FOR Mitesh Patel and Olga Nuryaeva it was love at first sight. They met at Oxford in 2001, studied the same subject at the same college, and were married two years ago. When they go to work selling contact lenses online, however, the connection is not always obvious.
“There’s so little romance going on that our new staff don’t realise we’re an item,” said Nuryaeva. “It’s good because we keep things strictly professional.”
Her husband agrees. “Some staff cannot believe we are married, given how tough she is with me in board meetings. It’s definitely a management team, not a husband and wife team.”
Lenstore, which sells prescription contact lenses, was set up in 2008. Registered in Guernsey, where its website is managed, it has offices in Wimbledon, southwest London. Last year it enjoyed sales of £5.1m with profits of £500,000. In January it expects to report revenues of £10m.
Patel, who wears contact lenses, came up with the idea. “A friend mentioned that contact lenses were being sold online in Sweden,” he said. “I thought the only place you could buy them was from opticians.
“Only about 3.5% of Britons were buying online and the competition was extremely weak.”
There are about 4m contact lens wearers in Britain, of whom 150,000 buy from Lenstore. Annual sales growth has averaged 159% during the past three years, placing the company in 10th position in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100, which lists Britain’s fastest-growing companies.
“Not many people give you a pat on the back when you are running a new business,” said Nuryaeva. “It can be quite lonely, so to be recognised alongside like-minded entrepreneurs is incredible.”
Of Lenstore’s 28 staff, three are qualified opticians responsible for training the “optical consultants” who call customers on the day their lenses are delivered to offer advice on how to use them.
“Creating a connection with the customer is hard because often they care only about the brand, not where they bought it,” said Nuryaeva. “By calling them, we are moving away from an impersonal delivery service such as Amazon.”
Russian-born Nuryaeva moved to Britain at the age of 15 and attended Sherborne girls’ school in Dorset. After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford she secured an internship at Goldman Sachs, where she was subsequently employed for two years. While Patel was preparing to launch Lenstore, she completed an MA in economics at the London School of Economics before joining PwC as a consultant.
“I was helping with Lenstore during evenings and weekends,” said Nuryaeva, who joined the business full-time in 2010. “For a couple it’s important to go into a business at different times so you have a balance and a back-up. When you are starting it’s terrifying to put both your careers on the line.”
Patel joined OC&C, the global strategy consultant, after leaving Oxford. Four years later he put £27,000 saved from his earnings into Lenstore. “My parents thought I was bonkers. I left an extremely well-paid job to sit in my bedroom and start a company.”
His mother and father own a corner shop in Colliers Wood, southwest London, where he spent his childhood and developed an interest in having a business of his own but on a bigger scale.
When studying economics at King’s College School, Wimbledon, he asked his father an important question. “I remember saying, ‘Why have you not turned this shop into 10 or even 50 shops?’ He said he didn’t have the mentors to guide him.”
Patel and Nuryaeva have never been short of mentors. Soon after Lenstore.co.uk went live in 2009 they secured £200,000 from two angel investors, the chairman of a FTSE 100 company and Keith Potts, co-founder of Jobsite, the online recruitment platform. Their advice was invaluable and so was their money.
“Lenstore had been losing cash for the first few months,” said Nuryaeva. “They kept us on the straight and narrow and made us profitable.”
The investors have a 22% stake. Patel and Nuryaeva, who own the other 78%, used the funding to buy stock, employ staff and improve marketing. “Contact lenses are small, expensive and come in a number of variants, so to stock every single one you need up to £10,000,” said Nuryaeva.
Her father, though past retirement age, continues to work for an oil company in Russia. He is also happy to give them advice.
Patel is in the middle of a court case with the taxman. Two years ago he informed HM Revenue & Customs that, as a dispensing optician, his business should be eligible to pay half of the 20% VAT rate on sales. The taxman rejected his claim and is demanding that Lenstore pays more than £600,000.
“There’s no way I’m giving up on this,” Patel said. “The hope is that it will be resolved in our favour next year.”
He and Nuryaeva, both 30, live in Pimlico, west London, with their dogs Jammy and Bumbles. Their advice to entrepreneurs is to seek guidance and focus on the customer: “Find amazing advisers and align your incentives to theirs. Always think: are your customers happy? Will they come back?”