Building on the ideas shared and lessons learned at Dishoom in 2017, our popular breakfast talks continued this morning in conversation with Tom Broughton.
In 2015 we began a series of breakfast events for our members; and in the fitting comfort of Dishoom's Carnaby Street Verandah, we've heard culinarily flavoured design experiences told by The Gourmand's Dave Lane, North Design's Sean Perkins, Gorgeous Group's Robbie Bargh, Dishoom's own co-founder Shamil Thakrar and, most recently, his fellow restaurateur Alan Yau.
This morning, we saw the start of a second course of similar sit-downs – this time looking to share learnings from design focussed founders. We heard from Tom Broughton, Founder of Cubitts – a modern British spectacles company adopting a progressive approach to technology, design and customer experience. Tom shared the story of Cubitts, and how design, storytelling and heritage have all played a role in making the brand it is today.
Here’s what we learned.
“The great thing about spectacles is that everyone needs them at some point, it spans age, gender, race, social, economical routes. The story I often tell is: on the same day, a trainee-accountant, male, 20 years old bought a frame, and later in the day, a female, retired art-dealer, bought the same frame. What other product out there would have the same appeal?”
Having worn them since being diagnosed with Myopia as a child, spectacles have always played a very significant role in Tom’s life. From being known as four-eyes at school, through to being the first of his friends to own more than one pair of glasses at 17 – they form part of his character. And he highlighted that this is prevalent across all genders, ages and races; for many it has an emotional connection, being the first thing they pick up in the morning, and the last thing they take off at night.
It was for this reason that he had, for a long time, the idea of starting up his own spectacles brand. However, a lack of understanding of the market meant he didn’t have the confidence to do so; until one day, he met the owner of one of the oldest spectacle companies in the world, Laurence Jenkin, who took him on as an apprentice.
Alongside teaching Tom the art of frame-making, Laurence opened Tom’s eyes to the rich history of the optic world – for which Tom provided a brief, yet insightful overview:
From the Romans and Greeks through to the present day, spectacles have existed for thousands of years, in many different forms, and usually for very specific purposes. But a significant date in the optic world is 1730, when Edward Scarlett developed the first frame with sides. This changed human being’s entire relationship with glasses, and in turn kick-started a very vibrant industry, closely tied in with jewellery and watch making.
But following the establishment of the NHS in 1948, spectacles became free by the state. The craft had switched from a few workshop specialists making bespoke frames, to everyone wearing one of seven styles. Although by 1985 the NHS brought this to a halt; and from that point the optic world plummeted into a stagnant phase that continues to be seen largely today, which is “dominated by three huge, monolithic players”.
It was this knowledge that “sparked a real desire to do something” in Tom. And in 2013, with the help of his friend Joe Bell, Cubitts launched from his kitchen table in Kings Cross – a brand that is an antithesis of the last 20 years, and instead celebrates the industry from 200 years ago – offering well-designed products, processes and both retail and digital experiences.
Starting in Tom’s kitchen on Cubitts street, Kings Cross plays a very important part in the story of the brand. Not only does his revival of the craft run in parallel with the regeneration of the area, but the location also inspired the name and principles of the brand.
Tom illuminated the story of the Cubitts brothers, who revolutionised the building industry in the early 1800s by making it more efficient in terms of making and cost – simply by creating the first building company. Tom admired those principles, and wanted “to apply them a similarly old and stagnant market”. And by chance, their site was once on the same street that Tom lived, Cubitts Street.
Apart from a select few, people tend to see spectacles as a medical device – something you need, not want; and visiting the opticians can be perceived as an unpleasant experience. So at the beginning of Cubitts’ journey, Tom’s focus was on challenging people’s preconceptions of the eyewear and opticians. “There wasn't a sense of enjoyment or pride, and I wanted to change that”.
Placing immense value on the process as well as the final product, the pair carried out studies to find out the areas of displeasure when visiting the opticians, which ranged from too much choice, sales pressure, lack of explanation, and a pseudo-medical feel. And together, they designed a process and product that would eliminate these associations.
