As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. John Serri, President and co-founder of EyeQue.
John A. Serri is the President and co-founder of EyeQue, which brings innovative, affordable vision testing to people worldwide. In 2015, using technology exclusively licensed from MIT, John led the EyeQue team to create a smartphone-powered refraction test rivaling traditional room-sized ophthalmic refractometers, bringing accurate testing directly to the consumer. Since then, EyeQue has developed a suite of smartphone vision tests empowering people to test their own vision and take ownership of their vision wellness. Serri is responsible for all company operations, including engineering, marketing, business development, customer support, and more.
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 was born and raised in Brooklyn, to a poor Italian immigrant family. I was interested in science at an early age, but I was a terrible student. In fact, I was the class clown and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My dad worked in a warehouse that packed Venetian glass and I worked there one summer. That was a game-changer. In those days, we used wood shavings to pack the glass into boxes and my arms would get cut up and bloody from them. One day, the big boss offered to double my salary if I stayed rather than going back to the 10th grade. On the subway ride home that day, I saw a man in a nice suit and at the same time, I looked down at my bloody arms. I thought to myself, “Do I want to be him, or do I want to be me?” That is when I started to take life (and my schoolwork) more seriously. By graduation, I went from being one of the worst students in school to the number two student in a class of 6,000.
I decided I wanted to study science in college. I became president of the Society of Physics Students at Suny Albany where I did well, graduating with two majors in 3 ½ years. I then went to the University of Wisconsin and eventually transferred to MIT where I worked with people who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics.
From MIT, I joined the research staff at Bell Labs in New Jersey working on various programs leveraging my interest in applied physics and management. I spent the next 35 years or so working with companies in aerospace and government. In 2014, I began to think about retirement and that’s when I met my business partner, Tibor Laczay, who had an idea for creating an at-home vision test. As someone who was curious about technology and who likes challenges, the prospect of creating EyeQue was exciting to me. Getting EyeQue up and running has been my biggest accomplishment.
EyeQue is based on offering a direct to consumer vision test using their smartphone and a simple device. We have a lot of interest from the general public, from the medical community, and from investors. We continue to innovate and look forward to expanding into enterprise and medical applications, and growing internationally.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was in college, I always wanted to go to MIT. I was smart but no one, including me, thought I was MIT material. But I was really optimistic and I kept working hard and getting better. I ended up graduating early from college and got a call from the University of Wisconsin where they offered me a full fellowship in applied science, which sounded great so I went there. While I was there, I decided to apply to MIT just for the heck of it. It was the only school I applied to and low and behold to my amazement, I was accepted into the PhD program in Physics. I was ecstatic for one day, but then I wondered “how am I going to pay for this”?
I called up the admissions office to inquire about financial aid. The department administrator asked what other schools I applied to. I said, “None, I only applied to MIT.” She said, “You didn’t apply to any other schools?! That was really dumb.” Yes, it was dumb! She said, “You know, there is a research professor who has expressed interest in your file. Why don’t you give him a call?” So, I did.
I immediately called and he picked up. He said, “Oh yes, I happen to be looking at your folder right now, what a coincidence. You are one of three students I am considering for a research assistant job, and since you called, you got it!” I accepted immediately.
I believe the universe brought me that opportunity at just the right time. If I had called an hour early or a day later, it might not have happened. So, the lesson I learned from that “mistake” of only applying to one school is to remain optimistic and seize opportunities.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read several books about Einstein and was very much impacted by him in both my career and personal life. I was impressed by the way he looked at the world — he had a very different perspective. He was labeled as a genius — and he was — but he worked really hard to become one. He was humble and driven and could never have done what he did without his strong work ethic, which is something I admire and try to emulate.
This has helped me in my career because you really need to work hard to achieve big things and it can take a long time to achieve them. For example, at EyeQue, I knew immediately what we wanted to achieve, and it took a year of hard work to deliver the first product. But five years later, I have a far deeper understanding of the potential and the business, but also realize I have a lot more to learn.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I agree with that statement very strongly. When we started EyeQue, we had a specific goal in mind: to create an inexpensive device that works with a smartphone and can be used by anyone to measure their vision and order eyeglasses. With this goal in mind, we came up with a focused solution: develop a solution based on a technology we licensed from MIT. With a clear purpose in mind, I hired a few good people to make it happen. I made sure that we were never persuaded by outside investors, naysayers, or unrealistic time pressures. The only time pressure came from within. I wanted to get this to market quickly to see the response, but I wanted to do it right. Many times, you are driven by expectations from others who can offer you money, but their lack of vision can drive you off course. My co founder and I were focused on making a great device and getting it out to the world. We did not listen to what people were telling us to do.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Honesty, simplicity, and consistency are what I strive for. They are the framework for guiding how I run the business. I try to avoid making sudden changes in people’s work environment or schedules to maintain consistency. Even if things get complicated, we stick to the same general plan. In the long run, if we are honest about what we are doing, we not only sleep well, but we will always ride through a downturn.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My wife was actually in China at the onset of the Corona virus pandemic so there was a lot of fear and uncertainty about what was going to happen to her. We had to face a lot of challenges with plane delays and getting her back to the U.S., which was very unnerving, but ended up working out in the end.
