When Sophie Boulanger launched her eyewear company BonLook in 2011, she initially saw it as an online-only business.
But the company’s clients wanted more, and Boulanger heard the message.
The ability to listen to input and adapt their business model has been “key for us,” says Boulanger, BCom03, “and I know by talking to other entrepreneurs that it’s what the successful ones have in common.”
Boulanger can count herself in that category. The direct-to-consumer eyewear company she co-founded with her brother Louis-Félix has mushroomed from seven bricks-and-mortar locations two years ago to 32 stores across Canada.
The company employs 340 people, and is eyeing more expansion in Canada, and potentially further afield.
“We think really big and we think it could work in other countries, for sure,” says Boulanger.
The company boasts that it offers ‘unbeatable prices’ for prescription glasses because of its direct-to-consumer business model. It designs frames in-house, manufactures them in China, and sells them online and in stores.
Frames with very thin single-vision lenses cost $149. Higher prescriptions and progressive lenses cost more, but Boulanger maintains, “We’re typically less than half of what the competition would sell for a similar quality of product. That’s because we cut out the middleman for the frame.”
A Quebec City native, Boulanger worked in the cosmetics industry after she graduated from McGill and later worked as a fashion buyer. The desire to start her own business was always in the back of her mind.
The idea came from an eye-opening assignment she worked on while doing a master’s degree in fashion and design management in Milan. As she learned about the eyewear business for the assignment, Boulanger recalls being “blown away by the margins and the way the industry was structured.”
There are a lot of middlemen in the distribution chain and “everybody takes their cut,” she says. Customers end up paying a steep price compared to the manufacturing cost.
Being outsiders in the eyewear industry was a struggle at first, she says. “But it’s also been one of our strengths, I think, because we think like customers. And we don’t think like old-timers of the industry – ‘oh, this can’t be done.’ We really have a fresh eye on how to build this business.”
They launched as an online business, but the vast majority of visitors to their website weren’t converting into sales because they wanted to try the glasses on, Boulanger says.
“We had a great growth rate just online, but we realized that we were missing all those sales because people wanted to try [them on].”
Signing a long-term lease and building a store was costly – a big risk they weren’t willing to take. Over time, they held private shopping nights at their office, which worked out well. Then they built a permanent showroom in their office, and that success gave them the confidence to open a temporary kiosk in a shopping mall, Boulanger says. BonLook stores followed.
“When you start a business, it’s really the beginning [that] is super difficult because you have no speed and you have no data. And so you kind of need to test a few things. Once you see something that works, then it’s time to really move fast.”
The company launches new collections every month. “You would never wear the same pair of shoes every single day for two years, so why do it for glasses,” says Boulanger about the notion of an eyewear wardrobe. “It’s the idea of having different pairs for your different moods or your different outfits. And it’s about having fun with your eyewear and be willing to take a bit more risk instead of having just one pair that is black and very classic.”
The company also works with celebrities who design their own collections, including Quebec TV personality Maripier Morin, singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate, and two-time Olympic ice dancing champion Tessa Virtue.
Boulanger looks after marketing, merchandising, and design while her brother Louis- Félix, an engineer, is in charge of the company’s IT operations.
“It’s a great partnership because we have different strengths,” she says.
To help people understand their approach because their business model is so new in eyewear, Boulanger often says, ‘We’re kind of the Aldo of eyeglasses.’
“On a smaller scale obviously, but for sure it’s something we aspire to,” Boulanger says of the global retail shoe empire created by Montreal businessman and philanthropist Aldo Bensadoun, BCom’64, LLD’12.
What is great about building a retail business in Montreal, she says, is big companies such as The Aldo Group, Reitmans, Dynamite and La Vie en Rose have “paved the way for small players like us.”
It also created a hub of expertise in Montreal “because a business is built with people,” she says. “There’s a lot of people that are very knowledgeable in retail.”