Jazz Shaper: Tom Broughton

Posted on 02 October 2021

Tom Broughton is the founder of Cubitts, a modern spectacles company based in King's Cross, London.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss.  Bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping the world of Jazz, Soul and Blues.   My guest today is Tom Broughton, Founder and CEO of Cubitts, a modern spectacles company.  After a decade of, as Tom says, “career procrastination” that spanned accountancy, traffic forecasting, children’s television and, I believe, a short-lived career as a milkman, Tom then turned to one of his first passions, his love for wearing glasses.  Having saved for twelve years and undertaken a spectacle making apprenticeship, Tom launched Cubitts online in 2013 from his kitchen in Cubitt Street, London, named after the Cubitt brothers.  We’ll find out who they were very shortly.  On a mission to democratise bespoke spectacles and create a better, more responsible industry, Cubitts now has eleven stores in the UK and over 100,000 customers across a hundred countries.  Welcome.

Tom Broughton

Thank you, Elliot. 

Elliot Moss

Sporting a nice pair of glasses.  That’s you, not me, although I have obviously, as we’ve discussed, I put on my glasses which are my reading glasses.  Why the obsession with the things on your face?  Where did that come from?

Tom Broughton

Well, when I think first of all because they sit on your face.  Right in the middle, right? 

Elliot Moss

I can see them.

Tom Broughton

And I think anyone… I mean, I just think glasses are really like a fascinating, cultural object.  I think anyone that’s started wearing glasses at school will probably have a different relationship with it, right, because, you know, when you are in your class, you will immediately become the speccy four eyed kid, it becomes part of your kind of, you know, an extension of you really, your most distinguishing feature and I think growing up, I could never understand why if you have this object that you need to wear and you have to wear every single day from the moment you wake up to when you go to bed at night, you know, you might as well have something that you love and that kind of contrasted with how I think most people think about glasses, which is I don’t know like a something that they reluctantly own, even more reluctantly wear and the whole experience is kind of akin to going to a dentist, something you have to do on this periodic basis but it always felt to me that there was an opportunity to sort of flip that round and actually turn it into a process and a product that people really love and have something that sits on their face that they’re proud of. 

Elliot Moss

Would you describe yourself as a creative person because what you’ve just talked about is essentially smashing together two completely random thoughts which is well of course many people, I think I heard 69% of people wear glasses, is that right?

Tom Broughton

Yes, they do. 

Elliot Moss

69%, which I thought was extraordinary and I suppose thinking about, that means, you know, just over two in every three people you meet wears glasses which is about right but that with the idea that that can be a creative thing strikes me as an innovation in itself.  Did you ever view it like that or was it just why are they ugly?

Tom Broughton

Well yeah, I mean I think one of the really beautiful things about glasses which is why I’m still so, you know, after 8-9 years of doing it now, I’m still so passionate about it, is they are this weird fusion of all these different things, right?  They are a medical device, they are a pure manifestation of physics and refraction, they are a piece of engineering, they are a piece of fashion, a pure piece of design, materiality, phrenology, they’re this like really weird mishmash of stuff from all these different pursuits and disciplines and, yeah, and then they actually change people’s lives.  And it’s even more than sort of 69%, right?  It will, you know, it gets every…, you know, what is it?  Death, taxes and glasses?  Get everyone in the end, it’s like, it’s so ubiquitous and such a strange, fascinating, captivating, intoxicating product and industry that I think it’s really hard kind of not to love. 

Elliot Moss

You set the business up back in 2013, as I said earlier.  You started getting funded, as I understand it, a bit later, I think it was around 2014/15 that you started getting money into the business and I think I heard you say on one of the clips I was listening to that the biggest challenge you faced, in fact it was a clip on this very programme I now remember, Future Shapers 2016, which is a while ago.  “The biggest challenge is getting used to having challenges,” you said back then.  Is that still true today?  As now you’ve got your empire building, at that point you had one store, now you’ve got ten.  And are the challenges just as big and just as daunting?

