Interview


Prue Ivers


Sydney - 17 March 2016

When I was in Sydney, I happened to pass by an eyewear shop in Newtown.

I’m fond of all types of eyeglasses but this shop really aroused my curiosity. There was a man in the window operating an intriguing machine and, inside, all the glasses were colourful and displayed in a very attractive way.

That’s how I met Prue Ivers.

She was very welcoming and explained the story and the genesis of the brand. I found it so exciting that we agreed to meet a couple of days later for a longer interview that you will discover below. What this team has accomplished is quite typical of a real startup mindset and can be a lesson for many entrepreneurs and even well-established companies. It’s about “what if “, exploring new ways, experimenting, having no preconceived ideas or limits, and being creative. So buckle up and watch out for the pirates because they might well rock your industry (on disruption, read our review of the book The Pirate’s Dilemma)!

When I entered the shop that Thursday noon, the atmosphere was ecstatic. Most of the team members were chatting and laughing with each other around a communal table in the middle of the tiny store.

It gave me a heads-up to the true nature of this creative company.

Prue explained, “At 1.30, once a week we try to sit down and have a big communal lunch, we all eat together and after that we have German lessons.”

Every week?

Every Thursday, I would say, yes. We learn about Germany and the German culture.

We wanted the space to be a multi-use space, which is something the Europeans do very well. In Australia everyone seems really stressed out about the idea of having a business and then just giving it over to someone else to do something different at night time.

The rest of the world – and even Australians themselves – thinks of Australia as very laid back with everyone very relaxed, which is very true but I think people are just a little bit uptight about a lot of rules about everything like how long you can trade for and DA approvals.

Dresden Optics Sydney

We, on the contrary, just want to have a bit of fun. If we’re not using the space, why can’t somebody else? You know, it’s a lovely shop.

Most people who are going to be given the opportunity to come into a space, whether they’re artists or musicians or anybody really, are going to be very grateful for that opportunity. So they’re going to honour it. But people get a bit stressed out about that stuff in business.

So who can use your space, then?

Anybody. Anybody who approaches us. Musicians can come and play here. We’ve only been open for three months but anybody can approach us.

The shop was designed by an interior designer. We needed to accommodate all the different parameters and integrate production (there’s a moulding machine and the actual grinding of the lenses takes place here too) into the retail space. We call this space our workshop, not just the shop, because we do a lot of making in the space. When we did the fit-out, a lecturer from UTS (University of Technology Sydney) approached us. Her design students came up with all these beautiful ideas about potentially what the shop could be like. We actually ended up picking up one of her students who designed a display system which enable us to show the various colour ranges. She’s coming in tonight after we close to have a little bit of an “opening” of her installation. She’s 19 year old and she’s still a student, so she’s very proud of her first paid job. She’s going to bring her family and all of her friends in tonight and have a nice little opening of her display system, which is really sweet.

Where does the name “Dresden” come from and why this connection with Germany?

We wanted to make quality eyewear that was very straightforward and systems-related. The Germans do that very well. So for us, it was a bit of a nod to the German system and design.

Really, we chose Dresden because it’s the home of a big university city generating huge amounts of innovation and development.

Besides, we use lenses from Carl Zeiss and the company started in a town very close to Dresden.

Dresden Optics Sydney

Dresden Optics Sydney

How many people do you have here and what’s the company culture?

There’s eight of us in the founding team of core start-up. And then we have four workshop staff, who work predominantly in the store. But we wear all hats, from optical dispensing to stock control to prototyping on the injection moulding machine over here.

We set up the company structure and culture so that you can start, come on board as a workshop staff, learn all the other factions, and then, just out of the natural progression and expression of interest and your natural skill set, move up into other areas of the business. You know, we really want to make sure that there’s movement.

We don’t want the company, especially at a young stage, to have this sort of cement ceiling where people can’t be valued for what they bring to the table. And also, when we recruit, it’s really important to us that we don’t just hire qualified optical dispensers. We obviously have optometrists and specialists that we call on to help us in the training of these sorts of things, but it’s really important that we don’t just become a company made up of a bunch of people who are specifically specialised in a single thing. We find that if we fill a room with who know everything about everything, all they do is sit around to try and prove how much they know about said topic. So what we do hire people who are interested in, firstly, the company ethos – the social and environmental elements. And what we’ve found is these people bring so much more than “I know how to do this. I come in and I perform this role and this is how it’s done and nothing else.” Whereas when you bring smart people into an environment, they ask all the right questions. Other people might think that they’re silly questions, but for us we appreciate that they challenge things. Optical dispensing, of course, is very process-driven work but in so many other parts of the company, you can be really creative.

