About this episode

My guest this week is David Roger, the co-founder and CEO of Felix Gray. Felix Gray is a pioneer in the eyewear industry. They have reinvited computer glasses to be both beautiful and effective. Felix Gray glasses are designed to combat digital eye strain which reduces eye fatigue, headaches, and blurred vision.

If you work on a computer all day, Felix Gray is made for you. They will allow you to work more productively and comfortably on screen. Since their startup in 2016, they have serviced over 200,000 customers with their high-quality lenses embedded with blue light filtering technology.

In this episode, we’re unpacking David Roger’s entrepreneurial journey. We go all the way back to his early years and unpack how Flex Gray eventually came to be. David is an entrepreneur with impressive influences and an incredible startup story. Tune in to hear all about it.

In this episode, you'll hear:

  • David’s dream of having a bigger impact than just being a cog in someone else’s machine.
  • His experiences in pre-law and eventual transition out of that field.
  • His first steps when he decided he wanted to go into business.
  • What he learned walking alongside and working for Tony Shea.
  • Why he chose to solve the blue light problem by starting his own business.
  • His fundraising journey.
  • Growth tactics he has learned and would use today to get his first 100.
  • What scaling looks like to him.
  • What his hiring process looks like and the challenges he’s encountering with that.

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David on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-roger-2a9b2632/

Felix Gray: http://www.felixgray.com

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Episode transcript

David Roger, co-founder of Felix Gray

David Roger: Hey, this is David Roger, the cofounder and CEO of Felix Gray, and this is MY startup story.

  • Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story. *


James McKinney: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. More importantly welcome to 2021. This new year brings new opportunities for all of us, and I hope that we The Startup Story can be part of your New Year routine to help you leverage lessons learned from our successful founder guests so that you can accelerate your own business growth and see more victories quicker than you would if you continued moving forward on your own. Since the beginning of The Startup Story I have pushed to ensure that we maintain a 50/50 split of male and female founder stories. Well, in 2021 I'm also going to push to elevate the Black founder story but I need your help. There are amazing startup stories everywhere, but I need to find them in order to unpack them and bring them to you, so here is my ask.

If you know of an amazing startup story then please make sure to comment or mention @TheStartupStory on any of the social media platforms so that when you engage with that brand we can be inserted into the conversation, and we can discover that brand and that story. If you're a black startup founder or a female founder, please visit thestartupstory.co/yourstory and submit your story for consideration for a featured episode. I want to tell your stories because your stories encourage and inspire another founder to continue on. Everything we do is to provide you with the fuel you need to keep going. Now let's jump into this week's episode.

My guest this week is David Roger, the cofounder and CEO of Felix Gray. Felix Gray is a pioneer in the eyewear industry and reinvented computer glasses to be both beautiful and effective. They were designed to combat digital eyestrain. Felix Gray glasses help reduce eye fatigue, headaches, and blurred vision. They allow people like you and I to work more comfortably and productively on screen. The company launched in 2016 making high quality lenses embedded with a proprietary blue light filtering technology set in hand finished Italian frames. To date, Felix Gray has serviced over 200,000 customers. You know if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you know we always unpack the entrepreneurial journey starting in the early years of our founder guests, because we believe that our influences matter. Well, David's entrepreneurial influence really is a tale of two periods if you will, and man I want to share about some of his entrepreneurial influences so bad because the roster is unbelievably impressive. But alas, it's not my story to tell so with that in mind let's jump into my conversation with David Roger, cofounder and CEO of Felix Gray.


David Roger: I grew up, my dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse, they met in the hospital. They're definitely not… they're risk averse people for sure. I do think though that I grew up in a house that it was okay and it was encouraged to argue, to debate, to question what was normal. I was definitely a pain in the ass little kid being like, "Why does it have to be this way?" My parents would be like, "Because we say so," and then I'd kind of push back, and then it would devolve either into an argument or a discussion, but either way there was like it was encouraged to push back at the end of the day. I think that's really important for entrepreneurship. You kind of have to look at something and say, "Why is this the case and why is it not this way?" and then have the convict ion and the guts to then say, "Okay, well why don't I have a big enough ego to say okay well I'm going to actually be the person to go from point A to point B and the world will change from this to that." Whether it's like this huge thing or something smaller, it could be opening up a bodega or a pizza place on the corner and be like, "Why is this not there already?" or it could be creating a company that has massive scale, whatever it is, you kind of have to say okay why not create this.


James McKinney: I love it. Now but back to the influence of upbringing, you mention that your parents are medicine, a very academic oriented career, obviously very stable career. Our parents have a lot of influence into the journey that we take at a young age and so coming to the end of high school, being that your influences were academic minded, what did you think you wanted to do as you came to the end of your high school years?


David Roger: It's funny. I mentioned very much encouraged to argue and debate in my household. I've always enjoyed being able to test squishy assumptions, things like that. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer so I actually went to college thinking I was going to be a lawyer, and after the first year I don't want to be a lawyer. I just don't think I'm going to have enough creative impact to be able to do what I wanted to do and I think I'm going to end up being very likely a cog in someone else's machine, and I want to have a bigger impact than that.


James McKinney: Now what did that look like for you? That bigger impact is a very large statement to make. What did that mean for you at that time?


David Roger: I think it just meant being able to make an imprint wherever I worked. So I didn't want to say I'm going to go start a company right away. I thought that's something that I was ultimately going to grow into. I didn't know how quickly, but I wanted to be in a place where I could actually see my success, I could see the things that I made successful make the company successful. I think what's really helpful is when you do that in a growth minded, oriented company where it's not just like hey we're going to kind of keep the same thing every single day, or we're just going to continue the same process over and over. It's like hey we can recreate processes, we can change new processes. All of the sudden you can start to see the company benefit from our contributions. That was what got me excited. So before even starting Felix Gray it was working for other companies where I could see my contributions really make an impact.


