VisionSpring: Providing eyeglasses to millions

703 million people need, but don't own, eyeglasses. How does a company solve a social mission at scale? By having strong business and operating models associated with it.

Eyeglasses are a powerful, and simple, product. I learned this first hand while working on a vision campaign in Guatemala. In 2008, I was supporting a vision entrepreneur fit an elderly woman for her first pair of glasses. During the exam, the elderly woman started crying, and I cringed, believing that we had made her feel uncomfortable.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. She told us that she worked as a weaver and was the sole income provider for her family. Sadly a few years ago, her eyesight became so weak that she had to stop weaving. The pair of glasses she bought from us was going to allow her to resume her craft.

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For many, a cheap pair of glasses can be the difference between providing an income for their family — or not. Fitting a child with eyeglasses can change their trajectory in school. Over 700 million people need, but don’t own, eyeglasses.

Although many non-profits strive to provide optical services, most struggle to solve this challenge at scale. To solve this problem, Jordan Kassalow founded VisionSpring, believing that for an organization to be sustainable, it needed to have a business model associated with it.

VisionSpring provides access to optical care to the world’s poorest customers, known as the “bottom of the pyramid” (BoP). Since its inception in 2001, VisionSpring has become one of the most-cited social enterprises, reaching over 2.6 million customers in 30 countries. VisionSpring is a double-bottom line social enterprise, meaning that it provides a positive social impact in addition to financial returns. The organization sells glasses to the rural poor, and uses a cross subsidy model to fund its operations.

You may wonder, why sell glasses when it’s possible to donate them? Donating is a temporary solution, not a lasting one. By training men and women to sell the glasses, VisionSpring provides an opportunity to earn a living and also introduces products into the market that customers want to wear.

Contrary to common belief, high-quality glasses only cost a few dollars to make. Meaning, the great challenge is not the cost of manufacturing, but rather in the cost of distributing the glasses. Over the last 15 years, VisionSpring has tested multiple operating models to see which would have the greatest impact on their mission, while decreasing the subsidy needed to achieve scale.

Operating Model 1.0: The Vision Entrepreneur Model (2001-2008)

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The first model VisionSpring tested prepared vision entrepreneurs (VEs) to host screening campaigns in rural villages. After a 3-day training, each VE was given a backpack, called “business-in-a-bag” that contained a starting inventory of glasses and supplies.

Although gross margins on the glasses exceeded 50%, ultimately the cost of distribution and management of the VEs was not sustainable. VEs needed to sell 18-20 pairs a month to break-even, but many were selling on average 10 pairs per month. Additionally, 70% of VEs turned over within 18 months of joining, which increased recruitment and training expenses. [1]

To achieve a sustainable business and reach more customers, VisionSpring needed a new model.

Operating Model 2.0: Global Partnerships (2008-present)

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In the next iteration, VisionSpring partnered with organizations that already had a presence in the target country. The team signed multiple partners to distribute eyeglasses, including Vision for a Nation (Rwanda), Community Enterprise Solutions (Guatemala), and BRAC (Bangladesh).

Partnerships have great benefits, including access to a pre-existing workforce. BRAC, for example, helps VisionSpring reach over 100k target customers annually through its footprint.

One of the challenges with the partner model is that VisionSpring is not able to closely control training, marketing, and product selection. To this day, the partner model remains one of VisionSpring’s core channels. Nevertheless, recognizing the limitations, VisionSpring looked to develop other models to continue its growth.

Operating Model 3.0 and Beyond
VisionSpring is a highly-cited organization for the social enterprise community, because it continues  to innovate and improve its operating model to reach more people. [2] It has been testing a “hub and spoke” model in India, where retail shops (the “hubs”) provide a permanent access point to prescription glasses, and those hubs fund vision campaigns in rural towns (the “spokes”). VisionSpring is also testing a “Vision Access Projects” model, where the team partners with India’s leading companies to bring vision screening and eyeglasses to schools, slum and rural communities. [3]

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VisionSpring has proven that a strong company can use a for-profit mindset make its social mission more sustainable. The leadership team recently announced a growth plan that will distribute 10 million glasses over the next 10 years – and I have no doubt that they will continue to refine their operating models to exceed that goal.

 

[0] If you’d like to support the VisionSpring team, each $3 dollars you donate will provide someone with sight-restoring glasses

[1] Stanford Graduate School of Business: VisionSpring (Case Study, 2014)

[2] Stanford Social Innovation Review: VisionSpring Aims To Provide Eyewear to Millions (2014)

[3] Discussion with VisionSpring President, Ella Gudwin

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10 thoughts on “VisionSpring: Providing eyeglasses to millions

  1. Andrea – this is a really intriguing mission and business model. What role does collecting donations play for Vision Spring? At first blush it seems counter to their business model, for the reasons you mention. I’m also curious about whether entrepreneurs feel competitive pressure from organizations that do give glasses away, and whether you think those models hurt the economy by undercutting these entrepreneurs.