Tom Broughton

Yeah, I would say so.  I would say they are bigger but you have more tools in your like apparatus to control them I would say and I think, I’m trying to remember, take me back to 2016 but I think what really sort of surprised me, shocked me and I wasn’t ready for, was that the way people go through education, the way you go through work, you know you are kind of taught to take a problem and then kind of find the best answer to solve that particular thing, right?  It’s the way the whole, yeah, the education grading system is based, right?  There’s a kind of right or wrong, you have to methodically work through them all and try and get as many correct as possible.  When you suddenly start a business and there is an immeasurable number of things being thrown at you all the time, most of which you’ve never done before and you’ve no idea how to tackle, so I very much started with that kind of academic approach to try and solve those problems but you can’t, you just have to get used to making endless, countless, enumerate mistakes and just accept that they’re part of the whole process and hopefully you don’t make too many fatal mistakes, or any fatal mistakes, and you can survive it but that was really, probably the first three years.  I think now as we’ve got a bit bigger, we can hire people who actually know what they’re doing so that they can help you reduce the number of mistakes you make but, yeah, I think those set of early problems and challenges are replaced by a different set really. 

Elliot Moss

Interesting what you said about education because of course you are right, in the way we are all schooled, it is about a binary answer, even in the more artistic and art subjects, you know, you still have a sense of what the right answer is but here you are in a completely freeform world, where you are trying to anchor, as you said, you know, you are trying to make the right decisions.  Where did you go though in your head for those answers apart from just getting it wrong and apart from your own experience?  Were there people that you looked to, to say well you’ve done this sort of thing before, you’ve built a business online, you’ve built a brand, you’ve built real estate as it were and actually you’ve done an experience or did this all come from you?  Was everything practically your call?

Tom Broughton

It’s like a mixture of both really and I did reach out to a whole bunch of people.  I remember coming up with a list of people who had been through the process and built businesses that I admired and just hit them all up on LinkedIn.  Probably tried to get in touch with 30 or 40 people.  What was amazing is that quite a few replied and if a few, you know I even met, and there’s a chap called Nick Wheeler who started Charles Tyrwhitt…

Elliot Moss

He’s been on this very programme, a very knowledgeable man, a nice man.

Tom Broughton

Yeah, I hit him up and he replied in two minutes and then later on that afternoon I was over in his office, you know, taking advice like a sponge and so, you know, what is amazing is, I think there is a lot of people that have been through similar processes and had a lot of the same troubles and want to share the lessons they’ve learnt so anyone going through the same process again, I would absolutely encourage them to hustle. 

Elliot Moss

I mentioned earlier as well that you’ve done lots of different sorts of roles.  Do you think, actually, that the experiences you had, the varying experiences around the media world, the creative industries, I think you were a Senior Consultant at Deloitte’s for a period of time as well, do you think that’s actually given you stuff as well that through most as you you’ve gone “Oh I know things I didn’t even know I knew”?

Tom Broughton

Yeah, I mean the funny things is when you suddenly realise that stuff that you thought was completely irrelevant actually, and in a completely different discipline, suddenly becomes incredibly relevant.

Elliot Moss

Like what?  Give me a specific if you can.

Tom Broughton

Oh like, you know, I spent a year and a half trying to model traffic in London, for Transport for London, it was when they were introducing the congestion charging scheme, building these Excel models to try and understand how, yeah cars would move round different zones of London, right?  Stopped doing that and never thought that would come in handy again and obviously traffic forecasting is not particularly relevant to glasses but what it allowed me to do is, it gave me an analytical viewpoint which allowed me to model things like when you are opening a store, how you should think about the in flow and out flow of people, how you should try and, you know, create like a financial framework around any of the kind of investments you are doing and so, you know, those kind of transferrable skills I think have been super helpful and, yeah, I think, you know, my 10-12 years of working as a very much kind of Jack of all trades, master of none really and I think that’s kind of continued. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, that’s Tom Broughton and he’s the Founder of Cubitts.  We’ll be back in a couple of minutes talking about the relevance of traffic flow and the taste of black pudding and the importance of both in western culture, or something like that.  Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Suzi Sendama and Emily Dorotheou talk about how fashion brands can be more sustainable while maintaining profitability and what consumers should be doing to support sustainable fashion.