James McKinney: So coming out of high school your pursuit, you were thinking law. You jump into college. Was pre law, philosophy, was that the path you were on and then what occurred in those college years to make that shift out?


David Roger: I went to Cornell and Cornell is split up into seven different schools. I was part of industrial labor relations, which is essentially it was created when unions were really, really strong in the fifties, and it's nicknamed I Love Reading. There's a lot of reading, a lot of people go into law from there, but a lot of people go into business too. At the time mobile was really starting to grow and you were seeing this whole new flux of companies start to come in. you saw Evernote, you saw Drop Box, you saw all these different companies and that was just really exciting. It was really cool to see something go from zero to whatever it ended up becoming, so I kind of got hooked on that. But I also realized pretty early on my thesis was I'm not going to learn this stuff in school. You can take the entrepreneurship class. I took a couple of those but it was it paled in comparison to my actual experiences working for startups or starting my own thing. I kind of realized I'm going to go to school, I'm going to continue to learn how to think, I'm going to continue to learn these things, but I'm going to build a lot more chops in working and I was more excited to work than go to school.


James McKinney: As you were now starting to voice this change in direction, what were your parents thinking?


David Roger: Oh, not happy for sure. Yeah, I think my dad held on for a very long time that I was going to still go to law school. My mom was definitely more of the supportive one, but I think even when I was year two into Felix Gray my dad was still like, "When you go to law school…" I'm like, "You know that ship has way sailed, right?"


James McKinney: I love it, I love it. I love how they have this anchor in life like it's going to come back around.


David Roger: Yeah, exactly. Meanwhile my sister is like in medical school, about to finish up. She's there like yep, she's tracking exactly according to play.


James McKinney: Oh, I absolutely love it. So coming out of college you're now wanting to enter into business. You knew you wanted something big for your life. What was that first step? Because it wasn't to start a company right away. You were learning on the job if you will. What were some of those steps that got you to the point where you even had the idea of Felix Gray?


David Roger: Yeah. So I think to even take a step back, in college I mentioned that I thought that work was going to be more important and build chops more strongly than any class that I could take. So in my sophomore going into my junior year of college I actually ended up starting a secondary school newspaper. There was a company called The Odyssey at the time. It was a way of each individual school would have their own version of The Odyssey newspaper and I started that on the Cornell campus. That was you got into sales, you're starting to recruit a team, then you're managing editorial content. So it was my first time getting into sales, really storytelling and pitching local business owners that owned like a pizza place, why they should spend $10,000 on advertisement with us as opposed to X, Y, or Z. Especially print was not, it was at the time all print. That's not an easy job so it really honed in my ability to say okay, storytelling and narrative is really, really critical no matter what you're doing.

Then, pitching it to the other side and recruiting people to say, "Hey, this is an exciting opportunity. You're going to get more autonomy than the normal school newspaper, X, Y, and Z," and so it was building that team. That's what I did. That's kind of my first foray. I pass it along half way through my junior year, which is kind of typical of how that would go. Then going into my senior year I ended up working for a company called Gust which is an angel networking platform founded by David Rose, who founded New York Angels. So in addition to working for Gust and working the operations side I also was able to sit in a lot of the angel pitches that he received and just got to see the storytelling, and I got to see the behind workings of what would make a startup successful. I just really enjoyed all of that.

So when I graduated college I actually heard Andrew Yang speak. Andrew is now a former democratic nominee, but at the time he was pitching in a small little auditorium like 30 people at Cornell, trying to get people to join this firm called Venture Firm America. Essentially he had started in 2012, so I was the second class. The idea is essentially Teach for America but applied to startups. So how do you get people to go to work in startups in cities you wouldn't normally go to, so Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, whatever that may be and how do you reverse engineer that brain drain and help facilitate entrepreneurial communities with people that normally wouldn't go to those cities.

I went and worked for the CEO or former CEO of Zappo's Tony Hsieh who passed away recently. Zappo's is based in downtown Las Vegas and downtown Las Vegas not the greatest place to be. And Tony said, "I want to contribute back into this community and I want to build a community that's thriving where my work lives." It's very different than the rest of Las Vegas which is very tourism oriented and the strip is like the downtown area, but no one who actually is from Las Vegas wants to go to the strip every single weekend. So his job was to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. When I got there I was part of the operations team. They basically threw me in the deep water and they said, "Look, we have these projects that range from $1 million to $20 million. We put $350 million into this project. We have no idea if these projects are going to make money, are going to lose money. Figure it out." That was kind of how I started in Vegas. I think that it's important whether you're starting a company or whether you're starting to work for a company that needs to be scrappy, you just kind of say yes and dive in. Great advice that I always got was Google your way to victory. I had no idea how to do any of this stuff.


James McKinney: I love it.


David Roger: I had no idea how to do financial models and all this stuff. I just kind of dove in and then 12 or 14 hour days in front of Excel, and that's actually when my eyes started to kill me and when I kind of started to think about Felix Gray for the first time.


James McKinney: That's interesting. You know I did not know that a journey alongside Tony was part of your journey. Tony had an incredible impact on me and I never met him. His entrepreneurial story is one that I had hoped to have been able to unpack for The Startup Story. I remember when I was formulating a mobile app concept that I had back in the, this would have been 2011 I think and in order to get access to a certain individual I wanted to gift Tony's book Delivering Happiness, and so I reached out to him randomly via Twitter. He gave me an email and I just asked, "Is there any way I could get an autographed copy of a book that I want to give to someone so that I can hopefully meet them to pitch them?" And without hesitation he sent me the book autographed, and even addressed it to the person I was giving it. That speaks volumes to who he was, and this was post Zappos. So again 2011 this was long after he had made I think it sold for $1 billion at the time. I have no idea where he was at. He was definitely in the downtown project for sure. He did not need to grant me my request, but he was so gracious in doing so. It's always been a flag that I wave about entrepreneurs always supporting entrepreneurs. He was just willing to do it. What do you remember from your learnings of walking alongside Tony?


