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Jonathan Coon: it's all in the number.

IN THE EARLY 1990s, JONATHAN COON had a very simple idea. After visiting an optometrist for an eye exam, the doctor prescribed contact lenses and told him to return in a week to pick them up. As a financially challenged BYU student, sans car, Coon was a bit put out.


"I could have had glasses in an hour," Coon says, "but I was told to come back the following week for my contacts." The delay was completely unnecessary, according to Coon. "I kept thinking it would've been easier for the manufacturer to send the contacts straight to me rather than to the optometrist."

A youthful Texan, Coon's boy-next-door demeanor belies a shrewd, practical business streak. He was convinced he could provide contacts to his fellow students faster and cheaper than others. So in the winter of 1992, while enrolled as a full-time business student, he printed flyers, dropped them off around campus, and, working from home, opened for business. He used every spare moment to perfect his plan and took every opportunity to learn about business and establish networking contacts.

Thirteen years later he captains the world's largest provider of direct-shipped contact lenses, 1-800 CONTACTS. The company, with more than five million customers, an 85 percent retention rate, and 20 million lenses in stock, ships more than 150,000 contacts daily--90 percent within 24 hours of ordering--directly to the customer's door, according to Kevin McCallum, senior vice president, marketing and sales.

Coon's big break came at a free lunch provided by BYU's Center for Entrepreneurship. "There were all these business advisors there and you could ask them anything you wanted, but I was the only one who showed up," Coon says. "I couldn't believe there was all this information available for free and no one seemed to be interested." While there, a faculty member asked to see his business plan "which I just happened to have with me," and the rest quickly became mentoring and networking history.

Although his business found respectable success over the next few years, Coon knew it could do better with the right phone number. Certain phone numbers--1-800-FLOWERS, for instance--had already proven to be golden. Coon knew he had to acquire the phone number 1-800-CONTACTS and eventually found the current owner in North Carolina. It should have been easy to just call the guy up and make an offer, Coon explains, "But the guy never answered his phone!"

With the help of a private investigator, Coon contacted the man and two years later agreed to buy the number for $163,500. Thirty days after the number was his, contact lens orders more than doubled. "It was just the right number," Coon says, "The right number is everything."

There was still the problem, though, of getting eye care providers to release patients' prescriptions so Coon could fill them. "Unlike filling medical prescriptions at a pharmacy, eye care providers filled and sold their own prescriptions. Selling contacts was a profit center and providers weren't happy about the idea of giving it up," Coon adds.

In 2004, however, with considerable support from 1-800 CONTACTS, the federal government passed the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumer Act. Now, eye care providers must provide consumers their contact lens prescriptions even if they are not asked. They also must respond to direct contact lens sellers within eight hours in order to verify prescriptions.

In 1994, Coon received his bachelor's degree from BYU but left school before completing his MBA. In 1998 he led 1-800 CONTACTS through an initial public stock offering and in 2000 was named a National Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

In spite of his success, Coon quips, "I think my mother still wishes I'd finished school and gotten my MBA."

Adrianne Lee Krier is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and public relations professional.
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Title Annotation:people
Author:Krier, Adrianne Lee
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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