    1. @Streit, great insight. Currently, VisionSpring collects donations, and then allocates them as a “subsidy” per pair. So if a pair of glasses costs $5 to distribute, it may have $X in a subsidy. The goal overtime is to create a market so that subsidy goes to zero.

      That said, it’s important for VisionSpring to operate in areas where a market does not currently exist for value glasses. Because, if a market already exists, then the subsidy would push out existing players in the market who couldn’t compete with it. Over time, VisionSpring’s goal is to create markets and as they develop and get more entrants, to move out of that market further down the pyramid to places were markets don’t efficiently exist yet.

  2. Very interesting model Andrea. This reminds me of One Laptop per Child where it distributes low-cost laptop designed at MIT to different corners of the world: http://one.laptop.org/. It’s good to see VisionSpring is refining its operating model based on feedback from its operations. This also reminds me of the Facebook case where one of the main contributing factor of its success is the ability to keep innovate and refine its business model to generate value to all of its stakeholders. Best of luck!

    1. Nice call out about One Laptop. I’m not familiar with their model. I wonder if they do donations for the laptops or if they have local schools pay a subsidized rate to get the technology for their students. Could see an argument for either method!

      Also this TED talk on how kids teach themselves how to use computers is pretty sweet: https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves?language=en

  3. The double bottom-line model has definitely been of interest to me. One aspect that I have not fully grasped with such businesses is the issue of “breadth” vs “depth”. A lot of organizations have focused on expansion across multiple countries at the same time, with unmet needs within existing countries nowhere close to being fulfilled. Any idea how VisionSpring has thought about this issue? I think there would be large implications for the operating model based on this business decision.

    1. @Ameya — great question. VisionSpring thinks about this issue on a daily basis. From a product-perspective, It’s a regular conversation at the board — how to we balance “sustainability” with “reach”. For instance, the further down the pyramid VisionSpring goes (e.g., more rural areas) the cost of distribution increases, so we would have to subsidize the glasses at a higher rate, meaning we would ultimately distribute fewer glasses. This tension was one of the sparks that started the “hub and spoke” model.

      From a country perspective, we’ve also talked about this with our global partners. Should we have lots of partners in many countries or have only a few big ones were we put a lot of our resource (E.g., BRAC). We’ve taken an approach to focus on a few big ones, and then regularly look at new partnerships each year to see were we’d like to expand.

  4. Andrea – appreciate you sharing this insight with us! I really enjoyed learning more about VisionSpring, as it partners so closely to the 1-to-1 model that Warby Parker has used in the U.S. The thing that I always found most impactful about Warby Parker was that it connected privileged people in the first world to underprivileged people in the developing world through a shared difficulty: poor vision. The fact that VisionSpring enables the “to-1” half of that equation, and your outline of its strategies, has further impressed me as I think through the mechanics of eyeglass prescriptions, fitting, and distribution in regions that lack funds and infrastructure.

    One other thought I’d like to touch on is the idea of selling vs. donating the glasses. There is a vast psychological difference between receiving a pair of glasses as charity, and purchasing an extremely affordable pair of glasses for yourself. We should not forget that every human has a measure of pride – and being able to purchase a pair of glasses empowers the buyer, rather than making her/him feel the weight of her/his poverty. I think the larger benefit of selling glasses is certainly the one you mentioned – providing sustainable income sources to local populations. Yet the idea of accepting charity may have been a barrier to adoption of VisionSpring products in some places, and so I appreciate their ability to surpass that obstacle without diminishing their products’ accessibility.

    1. @Sonali — thanks! Completely agree with that argument. 🙂

  5. Thanks for sharing Andrea – very inspiring company! It is really interesting to see how the operating models have been evolving in order to support scalability, and more importantly to ensure financial sustainability of their business model.

    Clearly, most socially geared companies (NGOs to social enterprises) face similar challenges, and I strongly believe in the value of partnerships and collaboration used in the second operating model. In many cases, sharing resources (financial, people, distribution capabilities, etc.) seem as an obvious way to optimize the efficiency of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem and serve the greater purpose of each of these companies. It is very intriguing for me to understand the reasons why these collaborations are not as efficient as they could be.
    In the specific Lebanese context, I always thought that establishing an entity that would streamline operations of the different NGOs/social enterprises would add tremendous value. One of the main challenges I can see is that these companies kind of “compete” against each other, and seek to gain the most public recognition for their work. Not sure if this a challenge that VisionSpring faced in their second operating model.

    1. @Eric, great point. I haven’t heard of VisionSpring having challenges with partners competing for recognition — but it has had challenges when partner goals look different from VisionSpring goals and it’s unclear who gets priority. Often the partner “wins” because they have the feet-on-the-ground and resources for execution. Believe this is one of the biggest areas of focus for the partnerships coordinator: picking partners who are solving for the same outcomes.

      Also, hope you build that Lebanese entity someday. 🙂

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