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Jordan Kassalow

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Prescriptions and Pride: VisionSpring's Journey to One Million

Posted: 06/07/2012 9:52 am

The woman I met in Choco, Colombia, arrived by canoe. She had made the trip down the river to the village where I was working as a young optometry student with a team of visiting eye doctors from Boston. She had travelled an entire day to get her eyes examined. Most of us complain about having to commute 30 minutes to work. She spoke little Spanish but it didn't take me long to examine her eyes and determine her problem -- she was legally blind. Considering the strength of her prescription, I was worried we might not be able to help her. Fortunately, I was able to locate a pair of glasses for her in the pile of used glasses we had brought down to distribute. While not a perfect match, the glasses were close enough to her prescription to restore her vision -- never mind that they had 1950s cat-eye-style frames. I was feeling satisfied that we had done good work that day.

But two days later the same woman showed up again. Back in her village, her cat eye glasses had been the source of ridicule. It was enough for her to make the arduous journey again to see if we could offer her a different pair of glasses. Sadly, we could not. The used cat eye glasses were the only pair that even came close to her prescription. I could never have predicted what happened next: the woman thanked us for trying to help, returned the glasses, then paddled back up the river, virtually blind. This was a defining moment in my life, when I first realized that there are prescriptions, and then there is pride.

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting a new study that documents the inefficiencies associated with the distribution of used eyeglasses in the developing world. The study gives evidentiary support to what I witnessed firsthand as that optometry student 25 years ago. I learned two things from that experience: First, the problem is immense. Estimates for those who can have their vision restored with a pair of eyeglasses range from 500 million to 1 billion. The vast majority of those individuals simply do not have access to affordable glasses. Second, the preoccupation with personal appearance is a human characteristic shared the world over, or put another way, vanity is not monopolized by the rich.

Having seen the depth and persistence of the market failure to deliver this simple tool, I decided to do something about it. I founded VisionSpring in 2001 so I could be an advocate for people like the woman in Choco, not by providing them with free glasses, but by treating them like customers. I built a commercially viable, scalable business model that activated consumers traditionally ignored by the eyeglasses market: the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) consumer.

From the beginning, I understood that our success as an organization was contingent on our ability to be responsive to the needs and preferences of the BoP consumer. Pioneering a new business model, it is easy to get distracted by the business of the business. Forging new distribution channels, streamlining supply chains and determining appropriate price points are all critical elements of any product-based business. But it was only when VisionSpring started developing aspirational products specifically designed for the BoP consumer that market forces were unleashed and we began to see a path to sustainability. That was a critical moment in our history.

Now is another, VisionSpring has just sold its 1,000,000th pair of glasses through our distribution channels in El Salvador and India and through partnerships with organizations like BRAC. A University of Michigan study determined that reading glasses have the potential to increase our customer's productivity by 35%. For the hundreds of thousands of tailors, mechanics and rug makers whose work suffers as their eyesight begins to fail, this increase in productivity translates into tangible economic gain. Additional analysis of the data from the study indicates that increased productivity can translate into a 20% increase in the average monthly income of VisionSpring's target customer. Based on this data, we have created more than $216,000,000 in economic impact.

And this is only the beginning of our story; we are on course to sell 10 million more over the next 10 years.

Even though we have yet to receive a single request for cat eye frames, if that were to change, we are prepared to give our customers what they want.

 
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