VisionSpring Is Intent On Building Markets in the Emerging World

By Marge Axelrad: Editorial Director

VisionSpring’s approach is to maintain a consistent source of affordable products for people in markets living on 50 cents to $8 a day.
NEW YORK – Improving the eyesight and vision care of millions of people in the developing world without means or access to quality product or services is a monumental task.

But one organization, VisionSpring, has been taking a singular approach to the challenge of improving the health, productivity and economic welfare of those millions. Its model deploys proven business practices, skill sets, products and training to provide distribution of eyeglasses and eyecare to the people who need it. The rapidly growing organization is also creating new forms of low-cost distribution and opportunity for those people to build that business up in their local towns and in their countries into what its senior executives describe as “a sustainable infrastructure.”

The approach is also known as “social entrepreneurship”—one discussed by VisionSpring founder and CEO Jordan Kassalow, OD in many forums, ranging from Good Morning America to The Clinton Global Initiative and the Duke University Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship when the group was honored for its work.

VisionSpring’s professional executive and field teams emphasize that they are applying proven business management principles, projections and metrics to take what’s been accomplished so far and create a scalable business going forward. The strategy is to literally help build ongoing businesses from El Salvador to India, Bangladesh and other locales at “the bottom of the pyramid.”

This means not only monitoring and improving which techniques work best to get glasses and eyecare to people who desperately need it to improve their lives and productivity, but to developing measurable ways to quantify the dollars-and-cents “social impact” productivity for every interaction/pair delivered.

From its origins in 2007, when VisionSpring initially provided reading glasses to undeveloped markets (it has subsequently focused its activities on Rx eyewear), its growth has been consistent. And the group is eyeing a major milestone on its growth path: in the first quarter of 2012, VisionSpring expects to reach one million pairs of glasses sold in the developing world.

Reade Fahs, chairman of VisionSpring’s board (and president/CEO of National Vision), noted, “The 600 million people in the developing world present a different kind of untapped market for vision. We take a very market-based approach to serving these individuals and we are building markets via social enterprise, we are market creators.”

Kevin Hassey, who brings over 20 years of retail and vision care experience to the table as a former senior executive at LensCrafters, LCA Vision and EyeMed, joined VisionSpring as president this past year to oversee global operations and lead the implementation of VisionSpring’s growth strategy across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He added, “We are thinking through the complexities of doing an eye exam and making people a pair of Rx glasses. We are creating metrics that will help us develop a range of approaches that can be maintained in many types of markets.”

Vision Spring’s executive team
(l to r) I2C Venture’s David Chute,
a VisionSpring board member; Kevin Hassey, VisionSpring president; Jordan Kassalow, OD, VisionSpring founder and CEO; and National Vision’s Reade Fahs, chairman of VisionSpring.
Via partnerships in distribution that include local aid groups and new vision vans, VisionSpring’s work has evolved to include vans, or moving ‘mini stores” which help reach people in remote villages. In El Salvador, VisionSpring grew from 7,000 pairs in 2010 to distributing 25,000 pairs this year, and will have a total of five locations by this month. In India, VisionSpring has grown from moving 12,000 pairs in 2010 to 80,000 pairs in 2011.

It operates, as of this month, 20 vans selling both prescription glasses and readers. Via its partnership with BRAC in Bangladesh, VisionSpring is up to sales of 175,000 pairs in 2011 and is eyeing new sell-through targets of 15,000 pairs a month.

Further, its wholesale global partnerships have increased as well. VisionSpring purchases its own product to distribute but also is looking to partner with others from within the vision/eyewear industry to support their particular approach.

The group established its first Eye Care Leadership Council (ECLC) two years ago. Composed of a growing roster of members from among eyewear related companies who elect to participate at different levels, the group looks at the optical industry’s impact on improving vision care in the developing world. Current members of the ECLC include: CIBA Vision, Classic Optical Labs, ClearVision Optical, Essilor, Harlem Globetrotters/America’s Best, Luxottica, National Vision, Premier Vision, REM Eyewear, Transitions Optical, The Vision Council, Zeiss Vision and Zyloware.

As VisionSpring begins to put together its 2012 ECLC roster, there are several ways suppliers can participate. The group is building on strategic co-marketing opportunities—citing examples of promotions this year with Ray-Ban, Marc Jacobs, and Warby Parker, where a special products and/or a portion of sales are benefitting VisionSpring’s work. VisionSpring also wants eyewear related companies to visibly co-brand their affiliations as well as help its purchasing power.

Fahs told VM, “We are deploying business practices and models with the skill sets to broaden the market to those 600 million who don’t have access. We want to pool as many resources as we can to develop a capabability to scale up such a business.” Added Hassey, “We have dreams that with enough revenue to cover costs, we can zoom out and create real impact.”