But another priority for Tom was also transforming the eye examination processes. “Eye tests are very important – but they have become more and more devalued”. So at Cubitts, they make it a useful experience, one that can be contextualised and understood – so the collective experience is enjoyable, and “challenges the conveyor belt of consumerism”.
And it is this dedication to improving customer experience that has also driven customer loyalty. “Our ignorance and naivety meant we really obsessed and fussed about the customer. That has helped us keep value in the company.”
Brick and mortar
Starting as a e-commerce platform, the journey started slowly for Tom and Joe, selling just "two pairs of spectacles on a good day”. For this reason, they turned to wholesale. The pair were introduced to the owner of menswear brand Albam, which resulted in the brand stocking Cubitts products. “This was transformative for us – two sales turned into eight, and we realised, people like going into shops!”
This triggered the next venture for the brand. Tom recalled an email from one of the store’s customers, which would transform the future of the business. Admiring the Cubitts product and principles, this customer offered Tom investment, which enabled Cubitts to open up its first physical store.
Though, “opening up physical stores is a big deal”, Tom explained. And having already observed the importance of metrics from their e-commerce platform, the pair invested much of their time in understanding the metrics of brick and mortar retail to help them open up stores in a more meaningful way. As a result, a year after launching, the pair opened up their first shop in Soho.
At Cubitts, value continues to be placed on data collection. In fact, as well as footfall, they even track the weather at each store; and while a lot of the data is not currently in use, they hope in the future this wealth of collected data will give rise to some very insightful studies.
As one of the displeasure points of commonplace opticians is their overwhelming nature, which is difficult to navigate, Cubitts is very invested in creating pleasing retail environments. Each adopts an aesthetic and layout that reflect the brand’s principles.
“When speaking to wholesalers, we found that sunglasses would always be folded in a glass box by the till, as they’re high value and easy to steal. But that is not conducive for people to try them on.” Tom added. “I really think frames should always be positioned at eye-level and unfolded. It helps you make a decision." So in all Cubitts stores, frames are placed on well-designed shelves, and are ordered by style and colour. But as well as this, they offer less choice, “so what we’re providing is 24 shapes, in 10 colours, and up to three sizes. There’s still 700 options, but people can navigate it easily.”
But for Tom, the most exciting opportunity when opening a store is the chance to do something really interesting. At Cubitts, a priority is making every store unique (each shop has its own scent and plant type), and taking cues from local area. “If you have five stores, you want to differentiate them,” he explained. “While we have an overriding Cubitts aesthetic, we try and cherry pick references from the local area.”
“For example, at Marshall Street, our Soho store is sandwiched between the Marshall Street Baths, with amazing vaulted marble ceilings, and a strange concrete substation on the other side. So, we combined these materials as our material palette. Then as you go downstairs for your eye test, we have this pink neon sign that says ‘Peepers Show’ – a little reference to Soho’s other side!”
Soon Cubitts will be changing sites in Kings Cross to cater for the expansion of its workshop. But an element of the brand’s future about which Tom is most excited, is the development of technology – an area in which they are investing heavily.
The team has launched into Cephalometrics – the analysis of the dental and skeletal relationships of a human skull, often used by dentists as a treatment planning tool. And having recently won a grant, they built a head scanner that enables them to understand the structure of the human head. “The great thing is, once you reach adulthood, the human head doesn't change. All the measurements that inform how a frame sits stays the same. So if we can incorporate that, then it just helps everything. It takes fit away from the equation, and helps us choose frames better.”
The future will also bring about a number of exciting collaborations. To encourage users to clean and care for their glasses properly, Cubitts is working with artists, including the likes of Tracey Emin, to create interesting, free and collectable cleaning cloths.
London, W1B 5QB,
Start:12th February, 2018 at 9:30am
End:12th February, 2018 at 11:00am