Member of the Month: Dhruvin Patel

Member of the Month: Dhruvin Patel
Dhruvin patelOCUSHIELD LTD

Posted: Wed 31st Jan 2024

Congratulations to our Member of the Month for January, Dhruvin Patel, founder of the health tech brand, Ocushield.

Dhruvin always knew that if you wanted the "big, shiny things" in life, you had to go down the entrepreneurial route. As a qualified optometrist, this meant opening his own opticians (he had an offer to become a Specsavers franchisee) or starting a business from scratch.

Always the ideator, he went down the start-up route. What started with a dissertation, then a research project that won a university grant has led to Ocushield's offering today, winning over 152,342 customers so far.

Dhruvin has come a long way from his days of shipping products from his dorm room in 2015 to securing a deal with two Dragons in 2021.

He tells us why it's important to go with your gut, even if it means walking away from a deal:

If you have a gut feeling that something's not quite right about an investor, nine times out of 10, just say no because it's better to have no money than to have the wrong investor.

I know people who have had to scrap their whole business because they had the wrong investors or they don't enjoy it anymore. Sometimes you can get excited by the check that's going to come, but truthfully, you need to think and sleep on it.

Did you always want to start a business?

My parents are very working class and immigrated to the UK from India. I have an older brother, who was the first to get into higher education. We saw our parents work hard and would take the occasional holiday.

For my brother and I, the penny dropped when we realised that just working hard isn't the way to live your best life and we wanted to give back to our parents. It seemed that the people who had the big, shiny things always had their own thing going on. This instilled in us this notion that having some form of our own business would support those needs and help give back to our family.

This influenced what I studied at university. I studied optometry, which is the practice of looking after eye health and the apparatuses used like glasses. I also enjoyed helping people and biology.

I did some work experience at Specsavers, shadowing an optometrist and we had a candid conversation about the job. I asked:

  • Do you enjoy your job?

  • Do you make enough money?

  • Are there opportunities to weed business into it?

He said that he enjoyed it, was well paid, didn’t take any work home and got to help people with their vision.

Going down the business route, you could open your own opticians without too much red tape. This was what I wanted and led me to do optometry and get into the mindset of starting a business.

How did the idea for the businesses come about?

I had the entrepreneurial bug at university and while working weekends as an optical assistant in 2014, the opticians had released a coating for glasses that helped reduce eye strain from screens.

My mum always told me that sitting too close to screens is bad for the eyes but never shared the reason why. This was the missing piece of the puzzle. I went back to university to research how artificial blue light affects the eyes’ physiology and circadian rhythms. I quickly found that artificial light not only caused eye strain and headaches but also suppressed melatonin, making it tougher to sleep.

Now, I didn't wear glasses, so I couldn't use the product. This led me to the notion to put this technology directly onto screens in the form of a screen filter.

I won a grant from the university and developed the first line of products. In 2015, I started shipping products from my university dorm room. While at university, in the first year, I achieved a modest turnover of £50,000, then £60,000 and then in 2018, it was £100,000 in revenue.

I fully qualified as an optometrist and then had a decision to make – do I become a franchisee with Specsavers or launch a business? I chose the business because I could make more of an impact and create products. I went full-time and met my co-founder and an optometrist, Asad Hamir, who invested £75,000 in the business.

We used those funds to rebrand, expand our product range and diversify as we were just doing a direct-to-consumer brand. That year, we did about £250,000 in revenue, the year after £690,000 and then in 2021, £1.9 million. By then, we had achieved our omni-channel approach and were in retailers like John Lewis and WH Smith and were selling to employers like Puma.

We raised more funding, just under £1 million, and now the business is all about how we can look after eye care from numerous angles.

Ocushield phone

Apart from seeing revenue grow, when did you know this was a viable venture?

Where people provide money for products, you see the revenue there, but what pushed me to take it seriously was reading customer testimonials. Seeing the impact it made and how it changed people's lives, I started to realise that there was more to it.