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James McKinney: What do you remember from your learnings of walking alongside Tony?


David Roger: So actually it's a good point. He used to have this concept called Inbox Zero, and so he was going to get through his own inbox every day. I actually think that was a negative because he was the one responding to you. It wasn't an assistant responding. And still exuding what Tony believed in which was this idea of being kind to other people, and someone else could have done that and I do think that actually was very stressful, to such a smart analytical person that you're taking away stuff to like respond to these thousands of emails. Every knew it was Tony@zappos.com. we would be in these meetings and he would be just like on email all the time, and he's a really good multitasker but I think he ultimately ended up changing that and saying, "Hey, how can I outsource some of these things to still make sure I'm delivering happiness to people but I can also focus on the things that are going to take my attention and need my attention the most?" So that was definitely a lesson. But I think in that is this idea of being kind to people.

Early on we would interview for people as we were growing and we didn't get back to people after the first round or things like that, and Tony kind of said, "This is unacceptable. This is someone that's giving up their time to talk to us as much as we're giving up our time to talk to them, and so we owe them at least a two sentence, 'Hey we're not going to move on for XYZ reason. We really appreciate the time.'" And that was something, this idea of just having empathy in everything you do, and that really stuck with me. That stuck throughout Felix Gray. I think we're a very empathetic team and we employ a lot of the empathy to each other, our own internal team, and to our customers, and anyone else.


James McKinney: I want to ask you a personal question. when you heard the news about Tony's passing how surreal was it for you? Again, we hear more about celebrity passing's, and yeah business leaders and founders they tend to pass but there's certain people that when you hear about it, it gives you reason for pause for a moment. Again, I never worked with him, never had a chance to meet him, just a simple email correspondence and I paused for a moment like this is crazy, this is for real. What was it like for you?


David Roger: Yeah, I mean look I worked with Tony but I wasn't working at a top echelon with Tony so it was still a smaller company, we knew each other, but we hadn't talked in many years since I had left Downtown Project. It's still I would say sad and strange, and I reached out to my former bosses over at Downtown Project who were really close, and they're pretty devastated. Tony was kind of this bedrock in this community because he kind of grew it out of nothing. It's sad and strange for me, but it's devastating for some other people, and it's just a real shame.


James McKinney: Yeah, it is, yeah it is. In that season though you had mentioned that's where the idea started to percolate. Again you're surrounded by entrepreneurship at this point. You've had a series at Gust and you got to hear some different pitches. You're working under an organization founded by an incredible entrepreneur and with such vision for revitalizing an area of downtown Vegas. So for you the idea of leaving that to start something else for a glasses company, and I say it that way intentionally not to minimize what it is by any means, but what year was this by the way? Let's put a date stamp on this.


David Roger: So just to take a step back, I had mentioned I was in front of a screen for 10 plus hours a day, 12 hours a day, and my eyes are getting exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes I have this nagging headache. I'm looking around, half my coworkers are complaining about similar issues. I've graduated college. A lot of my friends are now in jobs that require a lot of screen time whether they're programmers or graphic designers or investment bankers, or whatever it is. So many people are complaining about this and I'm like why is this a thing? So I start talking to optometrists and ophthalmologists and learn that a lot of this has to do with what screens produce, namely blue light and glare.

So blue light is high energy light that would come off of any monitor screen and glare is this unnecessary feedback that enters into our eye. If you could filter blue light, you could eliminate glare, you could create this comfortable experience in front of a screen. So the issue was that there's only really two types of products available at the time. There were these yellow lenses in hunting goggle like frames that made you look like one of the X-Men. I was like they work, people say these work, but I don't care if I'm wearing a hoodie or a dress shirt, I'm not wearing that. Then there were these clear lenses that didn't do anything. The optometrists and ophthalmologists say yeah that stuff is really not filtering blue light where it matters, it's not really doing anything. So I kind of said okay why can't you do something that you can create a product that actually works, put a name to the problem and also offer a really compelling solution, one that is going to look good but make your eyes feel great too.

And so we developed a proprietary product to do exactly that. So we take a natural occurring ocular pigment, we actually synthesize that, embed it into the lens with a couple bleaching materials, and that allows us to actually have a clear lens, so the lenses that I'm wearing today, but is highly effective at filtering blue light. We filter 15X more blue light where it matters versus other clear lenses. That's why 9 in 10 people wear Felix Gray report significant improvement. It's why our MPS is a 75 or above. It's why we have hundreds of thousands of customers. Because we really focus on building a great product that is not only from a fashion standpoint have quality Italian acetates, German metal materials but on the lens side is actually going to be effective. 9 out of 10 people who wear Felix Gray report significant improvement. That means something. That's kind of how the idea came about.


James McKinney: But now again those 9 out of 10 that report an improvement using Flex Gray did not have Felix Gray at the time of your idea, so when you came up with this idea, this solution, you became aware of blue light being the problem. At the time, again you're surrounded by entrepreneurship but I don't know where you were at personally to where I want to say I want to solve this and then build my own business versus I want to create this and maybe license it out to all the other many eye glass manufacturers out there. Why did you choose the route you chose?


