The truth about Jimmy Fairly: why copying is not always copying

Feb 16, 2012
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Last May, when our own Roxanne broke the news in Techcruch of French eyewear e-tailer Jimmy Fairly’s  €200K initial fundraising, more than a few people were more than a little upset. The comments section teemed with disapproval of their ample similarities to American startup Warby Parker — “What Jimmy Fairly did lies somewhere between extremely poor form and actual IP infringement,” as one reader said.

But earlier this year, when I needed a new pair of eyeglasses, Warby Parker was of no use to me here in France. So I went to jimmyfairly.com, paid €95, and now I’m no longer wearing contact lenses 18 hours a day. To paraphrase Roxanne (from ANOTHER story she wrote last year), was I  just supposed to sit back and wait for the Warby Parker team to finally take an interest in launching abroad? Puh-lease.

Jimmy’s side of the story.

 

I sat down with Jimmy Fairly’s co-founders, Antonin Chartier and Sacha Bostoni, to get their take on running a “copycat,” as well as to see how their business was going in the 7 months since they launched.
According to Chartier, he had been interested in doing a buy-one-give-one eyewear startup, inspired by TOMS Shoes, since France deregulated its online eyeglasses market in late 2009. He first saw Warby Parker in early 2011. He says, “When I saw what Warby Parker was doing, I thought it was exactly what I wanted to do. I sent them a mail, but they never answered. We decided, are we going to wait for them to come?”

He took the idea to Startup Weekend Toulouse, where he pitched and eventually won the competition. Afterwards, Bostoni, who was the organizer of the event, was so impressed that he joined the team as a co-founder.

The team readily admits that they took the price point and other aspects of the Warby Parker model, but Bostoni notes, “they took a lot of things from websites that work well, too.”

This brings us to some brief editorializing: many current startups just aren’t that innovative. We’re not talking about Leibniz and Newton discovering calculus at the same time here. Taking Zappos-like service and the buy-one-give-one model, and applying it to a new product doesn’t take a creative genius to come up with. What irks me about so many of these copycat critics on their high horses is that they fail to see how unoriginal the original startups really are. And it’s fine to be unoriginal! But save at least a little bit of credit for those entrepreneurs who are applying a concept-tested idea to a new market and are forced to go through the same execution issues as every other entrepreneur out there.

Some learnings and stable growth.


Chartier and Bostoni figured out early on that, because of France’s healthcare insurance system, price mattered less to their market than the US market. They adjusted their business model to allow customers to add special treatments and features, and now the average purchase is €160.
They also found that the French market was largely unaware of the buy-one-give-one model, but they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well it has been received. They note that, to date, nobody has stolen any of the trial frames they send to potential customers who request them. “I think it proves that, because of buy-one-give-one, people have a great relationship with the brand,” Bostoni says. “People say we’re a hipster brand, but when we look at our customers, they really love that we’re a brand with convictions.”
The company says they’ve given away more than 3,000 pairs of eyeglasses to their partners in Africa and Asia. They describe their growth as stable, and they have some big plans for this year.
First of all, they’ll begin rolling out their new line of frames this month. They’ll still be heavy on those “hipster” vintage acetate frames, and look for some even larger looks than before.
In March, they’re planning a visit to the site in Africa where their lenses and frames are distributed.  And in April, they’ll be opening up a brand new flagship store on the famous Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais.
It seems that a business that started with a heavy dose of imitation is really taking on a life of its own.