for a turnover of £3m this year. That's despite the fact that some high-street stores have pressurised their suppliers into not doing business with them and have even sent hate mail, he says. The 23-year-old seems to relish the fact that opticians dislike what he's doing to the optical market. In fact, he aims to roll out the brand across 14 countries next year, making Glasses Direct a household name and a real alternative to paying high-street prices.
And he's pretty clear about what students with similar ideas should be doing. "Get up off that sofa, put down the Playstation 2 controller, and actually do it." And don't get too carried away. "Start small, grow big. Start big, go bust."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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