Honest Ecommerce

226 | The Human Element in the Age of AI | with Ryan Alovis

Episode Summary

On this podcast, we talk about why having competitors is a good thing, the reasons why Ryan bought back LensDirect, how Go Answer got created from LensDirect, and so much more!

Episode Notes

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, with the cash flow MDC was yielding, Alovis was able to purchase LensDirect.com, a struggling online retailer of name-brand contact lenses that was previously owned by his family. 

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..

In 2012, Alovis co-founded Go Answer, a 24/7 outsourced contact center solution. Originally an answering service, it has blossomed into an award-winning full-service contact center handling tele, web chat, and emails/ticketing for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

In 2016, with the proceeds from the MDC sale, Alovis started Pulse Health (formerly known as InTouchMD), a healthcare technology company. 

Pulse Health's marquee product is the Pulse Engagement Cloud - a powerful cloud-based SaaS platform that helps pharmaceutical companies better reach, engage and understand physicians & patients on an individual level. 

Pulse Health's client list ranges from emerging biotech to global pharmaceutical companies. 

In 2016, Pulse Health was selected as the most innovative company in healthcare and in 2018, Pulse Engagement Cloud was selected as the most innovative product in healthcare. 

The companies have evolved into multi-industry leaders, landing placement in the coveted Inc. 5000, Internet Retailers Top 1000, Long Island Business News’ 40 under 40 and a finalist in the New York Enterprise Small Business Awards. 

Alovis has been featured in top media outlets including Forbes, Reuters, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business, Inc. Magazine, Internet Retailer, and The New York Observer. Alovis’ companies have been the subject of multiple success stories featured in American Express, Microsoft, Trustpilot, UPS, Twilio, and Visa. 

At the heart of Alovis is his passion for doing good, and has managed to bring that same entrepreneurial energy to his fundraising committee, The Silver Lining Society. 

This New York based non-profit, which Alovis co-founded in 2006, raises money for Hope & Heroes Pediatric Cancer Fund and has raised nearly a million dollars since inception.

In This Conversation We Discuss: 


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Episode Transcription

Ryan Alovis  

We believe deeply in people. And our first choice when you call is going to be to connect you with somebody. There's nothing quite like speaking to a human being.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating  real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show. 

Hey, everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And today I'm welcoming to the show, Ryan Alovis. He is the CEO of LensDirect.com, a leading online retailer in the vision care space. Welcome to the show, Ryan.

Ryan Alovis  

Thanks for having me, man. Appreciate it.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So let's just dive in. Before we go back in time, can you just let the listeners know that aren't familiar with the brand what you guys are up to over there? What you're selling?

Ryan Alovis  

Yeah, absolutely. So LensDirect, as Chase said, we're a leading online retailer in the vision care space. 

Historically, we've been in the contact lens business, name brand contacts direct your door. 

Over the past few years, LensDirect has morphed/evolved into a full optical online retailer. So contact lenses, eyeglasses, sunglasses, and lens replacement

So let's say you got a pair of frames, and you need new lenses. Instead of getting a new pair, send us the frames, we pop out the lens, put in the new lens and send them right back to you. And that's called lens replacement. 

We've got other stuff too. We [sell] accessories. We do online eye exams for vision care suites.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, you've been in the Ecommerce game for quite a while. Take me back in time. Where do you… Where do we want to start?

Ryan Alovis  

Where do we want to start?So we can start in 2005 when I graduated from Indiana University, came back to New York where I'm from and I started a company called Magazine Discount Center, which it's an online destination for consumer magazines and not exactly the sexiest business. 

But it was an opportunity to build something that was subscription driven. So I was excited about it. 

So I bootstrapped that business and '05. And by 2008 - 2009, Magazine Discount Center was one of the largest providers online for consumer magazines like Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping... 

And it was at that moment that I really did fall in love with this whole recurring revenue model, subscription theme-driven businesses. 

