Not everyone gets the opportunity to talk business with Sir Richard Branson. But Malaysian entrepreneurs Thum Yee Mun and Ng Yi Chung were fortunate enough to win a 30-minute mentoring session with him after their startup, Scarlett Of Soho, was selected as one of the top three in #MentorMeBranson, a Virgin Startup-sponsored competition.
Scarlett Of Soho is the UK’s first designer eyewear (each piece is designed by Thum and Ng) subscription service that allows its subscribers to switch their prescribed eyewear any time they want at an affordable price of £10 a month.
The session with Branson, which took place in March on a Virgin East Coast train travelling from Newcastle to London, gave Thum, 26 and Ng, 28, the chance to explain what their business is about.
“He was very interested in what we were doing as startups. So instead of jumping in with advice, he asked lots of questions to make sure he really understood our challenges and unique propositions,” said Thum.
Scarlett Of Soho has been around since 2013, the year Thum and Ng met in London. The idea to start their business came to them organically.
Thum said: “We were looking for a way to buy great quality eyewear at decent prices online in the UK, and a lot of the websites we found didn’t really fit the bill. And that’s how we got started!”
She likened the startup to a mobile phone plan. “Subscribers return the old pair once they have received the new ones. And at the end of the 12-month contract, they get to keep their last pair of glasses,” she said.
The business also offers a home try-on service, where potential customers get to try out three frames a week for free.
“First, they have to select the frames that will be sent to them with clear lenses, and they have a week to try them out before returning them,” said Thum.
“After they’ve decided on a subscription plan, they can send us their prescription and pupillary distance measurements, and tell us which frames they like. We’ll only start charging them once they receive their glasses.”
Although Thum said feedback from subscribers has been “encouragingly positive”, like all first-time entrepreneurs, they have faced many struggles too, especially in terms of finances and cash-flow.
“We weren’t great at budgeting and managing cost creep (the slow build up of cost/revenue ratio),” said Thum.
“You get to learn along the way, but you might end up spending more money than you anticipate and making less money than you think you will in the first year of business.”
She added: “The one thing that Sir Richard Branson said which left a mark on us was, ‘Never turn down a sale’.”
For now, they are still looking to expand their business in the UK by adding new designs based on customers’ feedback.
“We’re focusing a lot on customer development because product-market fit is very important. Without it, any efforts to scale will be futile,” said Thum.
“We’re also trying to get the word out and to meet people we hope to partner with. It’s honestly just a lot of good ol’-fashioned hustle!”