As a 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 Ryan Alovis, CEO of Lens Direct.
In 2006, Ryan Alovis started Magazine Discount Center (MDC). Within a few years, Alovis bootstrapped MDC into the largest destination online for consumer magazine subscriptions. In 2016, MDC was acquired by Time Inc.
In 2009, Alovis was able to purchase LensDirect.com, a struggling online retailer of name-brand contact lenses. Under his leadership, LensDirect.com has grown revenues over 13000%, and has evolved into a leading online retailer of vision care products. LensDirect.com has earned continuous placement in the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in the United States, and has been selected as one of the top online retailers by Internet Retailer.
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 grew up in New York — part of a very entrepreneurial family. My love of business began as a child, selling basketball cards at the beach, to standing on a shoe box in order to work the register at my parents movie rental store. The real education for me started when I was a teenager and started promoting nightclubs in New York City. That’s where I grew up fast, and learned how to manage people, build a buzz and ultimately generate revenue. I still say that the education of nightlife was better than getting your MBA at an ivy league school, so many facets went into successfully throwing a party and maintaining longevity. I’ve been romantic about building companies for so long now, but my first true taste of success came when I launched MagazineDiscountCenter.com, a destination online for consumer magazine subscriptions. I’m a scrappy guy and I’d like to imagine there is a ton of grit in my blood. I bootstrapped the company, and I almost quit multiple times but thankfully it started to work after a couple of years. The company ended up becoming one of the largest online retailers in the industry, catching the attention of Time Inc., and being acquired by them. However, through the launch and sale of MagazineDiscountCenter, I was able to buy LensDirect.com in 2009 — with the grand thesis of recurring revenue. I did it with magazine subscriptions so I can do it with contact lenses. I was wrong — like way wrong. The optical industry is complex with smaller margins, but as always, perseverance pays off. Since taking over LensDirect, it’s evolved into a leading online retailer in the vision care category selling name-brand contact lenses, eyewear, blue blocking lenses, and offering a DTC lens replacement service (new lenses in existing frames).
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 just starting out, I put out a fancy press release that I was the youngest CEO ever in the history of mankind and that I was the most important man in the world. Here’s what I learned in that process. Don’t do that. Act like you’ve been here before. Be humble. And earn success with your actions not with your words. I always feel that success is an evolution, not a revolution. The good stuff takes time, don’t rush the process, and don’t put out silly press releases.
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?
Ultimately, success rides on your shoulders but the journey to success can take a village. There have been some fantastic people who have helped me get to this point. I’ve had the luxury of connecting well with mentors in each of the industries I’ve participated in. I remember in the early days of LensDirect, I visited the owner of our distributer. We were doing barely any revenue, and I was visiting the CEO of a company doing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue. He did two things that day that I’ll never forget. He treated me like an equal, he took me all over this vast center introducing me to everybody. He didn’t have to do anything let alone spend the time with me. The second thing he did, he taught me that you “make money on the buy” which means, good margin comes from good prices. That meeting set the stage for LensDirect, and it was because of how treated me and the prices he gave me. Also, he approved some very generous terms when I didn’t deserve them.
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?
LensDirect doesn’t aim to be everybody’s optical store. We aim to build long-term relationships with our customers. My world is driven by the simple fact that any business can buy a customer, but it takes a company to keep a customer. I knew very early on that LensDirect was a company selling a commodity, meaning you could get the contact lenses from us, any eye doctor, or other websites but the way to win was not on competitive prices — it was on offering superior service. I went long on personalization and relationships. Let the customers know that we care deeply. It starts with me, and it ripples through the organization. I have no ego. I will call a customer if there is an issue, I’ll send a personalized note thanking a long-time customer. The point is to care deeply, and it will resonate throughout the organization. That attention to customer service has earned us continuous recognition by Newsweek for having the best customer service in the country.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
We’ve had bumps in the road, no business is immune to challenges. Covid was that challenge for us, and everybody else. We dealt with operational hurdles, product shortage — pure internal chaos. I showed my company and my customers that I cared. I knew I had to overly communicate, so internally I made sure that positivity range through the group but without disregarding the reality of the situation. Things were bad. They were bad for us, they were bad for the world. I thanked every single customer with a personalized letter, letting them know that they are not alone. I let every customer know that they are amazing, and they will get through this. I’d like to think that kind of empathy powered our company through the dark times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Find me an entrepreneur that hasn’t considered giving up, I’ll find you a liar. This game is tough. The rollercoaster doesn’t end, and unfortunately bad days are all too prevalent. I don’t know where my motivation came from at those particulate instances but usually a good night’s sleep and a double espresso in the AM can get the job done, also some Eminem. The truth is that being a CEO is a lonely job, but you need to really love the game in order to continue on. I just remind myself that this is the journey, and it will all be worth it in the end. Plus, it’s not life or death. Breath.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is to show up and work during challenging times. Don’t hide. Don’t rest. Just keep going. You can’t expect your company to work if you aren’t. I’d like to think I lead by example, and the company is built on a strong foundation of work ethic. In addition to putting in the time, you need to care. Ask questions. Check in on people. Remind them that everything is going to be fine. But remember, don’t do it because you’re supposed to — do it because you want to.
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?
Morale exists when everything is flowing in the right direction, and the organization is in control. Communication drives morale, because through communication comes positivity, empathy, and strength. Two of the most important things that a leader can say during uncertain times are, “everything is going to be okay,” and “how are you doing?”
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Empathy and honesty. Not saying something is the absolute worst thing you can do. In all my dealings in my career, when you care and you’re real — the response on the other side is usually positive.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader must continue to map out the future, or there will be no future — it’s as simple as that. To know the plans of tomorrow, it’s best to reinforce the accomplishments of today. A leader makes plans because the alternative is complacency which transitions into extinction.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is that tomorrow is always a new day. What goes up must come down. I think it’s important to note that things just aren’t as bad as they seem. Get up and get to work, and it will all be fine.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
3 or 4 mistakes that I’ve seen:
- Assume everything and everybody is fine
- Stop communicating
- Forget to say thank you
- Be reactive
Best way to avoid the above is to put yourself in the other person shoes. It’s all about perspective. Think about how you’d want to be spoken to. Everybody is fighting a battle, and once you realize that — your kindness can shine. Beyond perspective, it’s all about maintaining a level head. Don’t make decisions based on emotion, make them based on reality. The above mistakes and solutions ring true personally and professionally.
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?
Be smart and cut unnecessary costs immediately. Focus on affordable ways to increase the business, like referrals, hitting the phones, focusing on free channels to increase exposure like social media. The possibilities are endless when you need to get creative. Perhaps it’s a good time to negotiate new terms or prices with your distributors or manufactures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Your perspective will either be your prison or your passport. The way you look at the world can empower you, take you on an adventure. Or it can cripple you and force you to hide from the world. Don’t be scared of what you can become.
How can our readers further follow your work?