Overall, there is just a melancholy feeling in the atmosphere. I like to walk to and around the golf course near our home on most days. There are acres upon acres of this beautiful, pristine fresh-cut grass, and there’s no one there. I am the only person walking on it. So, it can be eerily lonely.
I’m keeping busy with running EyeQue so that leaves me little time to worry about these new feelings. I do remain optimistic but also firmly believe there will be a profound new normal.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At EyeQue, we create “at home vision tests” so we have actually benefited from this crisis. People are buying our products and testing their eyes at home because they can’t visit their eye doctor, so our company and products have new found awareness and purpose with the shelter-in-place orders.
We made sure to communicate with our team at the onset of the crisis and have assured them that there are not going to be any layoffs. In fact, we have hired three people during this crisis.
The team very quickly adapted to using video conferencing and online communications, and we have found it works very well. We have Zoom meetings every day to go over our priorities and are maintaining our regular meeting schedules for consistency, which is important. I have made a point to make myself available to my team whenever they need me. Some people had more anxiety over the changes and the pandemic itself, but things have calmed down at this point. It took some time to adjust but we are quick to adapt.
Being based in California, with our offices closed during shelter in place orders, we had to get creative about how to continue to develop new products remotely and how to distribute the hardware development since we can’t have too many people working onsite at once. We have approached new ways of doing distributive work and have made great progress doing that.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I tell people to focus on the positives, rather than the negatives. Focus on what you can control, rather than what you cannot control. Be careful and cautious but do not overreact. Physical activity helps a lot. Go out for a walk and keep in contact with your loved ones. Try not to get too nervous. We all know this is a terrible thing, but when all is said and done, I am hopeful things will end well for most people.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
COVID-19 is really an accelerator for several trends that could have taken a few months or even several years to happen and making them happen now. It is driving a change in our societal norms.
Work from home is here to stay. A big question will be the re-purposing of office space and what happens to that real estate in the future. We will not necessarily need office buildings when people are working from home so what will become of those spaces? There may also be a drive toward sub-urbanization with people moving out of cities and away from their place of work in the downtown core out to less expensive homes in the suburbs.
With the opportunity to do more things at home, many fields will begin changing, including telemedicine. I predict there will be a lot of virtual consulting with doctors and testing at home. We are already seeing this trend with EyeQue.
There is a concern about the jobs of the future because of increased automation. Jobs that require minimal skills may become obsolete — whether its agriculture or home services. This will all have a profound effect on what happens with humanity. Work is viewed as an essential element of life and gives people a sense of purpose. The future challenge for government and individuals will be to define life’s purpose while assisting with costs of living. Concepts like universal income are gaining momentum. Examples in the US include the CARES Act providing stimulus dollars to individuals and the PPP loans made available to businesses.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There will be a massive transformation in the way we live and the concept of how our society will run in the future. I call it “Total Life from Home.” With people shopping online instead of going into stores, for example, distribution systems in the future will be more efficient. Instead of 100 people going to the store, there will be one truck delivering goods to 100 people. The air will be cleaner, and we will use less energy, which is good for the environment. There will be less business travel, which can have a lot of benefits. Companies may meet a few times a year versus more frequently. Massive events, like CES, the annual consumer electronics event in Las Vegas, will need to reinvent itself. These trends were all happening, but COVID-19 has accelerated them.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
With EyeQue, we have a very well-defined business plan and COVID-19 has actually been an accelerator for our business. With telemedicine here to stay, we have seen more interest and opportunity with optometrists and other eye care professionals, who were previously reluctant to try this technology. They now see and understand the value and potential need for this. We see tremendous growth opportunities in this field and are increasing our capital investment requirements to grow the business faster given these new opportunities.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to make an effort to understand what’s happening and be prepared to adapt. Reduced business travel and the success of work from home are positive things. If they worked well for you during COVID, they would work well post-COVID, too. Network with each other to leverage key learnings about what worked well and what did not work well.
As a next step, business leaders need to be thinking about the “next COVID” which can cause major disruptions to our society, whether that’s another pandemic, major storms, social unrest, terrorism, or biological, nuclear, or cyber warfare. How would we respond under any of these trying conditions? We need to look ahead and plan for that — how we would relocate, how we would distribute work, and so forth. I would encourage folks to think long term and be patient regarding the recovery. Bad things happen very quickly, and the recovery is slow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Optimism is one of the greatest forces in the universe” is my favorite life lesson quote. When you are optimistic, you can inspire others to see things differently. Optimism allows you to solve problems and make the most of opportunities — even accidental opportunities. When you are positive and encouraging, things tend to go well. This has been the case in my life. When I am optimistic, I’m able to do incredible things — whether academically or professionally, and even socially. EyeQue has become what it is today in part, because of my belief in optimism.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnaserri/ as well as on EyeQue’s website and social media channels here: