As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Stanton.
Daniel Stanton is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Now Optics, which consists of optical retail brands My Eyelab and Stanton Optical. Under Stanton’s leadership, Now Optics is among the nation’s fastest-growing, full-service optical retail companies. Due to its rapid growth over the past few years, the company’s store footprint has expanded to nearly 200 corporate and franchise locations in 25 states under the Stanton Optical and My Eyelab brands. In 2016, his visionary approach and desire to innovate led to Now Optics’ retail debut of ocular telehealth exams. Since then, Now Optics’ affiliated network of doctors have administered over 1 million telehealth eye exams nationwide.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in eye care early, as a college student, while working in a variety of roles for a nationally known optical retailer. After noticing my knack for team management and a broken process in the way people purchased eyeglasses, I wanted to make the eye care process easy. So I started Stanton Optical in 2006, offering a vast selection of eyewear in an affordable, accessible, and efficient eyeglass shopping environment. This way, people didn’t dread their necessary eye care routine.
From there, I recognized customer and optometrist pain points regarding the eye exam experience and researched the remote refractive concept — all from my basement in Indiana. After the first year, we opened five stores across the nation. Currently, Now Optics, operates the brands My Eyelab and Stanton Optical, with nearly 200 locations in 25 states and rapidly growing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The orange chair! We wanted to have this look that was different from everyone else. Many design changes came early in building the brand but none left such a funny memory than the orange chairs. They looked amazing, and they were very comfortable. The issue is no one could get out of them, nor did they want too! With them being so low and so comfortable, they became the most talked-about moment in our experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When first starting, one challenge was planning for future business needs with a limited budget and resources. We were trying to be forward-thinking and proactive yet realizing there were constraints. At the time, the optical industry wasn’t sought after since it’s technical, and each state has different licenses and laws.
Time management and placing “people first” was important to tackle the limitations. Our team was committed and loyal to moving the company forward. That said, the team I started with at Stanton Optical motivated my inspiration to come true. I am still in contact with most of the original team. They are a meaningful part of my life. I believe Now Optics’ success is the result of building a foundation with the right people in the right roles and supporting each other.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When first starting, I knew that I wanted to streamline the eye care process. Instead of signing in, waiting and being hustled out the door, I wanted to create a welcoming and affordable experience. No matter the training and procedures, we always need to ask ourselves “Am I making it easy for this customer?” This thought process lines parallel with my original vision to provide an easy, accessible and affordable eye care experience.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I like to tailor my message to the audience I am speaking to at that moment. For example, I call my sales employees in the morning to start their day with phrases like “Rise and grind, its eyeglass selling time”. Spreading positive energy is the best way to communicate and understand your team.
However, when problems arise I take them seriously and put them at the top of my to-do list. Time management is about finishing the most important tasks for the business as soon as possible. I also don’t dwell on criticism so I can focus my energy on moving forward to fix the issue at hand. These qualities, listening carefully and leading alongside team members are expectations I have for a great leader that I try to be every day.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I am a self-motivated person in general, but I need to take time for myself so I can be 100% committed during the workday. In my mornings, I wake up at 5am and take the first few minutes to read or pray. Then, I drink coffee while I prioritize my day and complete some administrative tasks. After that, I will work out which may include playing tennis before I go in to work. Over the last three years, tennis has helped reduce stress, made me more focused, introduced me to new people, and created an interest for my daughter to play, and now it’s a favorite past time we share. Taking this time to get ready for the day avoids burnout and allows for my mind to prepare for the day ahead of me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, a leader should stand next to their team members. Trusting your team members while supporting them is an important balance, but I am always there when needed. Give your team the room to contribute to their capabilities while also creating space for them to make some mistakes. Be patient with the process, but hold them accountable.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
My Eyelab’s culture has modified with COVID, and is always changing — but we have always been the mavericks and doers of the eye care space. Everyone strives to motivate each other when times get tough, so we are prepared to serve the community and ensure accessible eye care no matter the circumstances. Some ways we keep the culture alive during remote work is interviewing store managers to share their experience and successes with the entire company. We have also started online town hall meetings to share important details and actions happening within the company. These meetings help communicate goals and expectations while new challenges arise.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicating difficult news is challenging, but the best way to do so is answering any questions to the best of your ability. Hopefully your audience understands that at times we have more questions than answers but transparency provides clarity for all parties involved. When an audience know why and how a situation is handled, they can trust your intuition.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader must assess a situation to address the issues and problems that may occur in the future. Keeping up to date on current events and how they affect your company is most important. As trail blazers, we evaluate a situation to have a better understanding of what’s next and how to push innovative ideas to the forefront of the eye care industry.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
“People first” is a great principle to guide any business through turbulent times. If you are there for your teammates, staff and customers during the most difficult times, they will stick with you and you’ll be able to come out the other side even stronger. From the beginning, I’ve practiced respecting my team members and the customers that walk through our doors. We put people first in stores and the office to create positive experiences for everyone involved in the accessible eye care journey.