David Roger: When we first started Felix Gray, when we launched it in 2016, no one even knew what blue light was. People just kind of said what is this? And we would say, "Hey, do your eyes bother you?" And people would say yes, and we'd say, "Okay fine, try this. It's because of blue light. It's because of glare. We have a special way of doing that." We wouldn't have been able to go that licensing route because it was so important to be able to build this market from the get go. Actually, before we even launched a product in 2015 we had raised, an Indiegogo campaign, raised $20,000 for initial minimal order quantity. Had started getting product and this is when D to C companies were raising lots of money very early. Away had just raised $2 million pre revenue. So we kind of said, my cofounder Chris who I met actually as a beta tester and I can tell that story in a minute, but we kind of said, "Look we're two smart guys, this is something that's going to be big. We'll easily be able to raise $1 million or $2 million." Everyone just said, "Good luck. You're not going to build a market."

Especially because at the time we were only selling non prescription glasses for people who either had contacts or 20/20. People said, "You're not going to get people to wear glasses that don't need glasses. This is not a real issue." We said, "No, this is a real issue. We're seeing this happen a lot, all the time." So for us to build conviction when we first actually launched, instead of saying, "Hey, we're announcing this to the world and we're putting a whole big marketing budget around it," in January 2016 we got the product. Middle of December 2015 Chris came over to my apartment and we spent I think we spent seven hours QC'ing every individual frame that we got. Then instead of saying, "Okay, we're just going to launch this to the world," we actually said, "Okay, is this a product that people are actually going to want so we're building this market to people who actually want this?"

So we did this thing called in-office try on program. We worked with 25 companies all around the city. Spotify, Barclays, Uber, LinkedIn, We Work, and we give up to 50 pairs of glasses to people for a free two week trial period. At the end they could either return them free of charge or they could purchase them out of their own pocket, so it was a great way for these HR teams to offer a perk without having to really do anything. We did the logistics and no one had to pay for anything. We were saying that 1 in 3 people were purchasing at the end of that two week period, without having any idea what blue light was, without having any idea what the brand Felix Gray was. They just said, "Hey, these work." Then we were seeing even more people email us three days later, a week later saying, "Hey, can you actually come back? My eyes are killing me. I never realized this was an issue. My eyes feel way worse than they did when I was wearing Felix Gray. Can you come back so I can purchase them?"

So we could see very closely what that customered option would look like, and also it was a great time for us to interact with customers directly and get feedback so that we could improve our own product designs. Could we tweak the hinge here, was the lens proper, this that and the other, and so from that four month period did two things. One, it gave us conviction that this was going to be something. And two it helped us improve our product. From that we were able to tell that story which we early on learned storytelling was important, to actually get into Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in New York which was one of the premier accelerators in the city. In the summer of 2016 Chris and I joined, we kind of hunkered down, and then we started to really employ digital marketing tactics, brand tactics to continue to grow. It's been growing in a pretty good place ever since.


James McKinney: That's awesome. So you're seeing traction now at this accelerator. But I go back to I'm 43 so this question of mine always predates the Shark Tank philosophy of Kevin O'Leary. He's all about licensing, licensing, licensing. So I still go back to the question of entrepreneurship is just so hard. It is so challenging to build a business and yet there's opportunities to do something different by just through the licensing and patenting of a product. Why did you want to go the business building route versus just the licensing?


David Roger: Yeah, because we pioneered this market. I don't think that if we put this into someone else's hands… there were other companies. Luxottica, Excelsior, they've been trying to do this for a long time. We realized that this was, at the end of the day, building a really special product and also telling a really important story. So we kind of see that from our brand purpose, and that is to improve the relationship between people and their technology. So we're not an eyewear company that's going to offer affordable eyeglasses. We're basically saying, "Hey, we've actually, our company, we want to improve the relationship between people and their technology, and in doing so we believe that's going to empower you to live a happier, a healthier, a more productive life in today's modern screen filled world." We're going to do all that stuff, and at the end of the day focus kind of centers around this concept of improving your digital well being. I don't think that there's any brand really out there, eyewear or otherwise, that is focused on that side of the wealth and the story. If you think about it, we care about the food that we eat, we care about the things that we put on, the skin products that we put onto ourselves, we care about the exercise that we do. Then we sit down at our desk for 10 hours a day working and that's like oh yeah, that's the unhealthy time. But how do you bring an element of health and wellness into that side of our day so that you ultimately can feel empowered? At the end of the day, our goal is so that you can feel happier and healthier, more productive in a screen filled world and that's really important.

We don't think that if we license that, that anyone was going to tell that story. We also don't think that if we license that and it was just this big company launching another product, at the end of the day we are the most trusted brand in blue light because not only the proprietary product that we have but because we'll go as far down the rabbit hole as you want about talking about this stuff. So the sight experience, you can really dive into things. You can really explore the sight and dive deeper and deeper, while at first making it very digestible but if you want more information you can go. And then if you want to talk to our CX team by email or chat, we have a very top down knowledge heavy approach around all these things. That we think is something that if you were doing licensing you're not going to control the end to end customer experience and you're not going to be able to grow this market. That was the decision ultimately to launch this ourselves.


James McKinney: That's incredible. I love that. So I guess if now that I'm thinking about it, as I go about and evangelize Felix Gray it really is a brand that's focused on digital well being.


David Roger: 100%.


James McKinney: I love that. I can see why, knowing that that is your passion and that is your vision, why you chose to go the much more challenging route of building a business around this, especially a product manufacturing business. There are challenges that come into that, but you joined this accelerator in New York and obviously fundraising has to be part of the journey. You're talking about manufacturing. What was your fundraising journey like?


David Roger: Yeah. So I think initially I mentioned we said, "Oh, we can raise a bunch of money and this will be easy." And people said you're not going to build the market, so we really struggled in the beginning. I think that allowed us to allowed us to be really scrappy. When I look at the direct to consumer, the digitally native market now, the winners are not the companies that raised tens even hundred million dollars plus of venture capital. Venture capital just it's really good for software, it rarely works for physical products. The business models are just different. You can build great businesses as a physical product company, they're just going to be different. They're not going to have that same scale and reach as when a VC is putting money into the next Google.

