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

European StartUp Scene

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.

7 Responses

  1. Anne-Sophie Bousset

    You make a very good point: startups don’t HAVE to be innovative. The definition of a startup isn’t an innovative company, it’s a young one. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seizing an opportunity it seemed like Warby Parker wasn’t even thinking about yet.

  2. Benoit Curdy

    Startups actually are not young companies. The best definition of a startup comes from Eric Ries: “A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” By this definition, copycats are not startups, as they use a proven concept. Does it matter? No. They’re not as cool as startups and less creative. Yet, they are legitimate businesses and there’s nothing wrong with what they do. Nobody would blame a local shoe shop for copying a business model . 

    • Liam Boogar

      I’m gonna have to agree with Benoit on this one: by Eric Ries’ definition of a startup, a copycat lacks the ‘extreme uncertainty’ that defines a startup. This is not to say that a copycat is not a legitimate company or that it does not require adaptations, it’s just not a ‘startup’ in the same way as others. It is in fashion to ‘do a startup’ now more than ever, and people are quick to defend their company as a startup – but not being a startup doesn’t make you not a young company, and it doesn’t mean you’re not providing a service, it just means you’re not ‘learning’ about a problem, and you’re not operating under the level of uncertainty that is required to be considered a startup.
      It’s like Star Wars Episode I in 3D – it’s not a ‘real’ new movie, they just adapted it :P,

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Balls. If you believe a web startup must involve extreme uncertainty, you’re buying into a pile of marketing crap that sells a philosophy over reality. Entrepreneurs and investors don’t (or shouldn’t) apply their effort in areas where everything is unknown: they apply their effort to areas where they believe others have overestimated the uncertainty. That’s a big difference, and even if others can’t see it from the outside that doesn’t mean they’re just throwing everything up in the air and seeing what happens.
      Warby Parker provided a little twist to a well-proven business model, but they built on the shoulders of so many before them in online retail (and, yes, even eyewear retail) and customers service and niche marketing. Copying somebody’s business model doesn’t mean you can execute.

    • Liam Boogar

      Your argument doesn’t negate mine, it merely convolutes it. A ‘startup’ isn’t just ‘the company an entrepreneur does’ – it is a subset thereof. What you’re saying is “entrepreneurs do copycats & entrepreneurs do startups, therefore copycats are startups.”
      Warby Parker may very well be a ‘copycat’ of something else – personally, I think there is a minimum amount of imitation required to be considered a copycat. I wouldn’t call Facebook a ‘copycat’ of Myspace, but I might call Pinspire a ‘copycat’ of Pinterest.
      I think the argument is not over the legitimacy of ‘copycats’ ‘startups’ and ‘entrepreneurs,’ but the definitions of the words themselves.

  3. Fredrik

    I totally agree with Anne-Sophie and you Robert, a startup do not equal innovation, it equals a young company trying to meet a need in a market or wanting to create a need.
    Why not bring something to France that is already working in another market? You can label it copycat, actually you can label it whatever you want but in the end of the day you are making sales and making customers happy 🙂 (if they like the concept like in this case with JimmyFairly). 

    • Liam Boogar

      Why does a copycat have to be a startup? In your definition, a new restaurant and a tobacco shop and a boulangerie all fall under the same ‘startup’ headline as, say, Kwaga (Paris startup). While they may have similarities, this does not seem to be the ‘optimal organization’ that humans strive to do.
      What this problem of ‘is a copycat a startup’ stems from is the desire to BE a startup. Why must a copycat BE a startup? Can’t they just be what they are: an unofficial franchise off an already existing and proven business model.
      There is nothing ‘bad’ about being a copycat – however, there are uncertainties faced by a startup not faced by a copycat: hence, they are not equal, and thus “a copycat IS NOT a startup”
      QED – SQFD – boom.

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