Game Changers: Kate Doerksen, DITTO
Our next retail industry game changer is Kate Doerksen, co-founder and CEO of DITTO, an online retailer of designer glasses and sunglasses that leverages virtual try-on technology to ensure customers get the perfect fitting pair of glasses. (Here’s profile one, Meaghan Rose, Rocksbox; profile two, Luke Sherwin, Casper; and profile three, Chris Lindland, Betabrand.)
Total Retail: Where did you get the inspiration to launch your company?
Kate Doerksen: When I was working in finance with various retail businesses, it struck me how “old school” many of their problems seemed — high rent, bad working capital cycles, huge returns, discounting to get rid of products that didn’t sell. I was fascinated with how technology might solve these problems over time. I started diving deeper into these problems and honed in on the fact that virtual try-on technologies might help consumers buy fit-sensitive merchandise online. Eyewear stood out because it had the lowest online penetration of any retail category, and as a consumer, it was the only product I wasn’t personally comfortable buying online. Additionally, it looked like no one was trying to solve this.
For example, Amazon.com (which is willing to sell anything), wasn’t taking on the complication and responsibility of fulfilling prescription lenses. I interviewed thousands of eyewear customers and became very confident that we could address this problem as well as use technology to create a new and exciting way to buy eyewear online. I was fortunate enough to meet two brilliant engineers, Sergey Surkov and Dmitry Kornilov. We then set out to tackle this challenge and build what DITTO is today.
TR: What about Endless Eyewear?
KD: Our customers inspired Endless Eyewear. We learned that they loved the try-on and shopping experience that we provide on DITTO.com, but given the expense of the product, they couldn’t own all the pairs they loved. We wanted to offer the best designer brands and more access to their eyewear, so we invented a new eyewear business model that allows our fashion-forward customers to wear all of the pairs they covet on rotation for a monthly fee.
Endless Eyewear is a designer eyewear subscription program giving men and women access to our selection of top designer glasses on-demand. We offer a subscription for $24 a month and a prescription glasses subscription for $34 a month. It allows, for the first time, men and women the ability to change up their eyewear anytime they want instead of wearing the same pair of glasses for a year or more. It also helps people think of eyewear as a true fashion accessory, and not just a medical necessity.
We’re particularly proud of our prescription program because we know our customers love changing up their look every few months instead of every few years. It’s very easy. You come to our site and select your next pair of glasses. We put in your prescription lenses and ship them to you. If you decide you want to purchase your glasses, you get a membership discount plus your prescription lenses for free, which is a huge value. Our virtual try-on technology really enables this program because customers can be sure that the frames they select actually fit them, which cuts back on returns.
TR: How does DITTO’s technology work?
KD: DITTO is the world’s most realistic virtual try-on technology that lets customers see themselves in any pair of glasses in 180 degrees. A customer takes a selfie video of their face from their mobile phone or desktop webcam. We use our patented technology to detect thousands of points on their face and reconstruct their face in 3-D behind the scenes. We digitize every pair of glasses in 3-D, and then scale and position them onto the 3-D head. We augment the glasses back into the original video with the right occlusions, lighting, shadows and reflections so the customer can see how they actually look in each pair before they buy and, most importantly, see how each pair fits their unique face so they can find the perfect pair.
TR: How has your past work experience helped you in your current position?
KD: I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mind-set. My mom said even as a small kid, I would constantly be questioning why things were done the way they were done and suggesting better approaches to just about everything. I started a basketball camp in high school and an online recruiting startup for sports when I was in college. After an embarrassingly short stint in the WNBA, I decided to move to New York and spent four years working on Wall Street and in private equity. It was a great learning experience and broadened the scope of my ambitions.
I remember one day watching a co-worker excitedly zip through a financial model for a potential investment and remember thinking, “Wow, I just don’t feel like that about this work.” I became jaded because I felt we were doing more financial engineering than true value creation, and I was craving soul-satisfying work that involved getting my hands dirty and building something valuable. I decided I needed to be a hands-on operator and build a product I believed in. I’ve never looked back since.
I was lucky enough to be admitted to Stanford Business School, where I was determined to leave with an actual business ready to be launched. I leveraged the network of my classmates to get introductions to talented engineers/technical co-founders. Once Sergey, Dmitry and I decided to work together, we spent most of my second year of school actually working on DITTO. We pitched at Stanford BASES business plan competition and one of the judges ended up becoming our venture investor.
TR: What was the pivotal marketing campaign or channel that really catapulted the business in its early days?
KD: Like most startups, we’ve worked and worked to achieve product market fit. It didn’t happen overnight. People always resonated with the idea of being able to see if the glasses actually fit on their face before they bought, but the technology took time to get good enough to wow customers. It also took time to convince great brands to work with us. Over time, as we improved the merchandise and virtual try-on technology, we started steadily growing month-over-month. We’ve also spent a lot of time talking to our customers to understand what they love about shopping on our site. It inspired us to launch the Endless Eyewear program, which has catapulted our online retail business.
TR: What are the key online and offline marketing strategies you employ today?
KD: We focus on channels where we can tell the story of our shopping experience and where customers on that channel already love designer products. Right now, we’re leveraging influencers on Instagram and YouTube to powerfully tell the DITTO story.
TR: How are you planning to scale the business?
KD: Luckily, word is getting out about Endless Eyewear on its own, and we’re scrambling to keep up. We’re excited that our existing customers are sharing the word! We’re also focusing on building a great site and technology platform that speaks for itself. Customers who want to license our technology for their own sites are finding us.
TR: What brands do you work with?
KD: We work with over 40 to 50 top designer brands, from Prada, Ray-Ban, to Karen Walker, Persol, Retro Super Future and Victoria Beckham, to name a few. We have amazing relationships with these brands and take extra care to make sure we champion their stories and show their products in all their glory through really strong visual assets and our proprietary virtual try-on technology. We’ve won over 16 web and designer awards, and have been nominated for Webby’s Best Use of Video and Best Shopping Site!
TR: What advice would you give to those thinking about launching their own retail business?
KD: I have dozens of friends who talk to me about their passions, but don’t seem willing to take the necessary steps to make it happen. My advice is to stop talking and start acting. Start small if you have to — taking a night class, selling things on Etsy, doing weekend work, etc. Success only comes to those who are action-oriented. Take active steps to improve your situation. You’ll only regret what you didn’t have the courage to attempt.
TR: What can traditional retailers learn from your company?
KD: Many of the large retailers in the eyewear space are great when it comes to manufacturing, merchandising and in-store retailing, yet they really struggle with building cutting-edge technology and e-commerce because the skill sets and pace are just fundamentally different. The best traditional retailers are taking bold steps to update their digital experiences and connect their channels by working with technology-first companies like ours. The ones that think the status quo is good enough are the ones that are going to really struggle as the market continues to shift online and customers demand connected experiences.