That really forced us early on to be scrappy and to think, and to kind of zag when the whole market was zigging around D to C. and so we aligned ourselves with, one of the first advisors that we brought on who is a friend of mine is David Heath, the founder of Bombas. He cofounded Bombas and they are a great example of building an amazing brand, building an amazing company, but not raising tons and tons of money. I think Damon John says like that was his most successful Shark Tank investment. For us, it was how were we going to not only raise at the right valuations, we're not going to give ourselves a pat on the back early on saying, "Hey, we raised to this valuation." We're going to play the long game and actually care about where do we see the business long-term going, and we're going to align ourselves with investors that believe that same thing. So we don't think we're a $1 billion company. Early on we switched that narrative and we said, "We're not a $1 billion company, but we are a $50-, a $100-, a $200- million company." That's generally where now you're starting to see these companies start to get valued at.

That brought in a whole different set of investors and it kind of clicked. We were starting to see really good growth in the accelerator and once we graduated from the accelerator program. By March of 2017, so about six months after we finished the program, we had closed our first seed round. Not a lot of money, about $1 million, but it was from angels and people that invested in consumer startups that were focused on that same type of growth. Since we've grown from there we've done that same thing. So we haven't raised tens and tens of millions of dollars, and we've raised from people who believe in that same way companies like us. so they believe the strength of brand is really important. The strength of storytelling is really important. Product is incredibly important. Can you build product modes, what is that customer experience and how do you make sure that your MPS is really high. So they're focused on the right things, but they're also saying how are you funding this business and how are you doing it in a way that is ultimately going to yield a more likely outcome, and the next luggage company is not going to be worth as much as like the next Slack.

It just is what it is. That's fine, and so how are you building a company in the right way? We just aligned our incentives that way and I think what's really important, we're lucky to be a consumer brand where honestly a lot of investors and venture capitalists and stuff wear Felix Gray and they love the product, they love the brand. So we get a lot of outreach from some of these people. I always ask them how do you look in terms of valuation exits? Before I get into my thing, my spiel, I always ask them some stuff first. When you hear people say, "Well, you know we're usually looking for a 10X, we're looking for this, that, and the other. We're looking to put in $50 million over the course of X many years," I kind of stop and say, "Hey look, I don't think that we're the right fit. It's great to meet, really appreciate you being a customer and a fan, that's just not the business that we're building." So it stops at a really… they're appreciative that I'm not wasting their time and vice versa. That's kind of how we found our fundraising narrative and stories. Building this digital wellness brand which I touched upon, but also building in a way from a business model valuation standpoint that fits our belief in how digitally native brands really are going to end up being valued.


James McKinney: Let's put some dates on certain things. One, when was the launch of Felix Gray? Better yet, let's strategy you said your seed money was $1 million. At the end of the accelerator, what was that date?


David Roger: So we launched that office try on program January 2016. We launched in full in May of 2016, actually Business Insiders picks wrote about us and we kind of backed into the launch. I was at a lunch we a different CEO, my friend who is the cofounder of Bonds the chickpea pasta company, and Chris my cofounder called me back and was like, "Hey, that article just dropped and we're selling inventory real quick. Can you get back here?" So we kind of backed into this launch in May. We started the ERA program in June, we graduated at end of September, and we closed that first seed round in March of 2017.


James McKinney: March 2017.


David Roger: So everything was 2016 and then March 2017 was the end of the seed round.


James McKinney: Everything you spoke of when you talked about your approach to fundraising, finding investors that are aligned with your vision, walking away from investors that might not fall in line with the vision that you had and how you see the growth of Felix Gray, that is an incredibly I'm going to say bold and mature and confident position to come from because most startups will take money for the sake of taking money, like fund, fund, fund, especially if you're seeing success and growth. Where does that come from for you? Where did you get this confidence to not have to just take whatever money was thrown your way but to understand the importance of having a right investor pool?


David Roger: Yeah I think it was really by osmosis and just from my early twenties being surrounded around other entrepreneurs, whether it was at Gust, whether it was at Venture America there's a five week training camp for you go off to your job and there was speakers coming in several times every week, taking about their stories. So it was just kind of by osmosis that you heard a lot of these same narratives, a lot of these same ideals. It's kind of everyone saying it, there's truth there. I think that really was what it was, and I think people end up learning those lessons at some point or another. I was just fortunate, lucky enough to be in positions where through osmosis and just by listening I was able to get those lessons early.


James McKinney: Got it, got it. So as you're growing, you said a Business Insider came in and really forced you into a launch if you will. You became known outside of your brand specific outreach. What were some of the other growth tactics you employed? If you were starting new today, how would you have acquired your first 100 based on what you learned?


David Roger: So I think I still would have done, if we were building something that didn't exist, I think I still would want to be as close to the customer as possible and do something like that. I think there's a great story around Airbnb early on, and then doing things, they're sitting at their desk trying to figure out scam strats and the founder of Y Combinator Paul Graham, was like what are you guys doing there? Go to New York where your customers are and go do this, and like well that doesn't' scale. He's like, "Don't worry about scale right now. Do things that don't scale. Just learn right now. Learn from your customer." So I think we still would have done that. Once we kind of launched and we're announced, and clearly there were a lot of people who were purchasing this product and we were seeing a lot of success, Chris and I then said okay now how do we make this scale. We have a product that people like, that people are talking about, how are we building the marketing machine? So that meant really leveraging the accelerator's resources to learn marketing for the first time. So that's your Facebook and Instagram, which especially back in 2016 were really cheap, and also meant investing into SEO really early which has paid dividends.

