Rivet & Sway Eyeing Big Opportunity to Sell Prescription Glasses Online

Rivet & Sway believes it can carve out a niche in online prescription glasses, even though Warby Parker has an intimidating head start.

Backed by $50 million in capital, Warby Parker has already created a name for itself, selling hip glasses to men and women at the bargain price of $95. After conducting nearly a year of research, Rivet & Sway was born with a slightly different modus operandi: Targeting time-starved women, at a slightly higher price point of $199.

“Warby is an awesome proof point, but it seemed at the time to be focused on twenty-something hipsters,” said Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures. “That’s a big market, but it’s also a niche market — and from my standpoint, they are killing it right now.”

Anderson believed that if Warby Parker could be successful within one segment of the population, then there was room for another company focused on a slightly older demographic — especially since people’s vision worsens as they age. “The market is plenty big for multiple players, especially when the incumbents aren’t looking at online as a channel,” he said.

The company was officially started a year ago in Seattle, with John Lusk as founder and CEO. Anderson, along with Harrison Metal’s Michael Dearing, invested $1.3 million.

Earlier this week, Lusk invited me to the company’s Pike Place Market offices to hear the Rivet & Sway story. By any definition, the operation can be considered thrifty: Rivet & Sway has only three employees, not including help from a handful of contractors, and it subleases a row of cubes from a real estate company. But you would never know it based on the consumer experience. Having launched commercially only six weeks ago, it’s obvious the company spent a lot of time thinking about all the details.

It works the way you might expect: Women choose three frames from 23 styles (in three colors each), try them on at home, and order one they like with their prescription. The glasses then appear at their home within a week. All for $199.

While it sounds simple, a lot of thought has gone on behind the scenes. Lusk said they determined that 23 styles was a big enough selection to satisfy most people without being overwhelming. And the sample box had to be limited to three frames to make it possible to ship back through the regular Postal Service — anything larger would require a trip to UPS or Federal Express, making it less convenient. The price was also a big consideration. Although it’s higher than Warby Parker’s, he said, research showed that women trusted a higher price. “There must be a problem if you are getting an $800 pair of glasses for $99 — they were thinking, ‘No way,'” he said. “At $150, they just started to get comfortable.”

The higher price also allows the company to provide slightly better service. A stylist will conduct a Skype session with women to help them determine which three frames they should try on at home. While that requires a slightly larger upfront investment, Lusk also believes it will help conversion rates. Unlike other sites, Rivet & Sway has decided against using “virtual try-on” technology, which superimposes a pair of glasses on a picture of your face. “Women said they’d rather try on the frames at home,” he said.

This is Lusk’s second start-up. The first one will be familiar to anyone who has followed the technology world for more than a decade. In 1999, Lusk and his fellow Wharton business school grad Kyle Harrrison headed straight to the Bay Area, armed with $65,000 from friends and a ton of credit card debt, to start MouseDriver, a novelty computer mouse that looked like the head of a golf driver. The two gained notoriety for writing a painfully honest newsletter about the trials and tribulations of starting a company. “People wanted stories that they could relate to; they liked to see that it was hard even for Wharton grads,” he said.

While the company ended up being somewhat of a bust, Harrison and Lusk became poster boys of the dot-com boom, thanks to the newsletters. Lusk went on to write “The MouseDriver Chronicles.” Over the past 13 years, he toured the professional speaking circuit (thanks to the book), worked at Microsoft for four years, and held stints at WhitePages and a couple of other Seattle start-ups. At the age of 41, Lusk is ready to try it again.

Even though he admits he can’t exactly be passionate about the product, since he has 20-20 vision and isn’t in the company’s target market, he does believe in the concept: “We are building a consumer brand that’s solving a need, and disrupting a business that’s making money hand over fist,” he said.

Anderson, who is a Seattle-area native and known for recent exits in Instagram and OMGPOP, said Lusk is a perfect fit: “He has a strong voice; he had the buying experience out of China; he had a bad experience of a failed start-up, which is a badge of honor in the Valley; and he’s worked at WhitePages and Microsoft. He’s the perfect athlete to build a brand. There’s a lot of sophistication that goes into this: You have to source the product and build a supply chain. He’s the perfect entrepreneur for that.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

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