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop the words ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’ into your podcast platform of choice or if you’ve got a smart speaker and you know more ways here of getting to this, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find a taster of our recent shows but back to today’s guest, it’s Tom Broughton, Founder and CEO of Cubitts, a modern spectacles company.  Right at the beginning you were talking about the fusion of all these different disciplines.  Technology has become your friend and I think again it’s clear that you, you are interested in the, not just the history but the future of this industry that you are in.  Tell me a little bit about what role technology is now playing in what you call democratising the wearing of glasses. 

Tom Broughton

Well, I think it’s worse if the process of buying glasses hasn’t really changed that much over probably 300 years, right, and the last sort of 20/30 years it’s played pretty static.  I have like a different view of the future which is that I think absolutely within our lifetime, probably the next decade, the process instead of going to an optician and then sort of sorting your way through a random smorgasbord of frames with sizing that makes absolutely no sense, often products in just one size which is absolutely bonkers by the way, and then finally finding something you like and choosing it, I just think, I don’t think that will exist.  Where we’re trying to take it is, we’ve developed some technology which we call HERU internally, which essentially uses the true depth cameras and the latest generation of smart phones to scan a face, it then takes a face, turns that face into a set of parametric measurements, it will then take a frame, use a machine learning algorithm to recommend a frame, you can customise it if you want, you can say yes or no, swipe left, swipe right all that kind of stuff, and when you are happy with it you can parametrically fit the frame to your face so that solves sizing, you don’t have to worry about sizing, it uses actually intelligent data driven learning recommendations rather than all the normal nonsense that, you know, work out if your heard is an apple… a pineapple or a cucumber or whatever they normally say, and then when you are happy with it you press go and it turns that into a 3-dimensional CAD drawing that goes into a production queue.  So the idea being that every frame is made to order, to you, whoever you are and wherever you are in the world and I think that has the opportunity to revolutionise the industry because, you know, you don’t need stock, there’s minimal wastage, you don’t have problems with fit, hopefully people have a product they love, you can serve all those people, I wouldn’t even say they are on the edge but people just can’t get the right sizing which is a genuinely legitimate issue, if you, you know 69% of the world’s population need this thing and most products are designed for the average head and you know, there is no average, there is just you know, beautiful heterogeneity of all faces all around the world and like we really think that this technology can be used to serve those people and then when you get onto things like 3-D printing and additive manufacturing, you’ve got this really, really kind of intoxicating, captivating phase of this, yeah, 300 year old industry, so yeah, that’s where we’re going.

Elliot Moss

And the economics of it work because I’ve always been intrigued by the bespoke thing and the challenge that that has for uniformity, which is where the more, you know, commoditised…

Tom Broughton

Yeah, but that’s the kind of I guess the great thing about it, right?  Because one of the reasons bespoke is so expensive is because it’s so incredibly time consuming, right?  You’d have to go and sit down with a trained associate who takes all your measurements, turns them into a set of drawings, you review them, you go back and forth, you can’t see it in 3-D a lot of the time, you know, it takes a long time and, you know, humans are expensive.  The thing about the technology is all of that stuff is done in the Cloud so that from the consumer’s perspective, there’s no cost so what we want to do is try and deliver a fully bespoke product to anyone in the world for less than they would pay for just a you know, something off the shelf in a high street optician and we really think we can do that through clever technology. 