Everybody is constantly saying to us, “No one else is doing it. It’s too difficult.”, “You can’t do that.” And why not? Why can’t we do it? Just give it a red hot go! And we’ve been able to achieve it. Lesser people probably would have given up because by no means has it been easy to achieve this. But what we’ve been able to, in approaching it from a different sort of mind-set, has been quite incredible.

What kind of hurdles did you encounter?

Well, a lot of things. It’s dealing with plastics. In theory, injection moulding is very simple. You get plastic, you make it into pellets, you put it into an injection moulder, and you mould. It’s really important to us to use bio-based plastics and environmentally-sensitive plastics to make glasses out of, we recycle milk bottle tops and marine waste, as example. We are also trying to work out how to re-stabilise and work with Lego. Think about it, it’s not quite perfect that Lego blocks will eventually be thrown into landfill if someone can’t find some way to reuse them.

The problems we encounter relate to working with some big injection moulding companies, or speaking to plastic producers. When we say that we want to use environmentally-friendly plastics and post-industrial waste, these people are a little bit like, “Well, that’s never been done before.” Few say, “Yes, cool, go for it!”

But luckily, we do work with an amazing injection moulding company and have been lucky to find a few people in the plastic industry who have truly embraced what we are doing

The plastic we launched with has been used in the optical industry before: it’s the same plastic that premium brands use to make their eyeglass frames. We chose it because there’s a safety element.

When you try things out, you have to understand how it’s going to mould and how it’s going to break. We can make glasses out of anything. And if you were moulding a bracelet it wouldn’t really be a problem. But as soon as you’re going to mould something that’s going to go on someone’s face, you really need to know how it’s going to break, whether it’s going to be stable.

We are really conscious of making sure that it’s safe.

In the initial stages, we just made stuff and it broke. There are no data sheets, as no one’s ever done this. So we are having to do all that research and development ourselves.

Dresden Optics Sydney

Dresden Optics Sydney

At this stage of the company, when we are prototyping, we give anything a go: you can upcycle CD cases into prescription eyewear, even if nobody’s ever done that before.

That’s where Jack and I stand.

At this stage, it’s all about prototyping. However, when we make and sell frames that are made from milk bottle tops or marine waste, they are moulded in a proper factory and have gone through rigorous testing to make sure they are safe and of highest quality.

For instance, we made all glasses the other day from marine waste, picked up off the beach in Byron Bay. We didn’t know how it was going to go, and it turned out beautifully. It’s whole bunches of different colours, all granulated. It could have come out like brown sludge or it could have been very breakable. It turned out just fine!

We just got a whole bunch of fishing nets that were pulled out of the ocean in the Northern Territory. They were sent down by a friend of one of my co-workers who lives there. We’re going to test them, but our instincts are 99% sure they’re going to be made from nylon. We use a nylon 12, but the fishing lines would make them a nylon 6. We don’t know whether we’ll be able to make glasses, but we will absolutely try. The further we go into this, the more we realise about what sort of plastics will work. Did you know that plastic bags are made from the same plastic that milk bottle tops are made from?

 

For R&D, do you have to have the support of some kind of a scientific institution?

We have support from, not only the company that we mould from – that’s in Lakemba – but also the larger plastics company who supplied our original plastics, who have chemical engineers on staff.

We do some of our research internally. Jack is a civil engineer. He didn’t have any deep knowledge about plastics, but he’s got a natural aptitude to learn and enormous curiosity to know about new things. Initially, he came into the company to help out with the fit-out, to sort of challenge our interior designers. When our designers would say, “Oh, no, you can’t do that, it’s too complicated,” Jack would reply, “Yeah, sure, why not? Let’s give it a go. How about you do this?” He thinks outside the box. And he naturally fell into that role, because he’s interested in learning about bioplastics and wanting to be able to re-stabilise things. So his role was created for him, because he showed an aptitude and an interest.

Dresden Optics Sydney

Who is the founding team and how did you meet?

Bruce started the GoGet car company, which is a car sharing company in Australia that’s become quite successful. Bruce met Jason because Jason was interviewing Bruce for a podcast he was working on, and I think they got five minutes into the interview when Bruce was like, “Enough about me – let’s talk about you,” and as they spoke about Jason he realised that Jason was incredibly interesting in his own right. Bruce saw him as a really intelligent, young go-getter. I think that they sat down and it was about doing something together.

Mikael, I think Bruce has known him for quite a while, and because of the nod to Germany it was important for us to at least know something about it; you know, have someone in the company who could really make us understand more about where German designs come from. It’s really important that all the original team still work out of the shop, that that energy is still there. I mean, that’s what makes Dresden special, that’s what makes it a nice environment. As the company grows and new people join, you can’t just say, “We want you to believe in it and we want you to believe in us and where we come from.” You can only really achieve that by being around it.

