Bespoke eyewear creator Tom Davies explains his vision for success, and why he moved his factory from China to Brentford.
Not every business owner can count Superman as a customer, but Tom Davies can, having once come to Clark Kent's rescue.
In 2014, Warner Bros approached the entrepreneur and his eyewear design firm with an interesting brief: to create a set of specs to fit Henry Cavill, the actor who played the comic book hero in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The frames had to convincingly disguise the character's secret identity without looking too tight or loose on the big screen.
"It was a fascinating commission; bespoke eyewear is all about what a person is trying to project," he says, explaining that subtle changes in frame shape, thickness and colour can make people appear more authoritative or less intimidating (or in Kent's case, more inconspicuous).
"He was the epitome of that concept; he wanted his glasses to change his appearance."
Not all of the founder's customers wear capes, but they do share a common problem: they can never find eyewear that ticks all the boxes.
"Glasses define you," says Davies, who points to how often people spend looking at each other's faces. "We communicate with our eyes. What's up there is really important, yet people will spend just 20 minutes picking a pair that they will have to wear every single day for the next three years."
That's ludicrous, he says, adding that shoppers unnecessarily accept a level of compromise when it comes to specs:
"A person may find a pair that looks good, but it marks their nose or it falls down their face, or they get the right shape, but not the right colour."
TD Tom Davies solves that problem through a bespoke service.
The team will take an individual's precise measurements, but also consider personal taste before assembling and honing the final product with top-of-the-line materials, such as sustainably-sourced horn, titanium and cotton acetate.
Each pair of bespoke glasses bears the customer's name, engraved discreetly on an inside arm.
Davies' design journey began in the late Nineties. After graduating from university, he worked at an eyewear factory in Hong Kong before returning to the UK in 2000.
He went freelance, designing everything from popcorn machines to MP3 players, but he always had a passion for eyewear and would spend his lunch breaks sketching ideas for new frames.
In 2002, a Financial Times journalist passed by Davies' desk in their shared office and noticed one of his drawings. The business was only a dream, but he blagged his way through a bunch of questions and convinced the writer that he was worth a few words.
"He wrote a story about me starting my new company," says Davies, whose profile gained a significant amount of early exposure.
"That article secured me about £250,000 of business – I had people coming to me three and four months later with a folded-up copy of the feature in their pocket."
The new business owner was rushed off his feet making bespoke glasses at £5,000 a pop. "I was a one-man-band, a bit like a consultant, but I wanted to reach a wider client base – optician customers."
A £100,000 bank loan enabled Davies to design a launch line of frames, which could be customised at a basic level. It required him to train partner opticians to take a few extra measurements, while a supplier in Japan would manufacture his designs.
Davies did something early on that he thinks really helped: "I wanted the business to be very sound, financially, so eight months in, I struck a deal with an accountant to swap two years of full services for 5pc of my business."
It was a smart decision, he thinks: "It ensured that anything that we presented to the bank, and all the basics – from payroll and forecasts to credit control and chasing invoices – was watertight."
No matter how dedicated a founder is, corporate finance isn't something that can be learnt in a hurry, explains Davies, whose financial outsourcing enabled him to avoid any early mistakes and missed opportunities.
In 2008, the firm launched its second collection – this time with enough money in the bank to open a workshop in Shenzhen, China. The low manufacturing costs meant that it could charge a more accessible price for its made-to-measure frames, which enabled the business to crack on with scaling up.
Ten years of growth later and TD Tom Davies has scaled to 200 staff, 400 UK stockists and an annual turnover of £8m.
Prices range from £300 to £10,000 (the most expensive item is an 18-carat gold pair of sunglasses with gold-plated lenses). Ed Sheeran, Angelina Jolie and Heston Blumenthal are among its customers.
In November 2017, Davies moved his manufacturing operation from Shenzhen to a factory in Brentford, west London.
"There were several things at play," he explains.
One was economics. "It's not cheap in Shenzhen any more," says Davies, who claims that his average salary in China is about 70pc of that in London (it used to be 10pc).
"Give it another three years and those will be on par, so I need to start now; I can't click my fingers and conjure up a factory overnight."
The second motive was marketing; the "made in England" badge has got a lot of international appeal – especially in the US, explains Davies, who registers about £3m in annual turnover Stateside.
The final reason for reshoring his manufacturing operation is more personal.
"I'm 43 years old and have been living in near perpetual jet lag for about a decade – frankly, I'm fed up with it," jokes the entrepreneur, who offers a final tip to small business owners: be brave when it comes to pricing.
"Too many people are too frightened to price their products right. Never undervalue yourself," he states.
"Whenever we've put prices up, people keep buying, and you always think: why didn't I do this last year?"