“Thanks to Birdhouse, I have the privilege of talking to experienced people I would never encounter otherwise.”
Five years in Silicon Valley have taught co-founder Dominique Peters to dare to see things in a big way from the start. CRMoptics currently focuses on Belgian opticians. But it won’t stop there. “The United States will be our second market,” it sounds ambitious. Other target groups are also coming into view.
As the name suggests, CRMoptics develops CRM systems for opticians. The big difference with existing CRM systems is that the software is free. Fully funded by advertising from the eyewear and lens manufacturers.
Dominique Peters drew his inspiration for the idea of making the software completely free in the United States, where he moved after selling the IT company he founded at the age of 18 to GIMV.
In America, you have free software for family doctors that is wildly popular. Pharmaceutical companies are waiting in line to be allowed to advertise on the CRM software, they can easily reach a huge group of doctors with it. “Meanwhile, already half of American doctors use free software, the company behind it is worth billions. Wonderfully disruptive.”
Expensive, ramshackle software
The idea stuck with Peters, and once back in Belgium he started investigating whether free CRM software would catch on here as well. During his search he met co-founder Patrick De Jonge. “Patrick has more than 12 years of experience in the optical sector. He had already created software programs for opticians in a secondary capacity, he knows that world inside out.”
“He knew that independent opticians not only have a lot of competition from big chains like Pearle and Hans Anders, but they are also extremely unhappy with the software they have to work with to face that competition. They are not helped at all by the CRM systems they have to work with. Crappy software for which they also pay expensive maintenance contracts.”
Opticians were absolutely not helped by the current CRM systems. Crappy software for which they also had to pay expensive maintenance contracts.
Dominique Peters and Patrick De Jonge saw a gap in the market, and they dived in. CRMoptics was born. “At first we were still quite suspicious. “Free? There’s no such thing. They looked for the catch. But the distrust was soon gone. They pay too much money for bad software, and at the same time they also know that the eyewear brands have very large marketing budgets. Put those two together, and the idea of providing good software for free is not so crazy anymore. It makes sense.”
For opticians who don’t want ads, we also have a paid version. But the vast majority go for the free version. Otherwise they get leaflets in the mail or get emails from the manufacturers, now they get ads through their CRM system.
The same weapons as the big chains
A second pillar of CRMoptics’ business model, in addition to paid advertising, is automated and personalized marketing. “Our CRM systems are of course built to keep accurate and up-to-date records of eye measurements, deviations, types of lenses and lenses, etc. in addition to the traditional customer data. We can send each customer a personalised card at the touch of a button. Had an eye test three years ago? Then the optician can send you an invitation for a new eye test. Bought new glasses three years ago? Then you can suggest that maybe it’s time to try a new model.”
“That way, we allow the smaller, independent opticians to still compete with the marketing budgets of the big chains,” Peters says. “We give them the same weapons in their hands. They make the difference with a personal approach, unlike the anonymous chains they really know their customers. Then a card like that – adjusted for gender and age of the customer – with a personal message can really make the difference.”
Silicon Valley in miniature
Dominique Peters has five years of Silicon Valley under his belt. He was there at the birth of two start-ups, one success story and one fail story. At Birdhouse he says he finds the atmosphere of Silicon Valley. “When you walk into a coffee shop in San Francisco, everyone there is talking about wild, innovative ideas. It’s the same at Birdhouse, that concentration of drive and ideas. Silicon Valley in miniature,” he says.
”I also meet people there that I would never meet otherwise. One of my Birdhouse mentors is the ex-CEO of Microsoft Belgium. It is a privilege to talk with such experienced people. He can warn me not to fall into the pits he fell into during his career. But the other start-ups are also of great help to me. We push each other forward, but I can just as easily pull someone by their sleeve with a very specific software question.”
The US as a second market
CRMoptics wants to be the market leader in Belgium before the end of the year. “That will be hard work”, Dominique Peters realizes. “The demand is there, the biggest challenge is implementing our software. It is not an add-on, it is not a tool that the optician uses when it is convenient. No, it is the lifeblood of their business. The first software the optician opens in the morning, the last one he closes in the evening, together with his business. That’s why we have to migrate and integrate all the old data and train the opticians so that they can go live. That takes a lot of time every time.”
Still, the founders believe that market leadership is possible, and fast. But the growth plans don’t stop there. “We are convinced that other target groups are also open to this disruptive model. I am thinking of home nurses, for example, or physiotherapists. They also work with poor or expensive CRM systems, or they don’t even have one yet. And yet they benefit greatly from them. No, it’s certainly not going to stay with opticians.”
”Before the end of the year, we want to be the market leader in Belgium, that’s our first concrete ambition. But the United States will be our second market!”
Birdhouse may be Silicon Valley in miniature, but Dominique Peters also cherishes a true American Dream. “Before the end of the year we want to be the market leader in Belgium, that is our first concrete ambition. But the United States will be our second market, of that I am one hundred percent sure. Belgium has 1,500 independent opticians, in the US there are 36,000. The market is immense.”
“As a start-up, you always get the question, ‘Wouldn’t you go to Germany first? Or to France?’ Frankly, I think that’s an idiotic question. I know the American market and the American consumer much better than the French. And my English is much better than my French. So what do I have to do in France?”