How the eyewear maker went from near collapse to making specs for Madonna
n any industry ripe for online disruption, eyewear was not an obvious contender. It’s nice to try them out – harder to do with internet shopping – and the couriers in London aren’t known for handling parcels gently.
But an online eyewear business is what Tom Broughton launched in 2013, and the success of his business Cubitts – which he calls “a modern eyewear maker” – is clear: his website has now been joined by 12 stores very popular and turnover is expected to reach £10 million this year.
Yet the 40-year-old had no eyewear experience when he decided to start an eyewear business.
“I spent a decade working in companies for TfL, Spotify, BBC World Service and children’s television,” he explains. “I think I was looking for my true calling, which came with understanding the art of eyewear making.”
Broughton discovered the traditional way eyewear was once made as a profession: “The craftsmanship has eroded over the last half century, but I wanted to bring it back.”
The entrepreneur was thrilled when told he would need glasses, “partly because my heroes like Morrissey, Michael Caine and James Dean had done the same thing. But I knew others didn’t feel the same, and I was sure there was a gap in the market for a more creative, bespoke eyewear manufacturing and fitting process.
Broughton launched Cubitts from his King’s Cross kitchen in 2013.
“I had no clear idea of how to run a business. Or make glasses. I drew the first drawings on a piece of square graph paper, with a ruler and a pencil.
Later, he laser-cut and 3D-printed them to verify that they would work. The entrepreneur worked on his idea – and saved – for a decade, then spent 18 months preparing for launch. But then he and his first business partner, a former boss, had a falling out.
“I ended up spending around £100,000 to buy it, which was extremely painful – financially and emotionally. My savings were completely wiped out.
Broughton managed to produce a small batch of stock – around 50 frames in four styles. The business was initially entirely online, and Broughton would place orders for customers with a frame heater in his backpack to adjust frames in people’s homes and offices.
“Sometimes customers traveled directly [to Cubitts’ HQ] with their prescription or for a fitting. They were rather surprised when they found themselves in a former council flat in King’s Cross.
Initially, Broughton ran Cubitts as an assistant, remaining in his consulting job full-time for the first two years. In 2015, he opened his first store in Soho. The rent was £28,000 a year: “It seemed incredibly expensive, but I calmed down when I realized I could rent my flat, live there in the studio and only have to sell two frames a day for the make it happen – luckily we never got to that point.
But it got “really bad”, admits Broughton, sounding tearful as 2014 recalls “when I called my parents in tears thinking the dream was over”. They agreed to loan him £20,000. By chance, that week, Cubitts secured its first outside dealer – clothing brand Albam – and received an encouraging order from novelist Nick Hornby (“who now has about 20 pairs of Cubitts”).
Then a client offered to invest: “We met him for coffee on Caledonian Road and he agreed to put in £100,000 in seed capital.” Soon, word of mouth hit, “or maybe it should be ‘word of mouth’ — our products are well positioned,” Broughton points out. Today, Cubitts sells around 60,000 glasses a year; celebrity wearers include Madonna, Emma Thompson, Idris Elba and Cynthia Erivo.
Still Broughton – who lives in Belsize Park and travels to Cubitts’ headquarters in King’s Cross – admits the company has only just come through the pandemic: “We only had a few weeks of money left. It was horrible – getting team members fired for the first time will always stay with me.
Customers came back online. In 2021, hit by the coronavirus, revenue was £4.6m; it should more than double this year. Not that Broughton wants to face Specsavers.
“Our market share is currently 0.3%, the objective is to reach 1%. We would like to get our rivals to behave differently – to do repairs as standard, as well as reglazes, like we do. But we don’t want to get too big! The idea of having 1,000 stores is my idea from hell.