It was just continuing to find ways of growing and then saying okay, five months in, okay great, how do we leverage podcasts and how do we grow that? How do we grow through YouTube? How are we doing XY and Z? But I think at the core of everything was the fact that we were building a product that people talked about and people enjoyed. Whether it's now that we're in the pandemic or you're at the office, a lot of those people were not wearing glasses before they started wearing Felix Gray so people say, "What glasses are you wearing? I didn't know you wear glasses." So there's a little bit of that virility in the product. Because we focused so much on the customer experience end to end, from the product that they got all the way from how the product ships, the packaging that it's in, does it get there on time, all these things people were excited to talk about their purchase so we built a lot of evangelists. Word of mouth was still our largest source of referrals out of any single channel. I think that speaks volumes to what we've been able to build, and I don't think you can build a sustainable company if that's not going to be something that's really going to drive a lot of that revenue.


James McKinney: That's fascinating. One, that's awesome, congrats on the fact that word of mouth is such a large channel for you. Just out of curiosity how do you measure word of mouth oftentimes when it comes to D to C sales funnels?


David Roger: We do it through the really the best way is "How did you hear about us?" surveys. So at the end, if anyone does not have a post purchase immediate survey that hits you at that checkout, implement it tomorrow. One of the first things that you should do, just say, "How did you hear about us?" You're going to get friend or family referral type things. You also get Facebook, you'll get YouTube, you'll get an influencer and then you can actually dive in and understand what influencer or what YouTube ad, or things like that. That stuff is incredibly helpful data for us to measure attribution. We measure obviously from a Google analytics standpoint as well, but then this is another way of triangulating that data because attribution is really hard. The more data sources you have to kind of balance things out and triangulate the better off you're going to be in understanding what's working.


James McKinney: That's awesome. One of the things that, as I'm thinking about the challenges of eyewear, is the unique nature of eyewear. You've got fit, you've got fashion especially when it comes to the ocular if you will, the actual lenses themselves. From a logistics and supply chain perspective, how challenging is that for you from a startup? And managing again, I know you didn't start with the many frames you have now online. Obviously you've grown into that, but when you launched what was your strategy on how you, okay we're going to have this many designs and this much inventory so that we can turn this quickly? How did you approach that from a launch perspective?


David Roger: In the beginning we had raised this Indiegogo campaign to get us this initial order quantity, and before we had raised other money we were kind of just funding it ourselves as the revenues were coming in. I had built the initial model for how we were going to plan for inventory lead times, things like that. I also just through talking to a lot of other people, I just ended up continuing to meet people that could help me in the eyewear space. That's how I found my initial suppliers was through just networking and talking to one person that introduced me to another person, that introduced me to this other person. Just continuing to talk and understand. So building that supply chain was really a networking thing more than anything else. Building the inventory planning was knowing how to use Excel and just managing the cash. We also had to build out the assemblies, so there's a reason Amazon doesn't do optical, because actually assembling product to ship, it's one of the few supply chain things that Amazon is like we're not going to touch right now.


James McKinney: you realize if Bezos hears this you're-


David Roger: Oh I said right now, right now would be the operative word. That's the other thing, then we'd actually have to work with an optical lab, make sure that we were building out systems in place that were going to be able to provide pretty quick fulfillment. But make sure that we're also balancing that without… the lens gets put into the frame which is actually really powerful from the supply chain side because you get to have components instead of one fixed good, so from an inventory standpoint you're actually in a better place. You just have to work with the right partners to make sure that assembly can happy quick enough that you can ship it out the door and a customer isn't waiting several weeks for a pair of glasses.


James McKinney: Got it, awesome. When you think of scaling Felix Gray, there's lots of ways to scale the growth. There's expanding the product line. What does scaling look like to you? Is it purely a singular product global scale from locations in which you can sell through, or is it a product expansion?


David Roger: So there's definitely a product expansion component to it. So when we launch, we launched non prescription what we call our optical lens which is our clear lens. It's really kind of like the essential every day kind of lens you can get. But we've learned a lot from our customers. So a lot of our customers are really concerned about what light does to their sleep patterns. It has been shown since a Harvard study came out in 2009 that blue light suppresses melatonin secretion, which we need melatonin to go to sleep and to stay asleep through the night. When your mom is like, "Hey, don't look at your screen before you go to bed," when you're a kid, there's actually science behind that. So we saw that a lot of our customers were concerned about that.

We ended up developing a special lens. We take more of our proprietary filtering solution, we embed it into the lens, so it actually is a yellow lens and that's clinically shown to improve melatonin solution by two times. So you'll see a lot of customers own the essential during the day when they're on Zoom meetings and things like that, but then when they switch over into night mode, they're watching some Netflix or playing some video games or whatever it is, they'll put on what we call our sleep pair instead. So they'll put on their sleep glasses a couple hours before they go to bed at night and that really helps improve their sleep.

We also have a kids line. We have parents that are like, "I love my Felix Gray so I want my kids to have this too. I want to protect them more than I want to protect myself." And so we have a kids line. So when we look at scale it's a couple things. Obviously it's continuing to maintain this position as the most trusted brand in blue light, really help educate, really push our content there so we're growing the market and we're growing our brand. But then we also look at customers that what are ways that we can get high value customers. So are they a mom that buys for herself and her two kids? Is it someone who is kind of on the biohacking side of the spectrum that is going to buy the optical during the day but they're going to get a sleep pair at night? I sit a prescription customer that they every couple years they're going to return and buy another pair of prescription? Are they an older customer that goes with reading glasses and they're always like misplacing the reading glasses and they buy three at the same time? So when we look at scale it's a combination of how are we going to just grow and find customers, but also how are we going to find the right customers and focus on continuing to sell that customer to other value in the Felix Gray ecosystem.


