Five With: Aaron Dallek, CEO, Opternative
The founding story of Opternative is a serendipitous one. CEO Aaron Dallek, serial entrepreneur with a handful of tech startups already under his belt (his first was when he was 14), met his co-founder, Dr. Steven Lee, at a party – one that he decided to go to at the last minute.
As an optometrist, Dr. Lee had an idea to make eye exams more efficient and less expensive. The two quickly saw a huge opportunity in this idea, and armed with a new friendship and complementary skills, they set off to start the company that would bring the world its first online eye exam.
We chatted with Aaron about what it’s taken to bring Opternative to market, earning trust, and their mission to help the world see and feel better.
1) Why did you start Opternative?
I’m a lifetime glasses and contact wearer so when Dr. Steven Lee, my co-founder, said “Online eye exams” were possible, I was onboard immediately. I understood how frustrating and inconvenient it was to get a new prescription for glasses and contacts. I was no stranger to the tedious process of scheduling an exam, taking time off from work, and getting pressured to buy glasses, usually costing me hundreds of dollars and hours of my time. My co-founder and I started Opternative because we knew there had to be a better way. The Opternative Eye Exam solves numerous pain points in the eye care experience, but we aren’t stopping there. Opternative’s mission is to help the world see and feel better. With only one doctor for every million people in the world and 75% of people worldwide needing vision correction, many with poor vision are going underserved and untreated. Opternative can provide billions of people with their first eye exam, and be a catalyst for telehealth adoption across the entire healthcare industry.
2) How has Opternative evolved since it started?
Creating a great product that solves a tough problem is like peeling an onion. You solve one problem peeling one layer off, then you discover another problem underneath, and you keep peeling until you succeed in reaching your goal or possibly a new goal that evolved over time. We formed Opternative in 2012 with the goal of creating the first online eye exam to deliver a prescription. It’s taken over 2 ½ years with constant iterations but we never stopped peeling the onion and we successfully wrote our first prescription last month. We take testing very seriously, in the last year we have performed over 1,000 user tests to improve our technology and patient experience. Currently, the Opternative Exam is in its 16th version. Just as important as how our exam evolved is how our company culture has evolved through the great people we hired. Opternative started with just Steve and me, but now we have 13 amazing employees that have made this company what it is today.
3) You’re in an industry that undergoes a lot of scrutiny and regulation. How are you navigating any potential roadblocks?
We’re actually very lucky because doctors are able to practice medicine using our technology in almost every state. This means our technology will be available to roughly 90% of US population between 18-40 years old when we launch. That said we have paid lawyers a lot of money to keep us in full compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations. There are some entrenched interests in the eyecare industry that are trying to pass laws to restrict doctors’ ability to use innovative new technologies like Opternative, to provide their patients with more accessible and lower cost options. We are and will continue to fight for doctors and patients right to use innovative tele-health technologies in the eye care and healthcare industry.
4) What will the key to Opternative’s success be?
Trust. The Opternative Exam is truly innovative, and is the first of its kind. As a company and as a brand we must earn the trust of our doctors and patients to adopt this new technology. We will be fully dedicated to ensuring every patient is satisfied with our service and when our solution isn’t appropriate for an individual’s situation, we will assist them in finding an appropriate eye care provider. Every patient who comes to Opternative matters to us and that is why we will continue to succeed.
5) What are the biggest challenges you face as a startup founder?
Startups are like walking on an endless tightrope and every once in a while you get to stand on very small platforms for a very short rest. Then you keep moving forward taking the next best step, after next best step. The biggest challenge is balancing all the demands of hiring great people, creating a product that consumers love, and building a great company while trying to prioritize where to spend your limited resources. One of our biggest challenges is deciding which applications of our technology to focus on. We have to make sure that we’re not spreading ourselves too thin as we work on new product features and go after new distribution channels to help the world see and feel better.