Can you share the most common mistake you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most concerning mistake I’ve seen other businesses make during this difficult time is criticizing those that have a solution to the problem. A lot of business will spend more time and energy being critical of others than they will searching for solutions to improve their problems. To avoid that companies should collaborate and ask their team the tough questions centered on solutions and then execute those plans.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Adapting to the situation is key, and since COVID has forced every business to pivot, the future of eye care is in telehealth. Automating the process in My Eyelab and Stanton Optical stores through ocular telehealth technology provides customers more flexibility. Over the past four years, Now Optics has administered over 1 million telehealth eye exams nationwide with our proprietary telehealth technology solution. Its popularity has only increased, and will continue to grow as virtual methods are more frequently sought after.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Get it Done: Time management can be difficult, but an organization’s success is based on getting tasks done within a time frame — especially during a crisis. It’s not always about making a perfect schedule, but about finishing the work that’s immediately in front of you. We’ve been laser-focused on what happened yesterday and what we’re going to do today during this year. Daily and sometimes hourly meetings are making adjustments from hours of operations, marketing efforts, staffing changes, and many others matters. On the same day, we’ve been making decisions that impact over 1000 persons working, 10’s of thousands of customers, and millions of dollars in expenses. Turning a dime became a reality for us this year, making it feel very much like the days we first started.
- Have a Support system: Surround yourself with people that encourage high energy for the end goal and vision — this starts at an interview. Recruiting people with a passion for the same mission will push your team’s motivation through difficult times. When we started telehealth eye care, it wasn’t a single person’s idea and problems came up constantly. Since then, the idea has grown from the support we’ve had for each other and collaboration. Especially now, we are thankful to have supported each other’s ideas and solutions to only have to build on our foundation during COVID.
- Be Transparent: As a leader, you understand the current situation in detail, so keeping your teammates informed allows for collaboration to fix the problem at hand. When transparency is practiced, fear of the situation decreases and productivity increases. We make the entire team part of the conversation. Topics include the most sensitive of information. We want everyone to contribute, and we want everyone to align, so we have a clear path without friction points.
- Be Resilient: As an entrepreneur, there is never a dull moment, since oftentimes you are forced to find the solution to a problem immediately. For example, during COVID we had to pivot to full-time telehealth eye care and so many aspects of our company. Thankfully, we had the foundation since we already adapted to our technology-focused world. While nobody could have predicted COVID’s impact, My Eyelab changed with the current events presented and constantly innovated to resolve incoming issues.
- Dream big, but understand your limits: During a time where everything is fragile, it’s important to continue to think outside of the box and brainstorm. However, in tragic circumstances it’s vital to tailor these ideas and to know what will truly resonate with your target audience.
Our mission fits all situations at Now Optics. We’re working tirelessly to make eye care easy. It’s necessary during any period but especially crucial during more restrictive seasons like we’re in now. Eye care is an essential need, and while most providers closed and left those in need without care, we confirmed our position in the market. Not only did our doors stay open, but we leverage like never before our technology capabilities to provide care to our communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Know what you are doing and where it will take you but make sure you endure the journey to get there. I apply that belief with the following view. Success is not a moment in time. It’s not a trophy; it’s not an article about you; and it’s not a lump sum of the money. Those things are outcomes, more measurements of success. Success happens in the journey work, the day in and day out, the effort it takes to achieve results. Don’t be fooled by a shiny object that some call success. Success is small wins compounded over time and measured against baselines that will evolve, as does your business.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can visit www.nowoptics.com as well as the sites of our retail brands, www.myeyelabfranchise.com and www.stantonoptical.com. We are also on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/now-optics/ and my personal page is https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-stanton-eyelabs/.