Philip Dietrich, VP of Technology at AC Lens
Bryan Kaiser, Founder and President at Vernovis
Welcome to another ComSpark podcast, where you get to meet today's technology thought leaders.
BK: We are here today with Phil Dietrich, who is the VP of Technology at AC Lens. AC Lens is based in Columbus, Ohio and specializes in optical e-commerce. My name is Bryan Kaiser and I'm the Founder and President of Vernovis, also part of the executive host committee for comSpark, and I'll be your guest moderator today. So, let's get started. Phil, thanks for your time.
PD: Thanks, Bryan.
BK: So, did you have a mentor earlier in your career?
PD: Yeah, I sure did. And it wasn't a technology mentor so much as a business mentor. The, so the CEO and Founder of AC Lens is Peter Clarkson and Peter was the gentleman who I met first and hired me into the company. And I was employee number six at that time. And so I was the guy that, uh, coded our websites, fixed the printers and did server maintenance in our, in our data center. But Peter really was, uh, very inspirational, um, a mentor for me. He taught me a lot of the business ethics, I guess, that, that we bring to the company still in this day and age, which is 18 years after I joined the company. And so, um, I learned a lot from him, um, not so much technologically, but, um, in terms of a business and, and again, our approach to serving customers, I would say.
BK: That's great. So, I would imagine that he is still a mentor today.
PD: He is. And actually, funny enough, he's also my brother in law now.
BK: Oh my gosh!
PD: Yeah. That's so, yeah, he jokes that it's an employee retention policy, but he, uh, he, I met my soon to be wife at our first little board meeting, uh, the four original owners of AC Lens and, uh, yeah, a year or two later we got married and uh, so yeah, we've now been brother-in-laws for over 15 years.
BK: So, brother-in-law, mentor, CEO, boss…
PD: Yeah, He's a very accomplished guy. Look, he's got an M.D. and a Ph.D. Um, he used to teach, uh, physics and, uh, yeah. So, he's, he's very accomplished. He's a guy that you couldn't ask for a better mentor in business and really, again, even in life.
BK: That's awesome. So, so outside of Peter, do you have any other mentors today?
PD: Well, I have peer mentors, I would say today. So, I'm, I'm a member of the small business, uh, CIO, uh, group here in Columbus. And so, we have about 10, 10 of us that meet regularly once a month and a bounce different ideas off of each other. You have some different presentations. And so, uh, that's a group that I've gotten a lot of benefit out of, uh, love getting input and seeking advice from those guys. And so, all of them have different perspectives and experience and so that, that really helps me.
BK: It's great to be around your peers. That's helpful to get bounce ideas off of each other and ask questions. What are you struggling with? What were you successes?
PD: Yeah, and these are all people that, um, some of their companies are probably smaller than, than ours now, and many of them are larger than ours. And so, I think it's, uh, it's always really great to get different opinions and experiences and a lot of times, you know, we'll bring up the topic that we're struggling with and some of the other guys have had a great approach or solution and, uh, and always give me, uh, good thoughts. So, yeah.
BK: Great. So, Phil, when did you realize you, you created a big break for yourself?
PD: Well, I think, so, when we were six employees, I knew I was getting in somewhat on the ground floor, which I really liked. And I mean I, I really still like to have my hands on the different technology – coding, um, you know, and all the different features that, that we try to bring to our websites and our other lines of business, um, and our partnerships. And so, I thought, you know, well, that's certainly something that was interesting to me.
And I think, once it got to be a stable enough enterprise that I knew we weren't likely to go out of business, then, then that just became very rewarding, um, in terms of doing what I love to do in a company that was, uh, really great and innovative and allowed me to, to express that. I think around 2010 we were growing fast enough that I knew that, that this was really something that actually had a lot of enterprise value at that point, and we'd started to attract some larger partners. Um, in 2011 we were acquired by National Vision, which was a big break for us, became part of a much larger organization, but I think, culturally, was still a really good fit for us. They're headquartered near Atlanta, um, where we stayed and will stay in Columbus. But we just felt like, in terms of our approach to business and the lines of business that we served, it was a really good match.
After we were acquired by National Vision, we got to partner with some very large national retailers: Walmart, Sam's Club, CVS, Giant Eagle. And so, we really started to get into some much higher volume, uh, orders, uh, in terms of our orders flow through our warehouse. And actually, just most recently, we launched an expanded partnership with Walmart that should actually about double our order volume through our distribution center. And that just kicked off in September. So, we're very excited about that.
BK: That's great. So, what are some of your top projects for 2018?