Issac is our systems guy. Bruce met him in an Uber car. He comes from a background of really big corporations but his was looking for a change of pace so he and his wife came to Australia to take a bit of a break. He was like, “I’m just going to drive an Uber car and chill out a little bit.” And he met Bruce and they started chatting, and Bruce said, “Come in and talk about Dresden.” Bruce told him about what we were trying to do, the environmental and social elements. Issac showed an interest, and so he also came on board.

We also have a very talented graphic designer – Sara – who is a Newtown local who has known Bruce for years through mutual friends and having children of a similar age. She was running her own successful graphic design business and worked with Dresden not only on the design side of things but on anything and everything that needed to get done. She is now a full-time member of our team.

Stefan is our interior designer who also has his own company specialising in restaurant fit outs. He was key in helping us figure out how to fit all the different aspects of Dresden into our tiny Newtown store while still keeping it friendly and functional.

Personally, I’ve known Bruce for a few years now. I originally ran restaurants and I knew him through that. He was a bit like, “I’m starting up a company that’s going to change the eye wear industry and I want you on board”. We sat down and talked further. I was sold and the rest is history.

My official role within the company is chief people person: it is about the culture of the company, about how we recruit, how we train. We don’t want to have any sort of middle management; there’s no CEO; it’s really about this whole idea that things happen in an organic way. We don’t hire someone for a role because they look really good on paper or they’re amazing in an interview. People are naturally promoted by their peers because they warm to these roles, it’s a good fit. There’s a bit of grading of pay scales, so people can come in at a base level, and through choosing their level of involvement and through aptitude and learning the systems, they can quickly increase their salary.

Is your strategy to continue to open stores?

 Yes. We’ll do bricks-and-mortar stores. Sydney was our first; it took us about a year or so to get it off the ground once the original team was assembled.

Dresden Optics Sydney

Dresden Optics Sydney

We didn’t come from the optical industry, so it was about us figuring out the logistics of how to work with stock lenses, understanding why the optical industry is so expensive, knowing how to use the machinery, and learning about plastics.

I went to America and tried to source bio and environmental plastics; Jack spent a bunch of time in China. For such a simple system, it’s really quite complex. I’m talking about tool design, this idea of one universal shape and everything being interchangeable, allowing us to keep it affordable.

So we didn’t launch online, because as soon as we had a product ready we opened the store, bricks and mortar. We are now online though, just not solely.

In Australia our eyeglasses sort of sell themselves; people really respond to the environmental element. But they also respond to the fact that they don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on eyewear.

My brother used to wear glasses, and it’s not that mum and dad would be angry when he’d lose them or break them, but I don’t think they could help that idea or that look on their face where it was like, “God, that’s another $300 that I’ve got to spend”. And Cain would feel that; you know, and choose not to play sports. And a huge part of what we’re trying to do is make people see glasses as something other than a precious object. Some people have some really specific eyewear needs or wants; some want a $1,000 pair of Armani glasses – that’s totally cool. But for a lot of people, especially for kids, it’s a utilitarian object. It doesn’t have to be a precious thing, they just need to work. We sell these big packs of ten and you can split them between families, so mum and dad and the kids all get a pair. They effectively become $25 a piece, so it doesn’t much matter if you lose them. And this is what we’re really after: affordability.

Is this an innovation in Australia?

It is. I mean, if you look at Specsavers and others, people have been doing those ‘two pairs for a couple of hundred dollars’ deals, so that’s not a new concept. But our low price point definitely is. You can buy cheap readers from the chemist or service station; you just pick them up.

Within our single vision parameters we work with stock lenses and it helps us keep things affordable. We also make reading glasses, sure. But we do prescriptions.

Now, when you go to things that are outside those parameters, it obviously costs more money. Things like multi-focals or higher index lenses, we have to sell them for higher prices. What we’re trying to do is make pricing really transparent. I think a lot of people don’t realise why their glasses cost so much, and they aren’t given the choice to choose cheaper options. For us, it’s about educating customers and giving them information so they can decide.

We make it pretty simple and transparent.

As for the quality concern, we’re exclusively supplied by Carl Zeiss in Australia, the German company. So there are no quality issues with what we’re doing.

And we’ve got optometrists. There’s nothing here that is any different from what other people are doing; whereas we’re just really open about it. We have exactly the same machinery that would be used by any other optometrist probably anywhere in the world.

The proof is in the pudding. When people come in and they have a pair of glasses, I tell them: “Look, let me remake them for you.” And it’s really funny; they sort of really come around then. Because they work.

Dresden Optics Sydney

Dresden Optics Sydney

Your innovation is based on affordability and sustainability

Absolutely. Glasses should be accessible for everyone, and waste plastic is everywhere. We will keep on working with these facts.

Our frames are locally produced in Australia, which is really important to us.

We mould out of a factory located in Lakemba, called Astor Industries.

It’s an interesting story.

