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Smart Vision = Better Living through Technology

I led Techstars Ventures’ investment in Smart Vision Labs (SVL) Series A round back in mid 2015. I was deeply inspired by the company’s mission, technology, and potential to improve the human condition on a global basis. Yaopeng Zhou and Marc Albanese, co-founders of SVL, had a drive and determination that was (and continues to be) truly special.

They are pushing headlong into an industry that was stagnant and dominated by outdated technology.  The establishment is resistant to change, and yet the disruption of the 1950s approach to eye care is coming fast and the population will benefit. If you are one of the 144 million people that got an eye exam in the US in the last year, you know what I’m talking about.

The Opportunity

I’ve now been working with the team at SVL for the past 18 months. The company has kept its head down and stayed focused while solving some very hard problems. Working with SVL has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my venture career so far, and we are just scratching the surface.

The duality of working with a company who is creating a positive global impact while simultaneously proving out  a scalable and profitable business model along the way is super rewarding. Not every investment will be this profound, but I’m honored to be learning alongside SVL here.  I’m writing this post to share some of the experience and some detail around why I’m excited about Smart Vision Labs.

Disruption by Creating Efficiency

One of the things we’ve learned about the vision correction market is that it is horribly inefficient, and therein likes a great opportunity! If you’ve had an eye exam in the last decade, you know that it requires an appointment in many cases, the technology takes up a room (or two), and that the operators of that equipment require extensive training and are specialists. If you add up the costs (hardware, real estate, technicians or Dr’s, etc) – it’s no wonder traditional optical retailers try to fleece you for hundreds of dollars and the prescription (RX) for corrective lenses are baked into a much bigger eye health exam and process. Even folks who have vision insurance rarely use it to its full extent due to the friction in the vision exam process (only 37% to be exact).


My Own Experience

I had a personal experience with this a few years ago. It wasn’t long after I turned 40 that I started to feel like my vision was changing, but it took 6 months or more of stuff just getting strange before I realized what was happening. I was getting headaches, having a hard time concentrating after 3pm if I was at my computer and found myself squinting or not looking at the text on the screen in meetings. It finally clicked and I realized my eyes had changed. Actually, it was more like  “sh*t, I have to admit I need glasses…”

Many of us have the “eye doctor” experience in our heads. Forms, dark rooms, hour long wait, big bill, walk out with funny glasses, etc. Not something we do proactively, right? I got a floater in one of my eyes a few years ago and freaked out about it, so I went in and got it checked out. It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary and the responsible thing to do. In fact, just to be clear, I think everyone should see an eye doctor and ensure they are healthy. Conditions such as glaucoma or macular degeneration are serious business.  SVL, nor I, are suggesting that regular eye health exams should be replaced with this solution or skipped.

SVL’s Efficiency

The efficiency SVL is bringing to the market though technology is about vision correction. Thanks to some pretty amazing technology that has turned desktop hardware into a handheld device along with a powerful telemedicine platform, SVL is able to create a much more efficient experience that delivers real-world ROI (to the tune of 500%/year per location) for both the consumer and the optical retailer or eye doctor.

The efficiency comes from streamlining and speeding up the data collection process that includes the Pupillary Distance, Visual Acuity, Refraction, Basic health questions and current RX (if applicable). This enables new prescription issuance via Drs, referrals to Ophthalmologists, and for consumers to quickly know if their prescription needs changing quickly and easily.

60% of the world’s population need vision correction. Only a fraction of that population obtains corrective lenses due to the challenges with access, cost, time or awareness.

In fact, SVL runs corporate wellness screenings and has collected some interesting data that we all should be paying attention to:

  • 25% of people studied would fail a DMV eye test
  • 60 hours of productivity are lost each year because of eye-focusing issues
  • 79 percent of employees suffer from at least one daily vision disturbance (like headaches or eyestrain) at work


The Opportunity Is In The Data

Let the first statistic sink in. Stand up and look around the room you are in (if you are in an office, coffee shop, etc). 25% of the people there would fail a DMV vision test. This means they can’t see properly, and it’s affecting their life in untold ways (let alone their driving). Fixing that only takes 5 minutes now that Smart Vision technology is available.


Although there are 144M eye exams performed every year in the US, that number should be much higher. SVL is starting to make an impact here. The company has run over 50k exams in 23 countries, and has seen the usage volume jump 300% in last 6 months.

What if you could check your vision every 6 months and it took 5 minutes and no appointment? What if you could do it at your office? At home? At your annual check-up w/ your Primary or the RN? What if you got an email from your child’s school with their RX and a link to order glasses before you even know they had a vision issue? What if your prescription was available to you at all times and you could order glasses from anywhere, anytime without having to go through the traditional process and burn a day and hundreds of dollars?  Better living through technology indeed. Here’s a powerful example of what happens weekly around this company.  I hope you can see why I’m excited and proud to be involved with Smart Vision Labs!