And that has been really the driving force in so many of the decisions I make today and how I got to this point.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. You said not the sexiest of business, but I believe that that's where the money is. “The riches are in the niches” as they say.

Ryan Alovis  

Honestly, while all my friends were starting companies that were VC-backed, and they've raised all this money, and it was a cool brand, and this and that, it was very different for me. 

I bootstrapped it. I was driving an hour and a half, almost2 hours a day to my office where I was the only person for a very long time. I was working with developers in far, far away lands. And this was before Slack and Upwork. I was Skyping with them at 3 in the morning. 

So yeah, I mean, it was a very humbling and fun experience. But you're probably right. The reason it was a good business is because maybe it wasn't the sexiest of companies. 

Maybe I didn't go out and raise all this money. It was just a good business. 

It was like an old-fashioned, good business. It had good margin, it had recurring revenue, and continuity. 

It was amazing, actually. 

Chase Clymer  

Now were you one of the first to take that older model and take it online?

Ryan Alovis  

I wasn't the first there were others for sure. There were others for sure. And that actually helped. It sets the tone. So you can learn from your competitors and see how they're doing and what they're doing and evolve from there. So we weren't the first but we were one of few. 

And we had a great partner which is I would say not the only reason for success but a very important part of the success. And our partner in the business --who was really fulfilling over orders [which was] the magazines-- ended up buying the company in 2015 as well.

Chase Clymer  

Spoiler alert. (laughs) No, but so back to that you had competitors already established, I want to point out that all that does is validate there's a market and it's a good thing. 

Ryan Alovis  

Totally. Yes, you're so right. 

Chase Clymer  

I think a lot of young entrepreneurs get scared. That's "Oh, someone's already doing the same thing. I got to think of something else." 

Ryan Alovis  

Oh god no. Opposite. "If somebody else is doing it, they're obviously doing well and there's a good business there. Why can't I do it?" That was really where my head was at. 

My egomaniac driven brain would trigger "Why are... I'm better than those guys, why can't I do that? If it's working for them, it needs to work for me." 

And slow and steady, we got it done. And it ended up working really well. It was a rough, rough ride for sure to get to that point where it did start working, but the competition helps validate the opportunity for sure.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So when did LensDirect come back into the picture?

Ryan Alovis  

Yeah. So I'll go back even further. My family has been in the optical business since the early 1900s from a pushcart on Lancey Street to stores in New York City. So we've had this optical love in our blood for a very long time now. 

In 1992, my father and my uncle started LensDirect. It was a mail order company for contact lenses, that was it. And it was very early. Very, very early. 

And then it was a hard business for them. I think it was very early and it was because they had the right idea. But in 2004, they ended up selling the business. It wasn't like some big exit, and "Hey, we're good now forever." Not like that at all. 

They found a really good buyer that was basically interested in taking it and making it better. And then that person tried and it was... 

It wasn't as... 

It didn't work as they had planned: The buyer of lens direct. So in 2009, when I had really found my footing with Magazine Discount Center, I had approached the owner of LensDirect. 

I said, "Listen, give me a shot. Let me buy it back from you." And lo and behold, I was able to buy back LensDirect, and that was '09. And that's... 

That was how LensDirect came back into my life. And we ended up buying out that other owner fully, maybe one or two years later. 

So we got back the business entirely and I was able to do it when I did do it.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Let's dive in. So obviously, the name of the show is Honest Ecommerce. Let's talk about the... 

At this point, it had shifted from being not a mail order company anymore, but it was getting into the Ecommerce play.?

Ryan Alovis  

Oh yeah, for sure. Well, the Ecommerce play was before I got involved in '09. That was mid to late 90s. At that point, it was an online retailer, probably on like a Yahoo store. 

Chase Clymer  

That gives me nightmares.

Ryan Alovis  

Yahoo stores and TV commercials, that kind of thing. And then when I got into that business in '09... It was still very small, by the way. I was just a great brand: LensDirect. 