James McKinney: Oh I love it. Let's talk about hiring. I just recently had Gabi Lewis of Magic Spoon on, and they had tremendous growth when it comes to disrupting the cereal and again for those who have not had Magic Spoon it is an amazing cereal brand. But his greatest challenge from minute one has been hiring. A lot of times venture capital will say hire for the roles you need in six months, and he's of the mindset of that just seems silly to have payroll if I don't know how I'm going to use them right away. But now he's seeing some of the wisdom in that, but he still doesn't know if he would lean into that. Hiring just takes a long time to find the right people, and he feels like he's always behind the eight ball when it comes to hiring. When it comes to hiring for you and for Felix Gray, what has been that process and is that a challenge for you?


David Roger: I think hiring is… and that's a great point. This business is not where it is if there's not a ton of other people that are actually growing this business. I'm just one person at the end of the day. So we have gotten really serious about, for a long time, about how we hire. I think to the point with Magic Spoon around hire for six months from now, I think that's a cash flow benefit more than anything else. So if you're going to raise from VC and you're going to raise $20 million, you can do that. That money is supposed to give you a ton of buffer to be able to do that. If you're going to build a company where you're going to raise $10 million or under over the course of your history, you don't have that same benefit.

What we found is we want to get ahead but we're also going to put other people in positions to start building whatever that is before we end up hiring for the next thing. Sometimes that may mean having one person in two roles that we know are going to get split out. That works because also when it gets split out a lot of times that person will end up managing that person below them, and they'll already have a lot of empathy and insight into what it is to lead that role. A good example is we brought on someone to do financial planning analysis and inventory planning. Realized that hey that's an analytical person that could do both. We then brought on an inventory planner but that person that reports up to this other person, that person has already done inventory planning so they understand the ins and the outs. They understand when they ask something, they understand how complex that ask is so they become better managers because they can be sympathetic to that person's role.

In terms of how we hire early on I made a wrong hire. We ultimately had to let that person go, and it sucked. I've had to let a couple people go but usually it, this one really, really stung and the first one hurts a lot. They all hurt but I kind of looked at the process like why, what did we miss? I started talking to other advisors that have built companies, reading the law, and just building out a process that is going to be able to better understand who people are so that we know are they going to fit into the role that we want to fit into our company, but are they going to want to fit into the role that we want and fit into our company as well. It's a two way thing.

So actually on reference class, I got this from a friend at Harry's which I think is like a genius way of hiring. On the reference calls you're not pushing. Those references are there, they're going to say good things. It's actually more of a thing like if you're getting to the reference point you really are pretty close to hiring this person, and so we always ask, "Hey, if you were me, knowing what you know about this person, how would you put them into the best position to succeed in this role?" So give a little understanding about what the role is, what the company is, what we stand for, but then hearing from them and so through that first and foremost you get to better understand how can I be a good leader and make sure that this is a good culture, that this is going to work for this person, and then what are the resources that they're going to need. Through them kind of being honest and open, you'll understand it's the last check to say, "Hey this is a good fit for both sides." And so that's been really important to us is just trying to get to know people really well and find their fit.

Then the other thing I'd say through interviewing is we ask a lot of open ended questions. We really just want to understand your story, and we have a scorecard that we do in the beginning. We can judge based on all these different questions that we want and competencies that we're looking for. By hearing your story and what you've done throughout your career, we're better able to understand what your score card is. I find that if you ask questions directly and you're leading questions one way or another, good candidates will be able to just kind of amend their answer to whatever you want to hear and then it becomes kind of useless.


James McKinney: You know that's interesting as you were sharing that reference check question. What triggered for me was multiple touch points throughout your story about how important feedback is to you. When you first had your product putting it in the hands of people and getting feedback. Upon checkout getting feedback. I think a lot of brands and people say feedback is important, listen to the customers, listen to your employees. And of course I'm sure internally you have employee surveys, but even to the point of hiring you're listening to feedback from people that know this candidate better. Who has influenced you so significantly that this is engrained in who you are? Again, you are going to be I think the 106th episode of The Startup Story. I've met many founders, but I have not met a single one where just so clearly this idea of listening and attention to feedback is so obvious in my conversation with you. Where does this come from for you?


David Roger: It probably comes from the fact that's one of the things I've struggled with the most over my career. I'm definitely a talker but I'm also very honest about what I'm good and not good at, and so I build systems to compensate. The beautiful thing about capitalism is the things that are going to work, that people are going to want, are going to be the ones that survive. So whether that's the product you put out into the market or whether that's the culture and the type of positions that you're building for people to work there. People can go and jump and go to another company. People can go and jump and buy a different product or spend money elsewhere. If you're not listening, you're constantly getting feedback and being like, "Hey, I want to improve," and growth is improving, and improving means listening to feedback, then what are you doing? I don't know, that's just kind of my mindset.


James McKinney: I love it. I absolutely love it. All right, final three questions at the end of every Startup Story episode, and those three questions begin with the first about perspective of entrepreneurship as a title if you will, as a career choice. A very large perspective of what entrepreneurship is. So for someone like yourself who has been on the investor side with Gust, has been alongside Downtown Las Vegas Project with Tony Hsieh, for someone who has launched Felix Gray and seen success there, do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur? Not wants to be because not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and that's perfectly fine, but do you think anybody can be?


David Roger: That's a tough question. I don't think that… I mean, I think it's your mindset. So I think if your mindset is constantly improving, constantly building something, being excited about building something, being okay to be knocked down to fail knowing that you're going to be process oriented to fix those problems and get back up, then yeah anyone can do that. Do I think that most people have that capacity for external or internal reasons, whether it's personality or they have a family of five and they just can't afford to do that, they have student loans and can't afford to do that? I don't think that everyone can be, but I do think it's a combination of internal and external factors that result in that.


