I invited Dirk Graber, CEO of Mister Spex on YHP as we spoke about his background, how the idea for Mister Spex came about, hardest part of starting the business, advices for entrepreneurs and much more.
Mister Spex is Germany's largest online retailer for branded eyeware. They sell prescription glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses.
Below is the full interview.
Can you give me some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
No, there wasn’t any entrepreneurial background in my family. I was born in Halle (Eastern Germany) and I grew up quite normal. When I was a child I wanted to become a carpenter. But then I decided to do an apprenticeship in a bank. After that I studied business administration, spent some time abroad in Hong Kong and Russia, and graduated at HHL (Leipzig Graduate School of Management).
What were you doing before you started the company?
My career started quite classical: After graduating from HHL I worked for two years at Boston Consulting Group. I was involved in corporate finance and strategy projects mostly in the consumer goods and banking industry.
Tell me how the idea for Mister Spex came about?
While I was studying at HHL one of my majors was entrepreneurship. HHL is one of the most entrepreneurial business schools in Germany. A lot of founders have studied there; many students start their ventures before they finish their studies. I was also attracted by the idea of an own company, but first of all I worked for a strategy consulting firm to quickly gain experience in different industries and topics. Two years later, I had the feeling that it was time for the next step. I knew from internships at Ebay and Jamba that I wanted to do something in the e-commerce space. So I did a comprehensive research containing different markets and analysed market size and structure, competitors, margins and so on. In the end I decided to go for the optical industry and to set up an online optician.
What is Mister Spex?
Mister Spex is the largest online retailer for branded eyewear in Germany. We sell prescription glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses through our online shop. Customer benefits are our large assortment of models (5.000 glasses and sunglasses from 90 brands), the enormous saving potential for glasses including lenses (up to 60 percent compared to German high street opticians) and our good service (fast delivery, 30 days return period and money back guarantee, toll free hotline with opticians).We have already started international expansion and also sell via our shops in English, French and Spanish language.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
The biggest challenge for a new business is definitely to get the best people on board. You need talented and clever employees to develop the initial idea and to set up a real company around the business model. Apart from that it is also important to develop good supplier relations. For a new company it is not so easy to convince established suppliers to work with you. Last but not least it is always challenging to find professional investors and to raise money for your firm.
How were you able to fund the business?
I founded the company together with three co-founders. We all invested some private money, but the biggest part came from business angels who believed in us. After the first year we were able to find venture capital investors.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since starting the company?
The business model has not changed completely but we have developed it. We started as a pure online optician in Germany, now we are changing into a multi channel concept and are building up a network with stationary opticians as service partners for our customers.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial that you've done to build the company to this level now?
The most important success factor is probably the team you work with. It is always a challenge to find the right people for each phase of the company’s development and to bring in new expertise and knowledge. And if you have found those people, it is important to motivate and keep them on board – especially in times of trouble. I think the recruitment and the steady motivation of the management team and some other key positions in the company has been crucial for the success of Mister Spex.
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
If you want to build a new company, search for a business model, where you know the drivers for revenue and success and where you are able to influence them. Moreover it is important not to overestimate your own knowledge and resources. It’s better to found a company in a team and to compose this team of persons with different backgrounds and experiences.
What can we be expecting from you and Mister Spex in 2012?
As I said before we are building up a partner program with local opticians in Germany this year to offer more service like eye measurement to our customers. Moreover we will work on our online shops in France and Spain as it is our vision to become the leading online optician in Europe in the long run.