And it evokes credibility and something that you think or you feel that you may have heard before. So it just works.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So you buy it back? What were some of those opportunities that you saw? 

Obviously, there's the emotional connection from the family roots. But there's always a business decision to be made. 

What were the opportunities that you saw? And what did you put into the business to help it grow?

Ryan Alovis  

Yeah, so it goes back to that... It checked off a good amount of boxes for me. One, obviously, the emotional play. To get it back for me and the family was an exciting moment. 

Second thing was the subscription model. Contact lenses, magazines... 

Although one you need a prescription for and one you don't, there is that level of continuity where if you do a good job, and you buy a customer, you acquire that customer, they'll stay with you and it's predictable. 

And this is before the subscription boom in 2019 - 2020. Everybody was launching these subscription companies. So I fell in love with it way before that. 

So it had the emotional connection and have a subscription connection. It was a brand. So you would go on [and] you would buy Sports Illustrated because it was the brand you wanted. Well, the same thing with your contact lenses. 

You're being told, "Hey, you need to wear this specific type of lens. That's what you're fitted for. That's your prescription." 

So it's almost like a brand to arbitrage thing where if you're really good at marketing on paid search and SEO and really good UX "mousetrap" so to speak, you can build a great business off of other brands. We're competing with…

 When you look at the optical industry, there's a lot of competition. Endless. 

And it's not just online. You look at the big box retailers. You've got Walmart, you've got Costco, you've got all these big, big companies. In addition to that, there's Main Street Optical in every store, in every optical/optician in the United States of America. 

So I felt because we had done it really well with the magazine business that we could apply what we've learned to the optical business --the contact lens side of things-- with our digital marketing team and design and sort of the way that I approach it. So that's why we went for it. 

And again, the brand, the name of LensDirect. 

It's just too good.

Chase Clymer  

It absolutely worked out for you. And now does this and what you were doing at the magazine company and how much you were interacting with customers helped plant the seed for your next business? 

How did Go Answer come about?

Ryan Alovis  

So yeah, Go Answer is a 24/7 inbound contact center. So we pick up the phone and handle web chat for many other companies, businesses, law firms, HVAC companies, plumbers, you name it. 

And in the mid to late '90s, because LensDirect had a customer service team and they were doing commercials.

And they had the technology, the telephony technology, the dialer. 

Other companies started asking us "Hey, could you pick up our phone calls on nights and weekends and help us place an order?" 

So it started, Go Answer started really off the heels of LensDirect on a small scale. We just got really good at picking up the phone for other businesses, especially ours, of course. 

And then my cousin Adam joined that business and really amplified Go Answer in about 2010 - 2011. And now we've got multiple centers, we've got a huge center in St. Lucia. 

We've got a large center, almost 50,000 square feet opening up in Belize in the next 30 to 60 days. 

So we fell in love with customer service and being there. And that's how we got into Go Answer. 

And that's a fantastic business.

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Chase Clymer  

Now, obviously, a lot of our listeners are in the Ecommerce space. And everything about Ecommerce is automated. 

And "Let's see how we can remove the human element from this thing." But you're doubling down on the human element. And that communication that real life, real people [provides]. 

Can you talk about the advantages of using that as opposed to some of the new school thoughts?

Ryan Alovis  

So yeah, I love both schools, by the way. So automated communication is critical for success in Ecommerce. 

"Your order has been shipped." 

"Your order is delayed." 

"Your order is on the way." 

"Your order has been delivered." 

Giving them that ability to quickly return or exchange your product online, get the information, whether it's on a web chat, bot or AI. So I think there's got to be both. 

I think, even for communication, we're about to launch our iPhone app for LensDirect. Being able to get a push notification that your contacts are running low and you could just reorder right there. 

But with that being said, we believe deeply in people. And our first choice when you call is going to be to connect you with somebody.