PD: Yeah, so we've had some interesting ones. So, if you look at some of the more innovative projects that we've done, I think we just launched a, an Alexa App. So for our previous customers, now you can say if you're a discount contact lenses customer, which is one of our larger e-commerce websites, uh, as a previous customer, you can configure an Alexa App so that you can say, “Alexa, reorder my contact lenses,” and she will respond if you have our app installed and say, you know, “I see that you've ordered two boxes of Accuvue, would you like to place an order?” You say yes, and your contact lenses are on their way. And that's an approach that we've had. We think that a lot of times when someone realizes that they're on their last pair of contact lenses, they’re in their bathroom or somewhere else and they're not near their, their phone or they're, certainly not their desktop PC. And so, that's been something that's been live in the app store or for about a month. And we will see how big that is, but um, but that's an interesting one that we've worked on.
We've also some done some very preliminary things with machine learning, and I think that's another very exciting area that we're all starting to see impact our lives more. And so, we've done some voice recognition. We were working on a, uh, an online vision test, which a lot of people would call telemedicine, and that, uh, online vision test was using speech recognition in order to allow you to, uh, give, uh, read the eye chart into the, into the app. And so, that was interesting and I think that's something that you just couldn't have done easily to a decade ago. Right? You would have been using a very specialized software package to try to do that. And now, when we look at cloud providers, you've got AWS, Google, Microsoft, IBM, that all have, pretty much turnkey solutions for something like speech recognition.
And the same thing we have for a quality control thing in our distribution center. We ship out about eight different kinds of branded boxes. So Walmart, CVS, again, these different brands. And you wouldn't want to get your Walmart order accidentally in a CVS box. So we were using, again, machine learning, image recognition, to take photos of the boxes as they’re on the scale and leaving our distribution center and flag ones that don't look like they're in the correct packaging. And so, I think that, that was also an interesting project that's not in production yet, but we, uh, we certainly have made some progress with, uh, with that.
Um, so, and then the last one I would say is, we overhauled our CRM. So, we send a lot of emails to customers reminding them to order contact lenses. And we had tried a number of third-party platforms over the years that just hadn't really been able to segment our specialized database in the way that we could most precisely target, or be helpful to our customers and the way that we send emails. And so, we overhauled and wrote that, brought that in-house with a lot of, a little bit of a small data mart, I would say. And that's been a very successful project for us, and has had a large ROI already for, for us. So that, those have been great.
I'll just throw in one other one. So, customers who are checking out online with their contact lenses are a prescription item, and so we typically have to verify contact lens prescriptions by faxing your doctor's office. But if, but that typically takes us several hours, up to a day. And so, we created a feature, actually last year, where you can upload, snap a photo of your contact lens prescription with your smartphone and then upload that, which then our agents just review that, make sure that it's got the right contact lenses on it and the right powers that you've ordered, and then your order's on its way. And we see instances now, where an order is placed and within an hour, it's actually shipped from our distribution center. And so, I know Amazon has made that, you know, sort of routine. But for us that's, that's quite innovative. And so, we've made a few different, uh, UX enhancements to that, that upload process this year that have made, just made it that much easier and that's been a big win for both our customer service center and for our customers.
BK: So, as the business needs change, how do you balance maintaining quality with meeting challenging timelines?
PD: Yeah, that, that is certainly a challenge for us. I think that, that we run into a couple different things. So, one, as we've grown, we are now subject to a number of different regulatory frameworks. So HIPAA, we do a SOC II, Type II audit, we've got PCI and now, because our parent company is public, we have SOX compliance. And so, all of those have pretty rigorous expectations for change management, and certainly testing that goes into our software changes. And yet, I'm trying to push our team for kind of a Dev Ops culture with frequent releases of small, incremental improvements in our software. And so, you know, coming up with systems that can meet our regulatory and, and just our overall quality objectives while staying nimble and being able to incrementally add value to the software that we produce is, is certainly a challenge.
And I think we've used a number of automated tools for deployment, for automated testing.
We have a bunch of selenium scripts for our front end testing that we've invested in, and we've just grown our QA department, um, as a, as a way to try to help us do that better. I think the other thing I would just say in terms of delivering value is, we've gotten better at bringing the business in. I think we're much better now at developing accurate business requirements and doing agile process with demos so that we're getting constant feedback from the business during the development process, where thinking, in years past, sometimes we've gone off and worked on a project for six months and then said, “Here you go,” you know, at the end of the day to the business. And sometimes that's not met with, with a standing ovation, you know, from the business. So, they're sort of thinking, “Well, that's not exactly what I thought that would look like.” And so, I think having them aboard and giving feedback through the development process has helped us to create a higher quality product that meets our business requirements.
BK: Phil, thank you. A lot to digest there. Obviously, we could talk for hours about all of this, so thank you for your time.
PD: Thank you, Bryan!
BK: This is Bryan Kaiser and Phil Dietrich with AC Lens. Um, we appreciate your time. To learn more about us, visit comspark.tech. Have a great day.
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