Elliot Moss

Has this been a vision of yours right from the beginning of setting this business up or has this emerged as the access to cheap technology and the ability to sort of use you know algorithms and the like has become easier to access?

Tom Broughton

I mean a bit of both.  So like when we very first stated, one of the principles was to sort of revive bespoke because it felt like a really missing part of the market really, the industry.  I think as we’ve realised that like you know all of the kind of stars are aligning with access to CNC machining and head scanning and materiality, we’ve developed this bit of technology but we’ve been working on this thing now for four years, I think, on and off, so it’s been a long time coming and it will take five, ten, fifteen years, who knows how many years until it actually tips the mainstream right?  Because most people only ever buy a pair of glasses every two or three years and there’s a lot of inertia, they are used to doing what they are used to doing and so to actually change people’s behaviour to start scanning their head or downloading apps, is really, really tough but, you know, we’re going to give it a good go. 

Elliot Moss

The technology piece, the vision, you’ve got to find people, great people and immediately it’s clear that you have an interesting brain, Tom, you are kind of interested in lots of things and you want to get into the depths of what glasses are about, where they sit culturally, where they’ve come from and so on and so forth.  How do you find people and have you found people that kind of have the same passion and the same intellect as you? 

Tom Broughton

I mean the good thing is, you can normally tell glasses wearers because they’ve got glasses on, right?  You can normally tell their prescription based on… you know, we don’t only employ people that wear glasses but it does really make a difference.  Our company definitely skews heavily towards glasses wearers.  Finding people, you know, is always the hardest thing, right?  But I think, you know, we look for… and it’s particularly with the technology, just look for people that have both the technical capability but also the kind of passion, borderline obsession, and so we’ve built a team that’s all over the world, frankly, like at the moment I think the people that are developing, a chap in Argentina, one in France, one in the Ukraine…

Elliot Moss

And why the spread?  Is it just because these are where the people are and post-Covid it doesn’t matter where people sit?

Tom Broughton

Yeah, a bit of that and also just the sort of specialist skills we’re looking at, you know, people that understand the fusion between you know 3-D modelling and optics, there’s not, you know that many people so they are reasonably specialist.  I mean, you know, it works really well, especially you know as we’re straddling various time zones so we can have people working on it probably 16-18 hours a day. 

Elliot Moss

But that means you need to understand what they’re doing.  Do you?

Tom Broughton

As I said, Jack of all trades, master of none.  I think I can get to sort of 6 out of 10 on most of the topics but we bring them in to move it from 6 out to 10 to 9 out of 10. 

Elliot Moss

And what are they buying into do you think when they meet you and they think about your vision?

Tom Broughton

I genuinely think it’s the opportunity to change a massive industry, right?  It’s a 150 billion dollar industry that’s been around 300 years and hasn’t really changed and I think it’s not that it hasn’t changed, I think the standards are quite poor frankly, I think for the general punter, the process of buying glasses is not good, it’s slow and expensive and confusing and you’re often upsold stuff that you don’t necessarily need, there’s a kind of distrust for a lot of the process and that’s before you even get onto some of the things we talked about before where there’s a bunch of people out there who just can’t get frames that fit them, for whatever reason and so the opportunity to take that industry and in our own kind of little upstarty, ferally way, really sort of take that on and take on some of the big boys, I think is quite like exciting for the right type of person. 

Elliot Moss

And being feral and being a bit naughty and being a bit of a revolutionary, what does that look like on a daily basis because, you know, constant revolution, Chez Guevara, probably got quite tired after a while, I mean do you ever think, I just don’t want to be a revolutionary anymore, I just want to kind of manage the status quo, or is that antithetical to your philosophy?

Tom Broughton

Yeah, because that’s why you do it, right?  If you lose that, what’s the point?  I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to start a company was because I sort of decided that I was kind of unemployable and that, you know, I wasn’t good with taking direction or taking orders from people so that was really the only option for me, so that’s continued to this day so if it got to the point we weren’t doing that, I wouldn’t want to do it anymore and fund it. 