James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. One of the things that I love about entrepreneurship, specifically The Startup Story, is breaking this idea apart that entrepreneurship is intended to be a solo journey, it's just about a visionary and their laptop and the ability to execute. There's this idea that we go from couch to computer and then all the sudden to headlines, and that's just not true. In fact, you even spoke very clearly about your first suppliers were done through networking and all the people that gave you guidance and introductions into those suppliers. That's entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is a collective effort. We need to lean on each other and in doing so, we need to remind ourselves we did not get to where we are today because of our own effort. So when you look back across your entire entrepreneurial journey who are the people you point to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to your journey?


David Roger: I mean look, so from a Felix Gray standpoint I'm not building this myself by any means. One of the first things I did was to try and put myself out there to ultimately be a cofounder, and I met my cofounder Chris. I actually mentioned this in the top of the call, this idea of how we met. So Chris had moved from Chicago to New York. He was at UBS doing banking for them, part of their hedge fund stuff. He came in as a beta tester just wanted to try the product because his eyes were bothering him and he was concerned that the blurry vision he was getting was going to lead to mistakes that he was going to inevitably end up making, and loved the product and was like, "This is amazing," and we kind of shared the same vision of what this could be. He started just, "Hey can I work part time?" And a few months later actually we were working well, and he joined full time, quit his job, and we cofounded the company together.

We officially transitioned from that day from an LLC to a C Corp. we started the company at the end of September 2015. I'm not here without Chris, his ability to take that jump too, forego a salary and everything else just like me. I'm not here without every single employee, but particularly like our first employee, my VP of sales operations, who is our first employee hire. I'm not here without our CTO, I'm not here without a lot of people along the way. I'm not here honestly without a lot of the experiences I've had from Venture America, with David Rose in Gust. I was fortunate that I left college, I didn't have student debt. That's a big testament to what I was able to be given, and that has nothing to do with me. Starting a company after… your base company starting at Venture America was only $35,000. You ended up getting raised over time as it was with Downtown Project, but it wasn't like I was in this investment banking job making a ton of money and had a ton of money saved up, so I was really, really scrappy. If I had to pay student loans every single month I wouldn't have been able to start it when I started it anyway. I think there's a lot of testaments to what has lead to Felix Gray's success and my own success in turn.


James McKinney: I love that answer. I thank you for sharing all of it. Again, if had to boil The Startup Story down to just 20 minutes that question would never get removed because I think it breaks down so many incorrect ideas of what it takes to succeed inside of entrepreneurship, so I just thank you so much for that transparency. At this time I like to bring this conversation down to the one. It's really a gift for my listeners. So whether it be a listener who is a wantrepreneur or has a 9 to 5 and a book full of dreams and ideas, and maybe it is student loan alone as to why they are not pursuing whatever venture they have in their book full of dreams and ideas. Or maybe it's the entrepreneur who had a successful business but couldn't pivot in light of COVID and is now losing everything. Or maybe it's just the entrepreneur who has been around for 10 plus years and never seems to quite get ahead of the curve, and it's always a cash flow issue, it's always a supply chain issue, it's always a hiring issue. Whatever the case may be, whatever of those personas that you would like to have coffee with. If we were having a coffee moment with just and that particular listener, who would it be and what would you say to them?


David Roger: So I think that COVID is a good one because it's very appropriate for the time. I think another thing through just osmosis of listening to a lot of this stuff is there's so much luck that goes into these things. Hard work is going to put you in a position to potentially be lucky, but that doesn't mean you're going to be lucky. You could have started this amazing travel brand and you're killing it, and then all the sudden COVID hits and you don't have the cash balance to be able to support it. That has nothing… like travel will come back eventually. That has nothing to do with what you've been building, that is outside of your control. Things are going to be outside of your control. I'd say if you look at each one of these recessions, these moments in time where things have not gone well yield a lot of interesting opportunities going forward.

You can see in 2008 so many companies that came out of the recession because of different needs, because of different ways that consumers wanted things, because someone had time on their hands. I'd say look if you are not in the cash position anymore to be able to go do the next thing, just continue to be curious and thoughtful about what could be and don't just be discouraged because of one of these things that is out of your control. I don't think anyone two years ago thought COVID is going to hit and travel is going to come down to a standstill. But if you are in a position where you can pivot, you have enough cash to potentially pivot or you have enough cash to potentially roll it down and go do another thing, I just think there's a ton of interesting opportunities that are going to happen now in this time period, whether it is things with healthcare, whether it is the future of travel going forward, whether it is in ecommerce and facilitating better ecommerce.

There's so many shifts that the pandemic has accelerated a lot of shifts, they haven't created the shifts themselves. So what are the things that you think that you can bring to your experiences to the table that you see as an entrepreneur that first time around that you would have wanted to be different? Can you bring that to the table and create something around that? Because those accelerants, it's going to be there's going to be some industries that are like oh my God, in five years, say how did we not see that coming? There will be people that see this coming. So if you're thoughtful and you take those experiences, you might be able to take something that's kind of shit right now honestly and turn it into something that in five years ends up a big blessing. That's not necessarily the case but that's kind of the mindset that I try and have.


James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value David Roger brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. And lastly if you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So please visit felixgray.com and purchase a pair of these remarkable glasses. Whether you wear prescription lenses or not there is a solution for you at felixgray.com. I say it in every episode because I believe it with my very being, entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs and Felix Gray is a startup so let's show up for David Roger and the Felix Gray team in a huge way as a way of saying thank you for all the value he delivered to us today. And now for my personal ask.

The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.

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If you like this podcast and are thinking of creating your own, consider talking to my producer Danny Ozment. He helps thought leaders, influencers, executives, and authors create, launch, and produce podcasts that grow their business and make a real impact in this world. You can contact him today at emeraldcitypro.com/startupstory.

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January 05 2021
David Roger, co-founder of Felix Gray

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