I was not doing any marketing at the time, but customers were coming to me. I already had customers in America waiting four weeks for products. I didn’t know how to sell to America, but I knew I would figure it out.

The momentum that went with it was exciting. We started with screen filters, but the business could be so much more. ‘Ocu’ in Greek means eye. So, we started with blue light but now do eye supplements, prescription glasses, lighting, etc. It was the customer testimonials and the fact that I could keep creating.

What were some of the challenges you've faced?

We took a bet on early research, including my own and believed that there was enough compelling research showing there was a problem and this could help people, especially looking at customer testimonials. It was about getting past that challenge and communicating to customers that there was a problem.

The way we approached it was, firstly, working with more healthcare professionals. Secondly, was registering with medical regulators – the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America. We invested the time and resources to do it to show people that we are a serious healthcare brand, trying to help people live healthier lives with technology and improve their sleep.

What’s next for Ocushield?

We just raised £300,000 and brought on a senior product lead at Google, Ali Sarraf, and Bob Jungles, the Luxembourgish road cyclist. We did this to expand the software vertical of the business.

We're soon launching with national healthcare company, Benenden Health, which allows you to access a lot of healthcare opportunities and serves approximately 850,000 people in the UK.

We have launched our Online Eye Screening Software that can identify if someone has issues with their vision and recommends what to do next. We want to become the authority they come to if they’ve got any eye questions.

We are also appearing on QVC USA next month, which is a massive opportunity for consumer brands and I hear they like the British accent over there.

Speaking about TV appearances, although you had offers from Tej Lalvani and Peter Jones on Dragons' Den, why did you ultimately decide to walk away?

After the show, you go into the legal side. Peter's team led the deal and there were some clauses that we weren't happy with as a company. The clauses they wanted in the contract meant that we could not bring on future investors as Peter and Tej would have too much control as minority stakeholders.

Unfortunately, we couldn't negotiate with them to remove those clauses as they knew we would need more funding for what we were planning in the future. We also could not just keep going back to them for more money as they could say no and it would put the business at risk. Our gut said we could not go ahead with the deal.

The other reason was the valuation of the business. Since accepting the deal, it took six months to go through the legal process. However, the valuation of the business grew in the months after. We asked to renegotiate but they said no. It was quite tricky, but we decided to walk away, which turned out OK.

The deal from the den was £75,000 for 15% and we ended up raising just under £1,000,000 from private investors for 13%.

Dragons' Den was great as private investors saw us pitch. We looked like we knew what we were doing so they wanted to invest. We used it to go out to private investors and get a better deal.

Tips when raising funding

It's that weird saying, when you ask for advice, you get money. If you ask for money, they give you advice. If you build a genuine relationship with most people, they'll buy into you and will invest when you talk to them about it.

Investment from angel investors is no science, it's a bit of an art. The main things I've picked up on are:

  • They need to trust you

  • They need to have confidence in you

  • You need to have the humility to speak to them about challenges or issues and they know that you'll be receptive

If you can fill these three and also have a good business, they're going to join you.

If you have a gut feeling that something's not quite right about an investor, nine times out of 10, just say no because it's better to have no money than to have the wrong investor.

I know people who have had to scrap their whole business because they had the wrong investors or they don't enjoy it anymore. Sometimes you can get excited by the check that's going to come, but truthfully, you need to think and sleep on it.

Carson Blue Light Blocking Glasses

Tips for scaling a team

I've been guilty of this. You can get excited to grow your team fast, but every person you bring on also slows down your ability to make decisions. Now we sweat it out and hire only when the team is complaining. As a start-up, one of your best assets is the speed of execution.

There's a big shift, especially in this financial crisis. It's more impressive when it's bigger the company, but fewer the employees.

I don't think the number of employees is a gauge of how successful a business is. Where needed, bring in expertise part-time, but then bring in hungry people with the right attitude, willing to work and learn. This way you don’t have to pay big bucks for the big experienced person, who may not have the right attitude or be willing to put the time in or work in the trenches.

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Dhruvin patelOCUSHIELD LTD

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