Elliot Moss

And your funders buy into that?  They go, yeah, he’s unmanageable, but in a good way. 

Tom Broughton

To a certain degree.  I mean, I think if they were on this show now, they might have a different set of perspectives, I mean I think they obviously have a different set of like motivations for being part if it, right?  And what you need to try and do is make those motivations align and I think we’ve been okay at that, 5 out of 10 I’d give us.  We could always be better but, yeah, that’s, it’s always going to be a constant struggle, right?

Elliot Moss

Still in there so I think it’s probably more than a 5 out of 10.  Stay with me for my final chat with Tom Broughton and we’ve got a beautiful chat from Robert Glasper and Jill Scott, that’s all coming up in just a moment. 

Tom Broughton is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes.  I read somewhere that you tried to resurrect your great, great grandfather’s business a few years ago, about four years ago, I think he made boots?  Broughton boots.  And it got me think and the way you’ve been talking today and this kind of confluence of the aesthetic, the engineering and the running your own business thing, are you a bit of a romantic?  Is there something about you that says I need to be in love with the thing I’m doing for it to really matter? 

Tom Broughton

I mean 100%.  I couldn’t do something I didn’t love, otherwise what’s the point, right?  I mean, that’s the great, you know, at some point we are all going to be dead, right, so we might as well fill those, hopefully years, between now and then with stuff you love.  Yeah, I just couldn’t do it any other way but then I also think I have a strong feeling that there’s a kind of like a right way to do something and maybe that is being kind of overly romantic or, you know, partly naïve but how to have a business really, how to build a business and how to hire people and develop them and all that kind of stuff, it feeds kind of into everything we do which makes it hard, right, because you are kind of striving for a certain, you know, sort of excellence in a lot of things but when it comes together, it's really worthwhile. 

Elliot Moss

And when you walk past, do you call them shops or stores or what’s the…?

Tom Broughton

Yeah, or practices. 

Elliot Moss

Practices.  I knew you’d have a word for it, I could sense there was another word.  When you walk a practice and as I said my local one is in Hampstead on the high street and it looks very pretty, just on the corner of the high street in Gayton Street I think we said, Gayton Road, is there a sense of, an enormous sense of wellbeing as a pop group may have said many, many years ago, do you get that?  Or is it more you looking for the issue?  Are you looking for the fact one frame’s not quite in the right place or something isn’t polished or the window isn’t quite clean?  I mean, what’s the attitude as you walk into your own practices?

Tom Broughton

It depends what mood I’m in but no, I’m extremely proud of the stores.  Again, when we opened our first one in 2013 having no retail experience at all, I had no idea how to open a store and you know we literally got the keys, moved a bunch of stuff in and then I worked in there at the start with Jo, who’s our Head of Operations at the moment and just spent a year trying to work out how you open a store and made so many mistakes, I mean, yeah, I can’t believe none of them were fatal to be honest, but we got the confidence then which allowed us to open, yeah, we’re now up to eleven stores and each one is uniquely designed and they are all designed to try and celebrate the people of the environs, right?  Because what we’re offering is not just about sticking a bunch of product on shelves, we’re offering a service, we want to be part of the community and so, yeah, we’ll always take cues so that, you know, the Hampstead site is inspired by the kind of the artistic movement in Hampstead in the 1920s and 1930s, you know, Moore and Hepworth and all of those really, really influential modernist designers and that feeds through into I think the atmosphere of the store and like the bits that I’m most proud of are actually, you know, you walk into the store and there’s people there and there’s a sense of atmosphere and I think we’ve achieved what we set out to, which is trying to make an optician a place where people actually want to hang out, you know, we don’t just want them to come in, like at a dentist practice, come in, do what needs to be done and then get out as fast as possible, we want them to hang out, we want them to, you know, chat, we want them to, you know, story tell, imbibe, we just want them in the stores and so I think when we’ve achieved that, it definitely gives you a sense of pride.