There's nothing quite like speaking to a human being, and voicing your frustration, and being told it's going to be okay, and you're going to take care of it. 

Now, we can't take care of everything but we've been working really hard at doing the right thing and making sure that customer believes we care. Empathy cannot be... 

Empathy cannot be shared with an auto responder. There's no technology that is going to provide that human empathy beyond speaking to somebody and letting you know them being there for you. 

So we love that. We know that. 

And by the way, I preach it because I do it. If a customer reaches out to LensDirect and they email me, which is not hard to do, I will absolutely call you, I will write you back, I will be there. 

And I think that's…

 I think for some companies, that's weird for them. Whoa, the CEO is going to call a customer? That's not... No way." 

That's the opposite of how I would function. 

That is so not what I'm about.

Chase Clymer  

That's amazing. Now, what's the future hold for Go Answer and for LensDirect. What do you guys have cooking? 

Ryan Alovis  

Yeah. Well, for lens direct, we just launched our new site, which is years in the making... 

Chase Clymer  


Ryan Alovis  

...which is really built to be a full vision care company. Whereas the website we had was built as a contact lens company and we were just sort of retrofitting all these things into it. 

So we just launched our new website. Unbelievable mobile experience as well. We're launching our LensDirect Rewards Program which is going to really be incentivizing customers to continue buying and coming back and being part of our family. 

We're going very big on post purchase experience, where the customer is fully notified and kept up to date with everything and anything that's happening. 

We're launching our iPhone app, which will allow the customers to try on glasses via augmented reality, which is as real as it's going to get as if they were fully in the store trying them on. They're going to be able to... 

We built our own proprietary eye health technology on the app where you can measure your pupillary distance, we can measure your face on the app, and tell you what frames we think would look really good based on the size of your face and the shape. So the app is going to be incredible. 

And then we're launching tons of other things. We just launched DIY. So let's say you scratched your name brand, sunglass lenses... 

Well, actually you could go on to the website, choose new lenses, we'll send you the lenses to pop in yourself. So there's a lot cooking for Lens Direct. 

We're going to do television commercials pretty soon. We're really excited about a lot of stuff over there. 

For Go Answer, we're also about to launch our new website. We are building out a lot of really great technology that's going to help us work with the customer. 

We're building out our new center in Belize, which is going to be our largest center by far and it's going to allow for bilingual coverage. 

So we're really on a big mission for all the companies. But it's all slow and steady. 

We've never raised outside capital, so it has to be really thoughtful and methodical.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Ryan now, is there anything I didn't ask you about that you think would resonate with our audience today? 

Ryan Alovis  

Yeah. You missed a really big part of my life Pulse Health, which is a company that I'm CEO of. 

And Pulse Health is a life science technology company. And we count some of the greatest pharmaceutical companies in the United States as customers. 

And they use our platform --which is the post engagement cloud-- to market and engage with physicians. So if you're a brand that's launching new products, you could leverage our platform. 

And it's an amazing business. And that has so much cooking as well.

Chase Clymer  

That's amazing. That's amazing. Ryan, I cannot thank you enough for coming on the show today and sharing your insights. One more time. 

Do you want to shout out if anyone's interested in checking out these brands, where should they go? 

What should they do?

Ryan Alovis  

Absolutely. So LensDirect, you're gonna go to lensdirect.com. If you wear contact lenses, if you wear glasses, please head over to LensDirect. You'll enjoy everything about it. 

Then when it goes to Go Answer, if you're a company and you need someone to help you on nights and weekends or overflow, we got you covered. 

We'll pick up your phone or handle your web chat. 

Thirdly, if you're a pharma company, go to pulsehealth.tech. We'd love to help you engage better with your doctors.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Ryan, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Ryan Alovis  

Thanks for having me, dude.

Chase Clymer  

We can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

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Lastly, if you're a store owner looking for an amazing partner to help get your Shopify store to the next level, reach out to Electric Eye at electriceye.io/connect.