A.B.F. – Always Be Fundraising

The CEO of any startup has three primary roles:

  1. Raising capital
  2. Setting the vision and overall strategy
  3. Hiring the right people

As anyone who has built and run a business from the ground up will tell you, being a CEO is not the easiest gig in the world. With so many different distractions pulling you in so many different directions, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of the day to day and lose sight of those three responsibilities.

To be fair, CEOs are responsible for more than just those three things. Each CEO has to wear multiple hats. But the fundamentals are still true.

Raise Money—And Then Raise More

I’ve noticed a pattern amongst entrepreneurs—even the good ones—where many of them forget the importance of the first responsibility listed above: raising capital. They forget that fundraising is an ongoing job that needs to be done regardless of the current cash balance.

Raising money is hard enough as it is. But by not working on it in between rounds, CEOs and founders make it that much harder on themselves. To be successful, CEOs need to take the A.B.F. approach to fundraising: always be fundraising.

A little maintenance goes a long way—just like heading to the gym on a regular basis is good for your health and fitness. Don’t get fat and lazy in between fundraising rounds—getting back into fighting shape (or fundraising shape!) is 10 times harder when you don’t have a base.

Some readers will almost certainly blow this off as easy-to-say/hard-to-do VC advice, but I actually screwed this up in the past too. Knowing what I know now, I wish I could go back in time and talk to my former-self. There were times when I was terrible about A.B.F. and other times when I was much better at it. The results of each approach were pretty clear.

I now see the difference between CEOs who take the A.B.F. approach and those who treat it as as a finite transaction. If you are not talking to and engaging investors between rounds, you are not A.B.F and you’ll pay later. When it’s time to raise (even in a “things are awesome and I need to fund the growth” scenario) it’s way more work as you are starting the relationships from scratch in many cases. The biggest difference is the fact that, with an A.B.F. mentality, whenever it’s time to raise more money—regardless of whether it’s a big up round or a “leap over the valley of death bridge”—the rounds get done faster, easier, and with more support from investors…and often on better terms.

Here’s a simple contrast between A.B.F and transactional fundraising: 2-3 hours a month woven into everything you do or 3-5 stressful months on the road herding cats during only two good windows per calendar year. Am I getting through?!?

Tips for Making A.B.F. a Reality

So how exactly can you become an someone who lives and breathes A.B.F.?

  • Maintain two investor lists. The first list should include current investors who you share monthly or quarterly updates with. The second list is for the investors who’ve passed at some point but left the door open. (You know the “if you were at YYZ in MRR we’d take a closer look, keep us posted” folks). Add new contacts to this list as you do the A.B.F. groundwork (networking, taking intros, etc.) This list becomes your target list for the next round.
  • Update the first list monthly. Be consistent—make it part of your routine. Put the asks at the top followed by the wins & metrics. The data should be telling a story clearly so there is no ambiguity about what is working and what isn’t. You might even find that they realize it’s time to add more capital to the business before you do. VCs are great at pattern recognition (for better or worse). This is low-hanging-fruit in terms of helping investors follow along as the chart moves up and to the right!
  • Solicit feedback and advice from the second list occasionally. You don’t want to be too annoying, but you don’t need to completely disappear either. In a previous blog post, I talked about the idea that when you ask for advice you get investment and when you ask for investment you get advice. Play the game and engage. Ask for feedback on metrics, messaging, and progress to ensure they’re thinking about you and your company.
  • Update your target investors every quarter. Put in some face time with investors on that second list. This can be a 20 minute video call. Just say top of mind if you can. Spread it out and mix it up. Personally, I’m way more likely to take a coffee meeting or a quick call to help an entrepreneur I know or to hear how things are going vs agreeing to be pitched formally if the company isn’t on my radar.  ­Asking for quick feedback on a high-level deck or just sending over news of a few wins will get the job done. The occasional business ask will test to see who is really paying attention. Put these at the top of the emails!

Are you the kind of CEO who’s always thinking about raising money but not doing it? Or could your fundraising game be enhanced? The sooner you adopt an A.B.F. mindset, the less time you’ll spend actually fundraising!

Play it Back! My Codementor session on how to get into Techstars

Earlier this week I did a live Hangout for Codementor on “How to get into Techstars” – it was a Q&A format talk. Codementor is a great platform that provides developers help with roadblocks or issues while building things. Its like having another developer in the room, right when you need them. They have been running a great series of office hours on both technical and non-technical topics.

Some really smart questions were asked and we covered a lot of ground in the hour. Topics covered included the sole founder question, equity, locations, how to prepare, how to stand out and more.  I also shared some of my own experiences and POV on the Techstars program (I was in the very first class in Boulder 2007). In case you are applying to Techstars, or thinking about applying, check out  the Office Hours recording here.  (And you can ask me anything you want that didn’t get covered in the comments on this post as well). Thanks to Codementor for having me on!