Elliot Moss

And of course the challenge is as you said, we’ve said there is a retail revolution going on, you obviously have got an online offering, it’s really important there will be a change and the change is coming, it’s been sped up as we know over the last couple of years but you still see a place for those practices in the community, actually offering something very special and a special feeling for someone looking for a pair of glasses?

Tom Broughton

Absolutely.  I mean, I think, you know, we like to go places, right?  I mean, over the last eighteen months, that’s been restricted somewhat but like we are social beings and we like that experience of speaking to other human beings and so for us, the technology and physical retail have a beautiful symbiotic relationship where it can sort of support both at different times of people’s wants and needs and, you know, we will always have stores and we’ll always invest heavily in making them incredible, beautiful places in which to hang out, and have an eye exam. 

Elliot Moss

Continue enjoying your fortieth year, I mean it makes you think, actually you were pretty young when you set off on this journey but in a way you will say no, no I was very old, I was in my thirties but, you know, I think you’ve got a long, long way of fun and great success to go, which is super.  Lovely to have chatted to you today, Tom.  Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Tom Broughton

Oh, so I’ve chosen Memphis Soul Stew by King Curtis.  So I’ve chosen this, one because it’s an amazing song, which is a good place to start but I used to run with my best friend from home, we used to run kind of Northern Soul night in Leicester where I grew up in my early twenties, all pre-Cubitts, and we always used to put this on when we started, partly because, I mean, you can’t listen to it and not start tapping your feet, you can’t not turn the volume up, it’s amazing and it’s a sort of a celebration of virtuoso instrument player but also just music more generally and I don’t think you can listen to it and not smile, so that’s why. 

Elliot Moss

Memphis Soul Stew by King Curtis, the brilliant song choice of my Business Shaper today, Tom Broughton.  He talked about being in love with what he did and boy could you feel his passion, his energy and his understanding of the industry.  He talked about the importance and understanding the role that wearing a pair of glasses plays in somebody’s life.  Indeed 69% of people wear glasses.  He talked about being a revolutionary, somebody who wants to fundamentally change the industry using technology and making people feel great about the experience and on that note, he wants to make his practices places that people want to hang out in.  Absolutely brilliant stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

After a decade of "career procrastination" that spanned accountancy, traffic forecasting and children's television, Tom launched Cubitts in 2013.

Tom launched Cubitts online in 2013 from his kitchen in Cubitt Street, London, named after the Cubitt brothers. On a mission to democratise bespoke spectacles and create a better, more responsible industry, Cubitts now has eleven stores in the UK and over 100,000 customers across a hundred countries.

Highlights

It always felt to me that there was an opportunity to turn it into a process and a product that people really love.

When you suddenly start a business, there are an immeasurable number of things being thrown at you all the time, most of which you’ve never done before and you’ve no idea how to tackle.

I very much started with that kind of academic approach to try and solve those problems but you can’t, you just have to get used to making endless, countless, enumerate mistakes and accept that they’re part of the process.

It gave me an analytical viewpoint which allowed me to model things like when you are opening a store; how you should think about the inflow and out flow of people.

What we want to do is try and deliver a fully bespoke product to anyone in the world for less than they would pay for something off the shelf in a high street optician and we really think we can do that through clever technology. 

When we first started, one of the principles was to revive bespoke because it felt like a really missing part of the market really. 

We look for people that have both the technical capability but also a kind of passion, borderline obsession, and so we’ve built a team that’s all over the world.

It’s a 150 billion dollar industry that’s been around 300 years … the process of buying glasses is not good, it’s slow and expensive and confusing.

We are social beings and we like that experience of speaking to other human beings and so for us, the technology and physical retail have a beautiful symbiotic relationship where it can sort of support both at different times of people’s wants and needs.

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