With the optical lab landscape seemingly dominated by manufacturers’ networks and a few large independent labs, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no room in the market for new players. Yet optical veterans continue to find fertile ground for the establishment of new small independent labs, and success is following.

To understand this phenomenon, Vision Monday talked to three owners of relatively new independent labs. They spoke about the opportunities they saw in the competitive landscape, the services and technologies that have helped them succeed, and their personal motivations for starting a new lab in a competitive market. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Ben Collier
Founder and CEO
Independent Optical Lab
Greensboro, N.C.
Founded 2019

“The initial motivation was not to start a new lab, but to find a high-quality independent lab to present to my customer base of mid-Atlantic independent ECPs. Having been a lab sales rep, I was looking to continue in a sales role with an independent lab. When the opportunity to start that lab came along, IOL was born. The motivation quickly shifted to launching an independent lab focused on delivering what independent ECPs need in order to make their practices more profitable and successful.

Independent ECPs are demanding more independent lab options. Lab consolidation and insurance expansion have led to a market with restricted choice and a reduced ability for independent ECPs to control their lab work and, by extension, their profitability. They desire more choice and many are seeking to align their practices with independent labs that share the goal of supporting the independent eyecare community for the long term.

Surfacing and coating technologies from Schneider Optical Machines, lens designs from IOT, and high-quality lenses from Younger Optics allow newer independent labs to compete on a national level, as Independent Optical Lab does. If a lab can produce these products in-house, while understanding and meeting the needs of independent ECPs, that lab can remain competitive.

The message of Independent Optical Lab is simple. We’re independent, like our customer base. The lab’s future is tied to that of the independent ECP and we don’t compete against our customers. Most importantly, we are fortunate to have deeply rooted relationships with ECPs in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond. Mike Lake, the lab’s national sales director, has been in the industry 37 years and is widely known and respected. Lab staff develop strong relationships with our customers. The lab’s message is important, but relationships are what keep ECPs coming to and working with Independent Optical Lab.”

Brandon Butler
President Lab Operations
Pacific Artisan Labs
Portland, Ore.
Founded 2018

“After working for years on the corporate side of labs, I never felt like we were serving the consumer or our employees the best we could. The appetite for more sales and more hours outweighed doing the work we had at an elite level. I wanted to do things differently and be driven by a consumer-centric focus while providing a work environment that fostered creativity and positive expression. I didn’t want to be pushed to meet numbers for the sake of company stock prices, but rather by the desire to serve the consumer the right way.

The thought of entering the market as a startup lab was not considered a smart business move until a merger between two of the industry giants fueled new life into the demand for independent labs. I had been hearing a lot of chatter from ECPs about a desire to have that relationship-based partnership with a smaller, independent lab again. I felt we could provide that missing dynamic at high level.

In the beginning the message was simple: we are the anti-corporate lab with our sole focus being the independent ECP and how we can simplify their lab experience. The message was well received by ECPs and we grew rather quickly. We continue to grow as more ECPs move away from the supplier owned labs.

Equipment manufacturers like Schneider duplicated their technology capabilities in smaller, more affordable equipment that made it possible for smaller labs to be full service and utilize the same level of technology as the big labs. Lens design technology has changed the competitive landscape too. IOT came to the market and added that missing piece independents needed to be competitive from a design standpoint.”

Ryan Markey
Founder and Co-Owner
My Friend’s Lab
Farmers Branch, Texas
Founded 2016

“When I was growing up, competitors were friends, they would take trips together, they’d go to dinner. With consolidation, that sense of “industrial camaraderie” was dying, and it was becoming more cutthroat. I really wanted to open a lab that was there to be the friendly lab—the guy that helps you out and creates those bonds. I thought the independent lab was the best resource to give independent doctors the tools they needed to grow.

We’ve always felt as a lab that a private-label (lens) product—to have something as a differentiator, that is patented and unique and delivers what you say it’s going to—is critical, because if you want to hang on to a patient, and you can get that lens from anyone, it takes away your uniqueness as an ECP, or as a lab.

Everybody is not going to be your ideal customer. The customer you want as your customer is someone who truly understands and gets the benefits of the better service, better quality, better handwork… it’s not the guy who says “let me see your price list.” It’s super-simple to build a lab and be cheap. It’s more difficult to be a craftsman. You need to be unique, you need to under-promise and over-deliver. You have to be competitive on pricing, but you can’t let that be your driver.

As the owner, you can make deals on the spot, you can make decisions quickly, and you can actually be more flexible with policies. When I first started, I was able to find out what the hot-buttons were for particular doctors, and make sure that’s what we took care of.

My grandfather, Irv Greenberg, who founded Dal-Tex Optical Lab, taught me this: there is enough business out there for all of us to make a living. There is no reason to try and stick it to your neighbor. Help them. Make sure that their customer is taken care of. You want patients to think of optical as always a good experience, whether it’s your store or somebody else’s.”