They originally made their money moulding badges and car parts. These guys basically wanted to diversify. So we looked at their factory, to learn about what injection moulding was and how it all worked. And we actually learned that they were about a week from closing down operations.

One of their staff members, Neil, had been working for them for 30 years. He saw the company’s potential, was open to diversifying the product line, and really interested in embracing what we were doing. Neil actually bought the company, and we decided to work with them.

The frame is universal but come in different sizes.

As for the colours, they may sometimes vary.

Companies like Coca-Cola would go to a plastics company and demand the same colour red every single time. So with classic injection moulding, they’ll mould red and then they do what’s called purging; they dump all the plastic onto the ground and they start on the next colour. We don’t want to waste any of the plastic, we just start with yellow and then we chuck in red, and we get all these transition colours and swirls… and then we end up with red. And then we chuck in other colours and we go to another. So that’s what makes it interesting.

What are your future plans, you told me about a trailer?

Yes, we launched a mobile trailer in November. It’s basically a mini version of the shop, with all of the lenses. We hope to take it into regional towns. In Australia there are a lot of small towns that don’t have optometrists and people have to travel to a town where there’s just one optometrist and they don’t have much choice. It takes time; it’s not easy.

WEEKEND AFR. Portrait of Bruce Jeffreys (yellow glasses) and Jason McDermott who have founded a glasses start up called Dresden Optics where you can swap out the parts of your frames and are going to sell them on a road trip through regional NSW, driving a solar powered trailer. Pic taken in near Newtown Sydney. Pic by Nic Walker. Date November 6th 2015.

Does that mean that they will be able to order them afterwards through a website?

Absolutely. We have an online presence now.

The way the trailer works is as follows. We have a machine that reads the power of your glasses. So as long as you’re happy with them and they are less than 2 years old, we can just recreate them. Or we can work off ‘scripts and we will sometimes have optometrists in the trailer. So we are either able to make the glasses on the spot if they wear single vision, like reading or distance, or, if it’s a specific need – multi-focals or a grind lens – then we take an order for them and then dispense out of our Sydney store.

We’re really excited about the trailer.

The kids love the trailer. It’s also about educating, and kids really get into the science behind it, they learn about it. And they learn that the waste in the community can actually be turned into eyewear! We plan to use the trailer for that purpose in 2016!

So it’s also about raising the awareness about sustainability and educating kids.

Yes, absolutely. It’s fun. You know, I went to Manly Beach the other day and took part in the beach clean-up. It was a big thing. We talked about Dresden and we showed them some of the marine waste and the glasses that we have made from the beach environment. And this little six-year-old girl came up with this broken pink bucket and spade and she said, “Can you make me a pair of glasses out of this?” We’re going to give it an absolute red-hot go, so that’s what Jack’s working on now. And that’s going to be really special – she’ll love that!

I think it’s wonderful to educate kids.

Boys and girls are really into the injection moulding thing. Local kids will come in and, they don’t necessarily need glasses but they learned from their parents that we’ve talked about things like working with Lego and fun stuff. And quite often, we get little kids from the neighbourhood coming down and hanging out. And basically, what we talk about is science!

I had a little kid who watched me one day make the optics. He was about 11. I talked to him while his mum was picking out her size. I told him, “Look what I’m doing here, I’m finding the optical centre of the lens.” I wasn’t going into too much detail; I was just making him feel engaged in the process. He was so cute. Then he said “I just need to go back to that one point – I just didn’t quite understand what that meant. What do you mean by optical centre?” I was like, “Okay, cool, you’re into it, let’s learn.” And that kid will never forget that experience.

As we grow, there are so many different projects that we want to do, and going into schools to educate kids will be a huge part of it.

And you plan to expand first in Australia?

 Yes, of course. It went so well in Sydney

We’re expanding really quickly. We are opening our second store in Kings Cross Sydney at the moment.

We recently went to Melbourne with the trailer, at the Sustainable Living Festival that was held at Federation Square.

Dresden Optics Trailer

We had great success there: Melbourne welcomed us with open arms!

We traded over 3 days and nearly sold out of stock! This has definitely pushed forward our plans to open a store there! So we are looking for premises there.

Then we’ll look at Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.

And why did you choose this part of town to set your store?

One of the founders is from Newtown, he’s a Newtown local. And Newtown has lots of artists, lots of students… It’s always been really affordable. The culture is interesting. This area is definitely a ‘makers’ place; next door you’ve got Leo Monk making handbags, you’ve got the Social Outfit, which basically make fashion by giving work to refugees, and you have the button shop. We really wanted to be part of the environment of a sustainable area down in Newtown. It just made sense.

There’s so much potential and there are so many things we could do. But right at this moment, there are tens of thousands of people in Australia who just need affordable eyewear.

So that’s our current focus.

 

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For details about the eyewear: Dresden Optics