Business is booming.

Tom Broughton, founder of Cubitts

Tom Broughton, 42, who created spectacles brand Cubitts in 2013, has just experienced a busy January — a time when many people return broken glasses for repair after Christmas.

Before founding the business, Broughton had become fed up with being unable to find any spectacles he liked. He used his savings to start the venture from his flat in London’s King’s Cross. 

Trading was tough in the first year and the company almost folded. The turnaround came in late 2014, with a customer’s £100,000 investment in the business. It kept the company afloat, allowing Broughton to open his first store in Soho.


Born: Leicester, September 26 1981

Education: 1995-99: Bosworth Community College, Desford, Leicester.

1999-2002: University of Nottingham, BSc (Hons) Econometrics

2004-8: Qualification from Chartered Institute of Management Accountancy 

2011-14: Informal apprenticeship with Master Spectacle Maker 

Career: Early 2000s: Self-taught, he built websites to fund studies.

2002-07: Analyst for Deloitte, later trained as accountant.

2008-14: Freelance data analysis/research jobs for local radio, children’s television, and BBC World Service. 

2013: Founded Cubitts

2014: Worked on projects alongside Cubitts for first year.

Lives: Single, lives in Belsize Park, north London.

Turnover has increased from £27,000 in 2014 to £12.5mn in 2022.

Today, Cubitts, still based in King’s Cross, has 16 stores — up from 10 since the pandemic — and employs 142 people, including 13 opticians. There are shops in London, Brighton, Leeds, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Customers spend an average of £165.

Did you think you would get to where you are?
My success was certainly not planned. Sometimes I cannot believe it myself. At first, I thought it would be a hobby that could pay for itself, as I found the frames in opticians’ stores were boring, and made for people who didn’t really want to wear spectacles.

I remember watching the film The Ipcress File, with Michael Caine. He wore these amazing black-framed glasses, but I couldn’t find anything like that at any opticians.

At school I had no idea what I wanted to do. All the decisions I made were a form of procrastinating. I even fell into doing the accountancy course at Deloitte, because they were paying people to do it.

Michael Caine in ‘The Ipcress File’
Iconic look: Michael Caine in ‘The Ipcress File’ © ITV/Shutterstock

In my 20s I started collecting vintage spectacle frames that I found at flea markets and car boot sales. Searching through vintage fairs and antique shops for vintage frames is still a passion of mine.

My parents worked in the same industries throughout their careers — my mum for museums and my dad for a company that sold plastic pipes.

Cubitts takes its name from Thomas, William and Lewis, three brothers who revolutionised the building industry in Victorian London. I lived on the site of their building yard, in Cubitt Street, King’s Cross.

Was your first £1mn a major milestone?
It was huge for us, and happened in July 2022. Our goal on reaching £1mn profit was to launch in the US. We decided [our next goal would be] to open a shop in New York. I went over there with two staff members. 

We had an amazing moment in the East Village in Manhattan. We were trying to use a cash machine and the guy who helped us was wearing a pair of Cubitts glasses! For me it was a sign that we had to open in New York. US frames are too fussy, with brand names plastered all over them.

What was the most challenging period of your career?
Definitely the first two years of Cubitts, when I worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. It was relentless and physically exhausting, having to do such a broad range of tasks in a precarious company. Often I would think “why did I start this?” It was just myself and my first employee, Joe Bell. Cash flow was so tight, I had to defer my mortgage payments for four months, which saved £4,000.

For two years I didn’t have a social life. On the rare occasions I met friends I was not pleasant company. I spent my life savings and sold everything that I owned to keep the company going. I cashed in a few shares, investments in gold and my Isas. I even cancelled going to the football World Cup in Brazil just to get back the flight tax — £200.

What was your best preparation for business?
My choice of A-levels in English, maths and chemistry proved extremely helpful, as creating glasses is a perfect example of combining science and art. Optics is essentially physics, but you must also consider the design of frames. Science helps you to solve problems. English teaches you a way of structuring your thinking and communication.

Did the coronavirus pandemic affect your business?
Hugely. It was a disaster. Eighty per cent of our revenue comes from the stores, and we had to close all 10 of them. We furloughed 70 of the 90 staff. We took on a business loan for £1.6mn to cover the rent, and the rest of the staff wages. We have paid back most of the loan.

We simply had to ride out the pandemic. I took no salary and went through my personal savings. Online sales grew but we could not fill the huge gap left by direct trading.

Have you found it difficult to recruit staff recently?
It has been an absolute nightmare. I think Covid changed a lot of people’s perception of work. Many want to work from home, or even from a different country, but our business does not allow this. We need staff in the stores, as people prefer to try on glasses in person. They need advice to get the shape, size and fit of the frame right.

It is much more difficult recruiting staff than pre-pandemic. We try to offer a nicer working environment and stronger culture than our competitors. One per cent of our turnover goes into staff training. We provide socials, parties, walking tours, cinema and quiz nights to make people feel they are part of a community.

This strategy seems to be paying off. However, while we used to have 10 applicants for one job, we only have three now, and they may not be right. Finding brilliant people is the hardest thing.

Have higher energy bills had an impact on your business?
In each of our 16 shops we used to pay £1,500 a year in electricity bills. That is now £4,000. We have had to cut our cloth accordingly, which is tricky. Everything is getting more expensive, not least people. We gave everyone a 7 per cent rise in 2023, and that’s just treading water. We haven’t increased the cost of frames, but the number of customers is growing. [In 2023] we took a lower profit.  

What is your basic business philosophy?
For me it is simplifying things wherever possible, as buying glasses can be quite complicated. We try to reduce the number of options for customers. They have a single price point for everything and just enough styles so as not to be overwhelming. We offer free lifetime repairs, lens changes and a rehabilitation service. If you tread on your spectacles frame, we’ll fix it, often at no charge. Our competitors would be more likely to recommend that you buy a new pair.

Do you want to carry on till you drop?
I want to keep going and take on the world. We plan to open the store in New York in April. I’m going to move there for six months in February, which is very exciting. I will hire four or five staff, including one optician.

Have you made any pension provision?
I have a small pension from Deloitte. The business is probably my pension. Until recently any profit went back into the company. Only in the last year have I been able to consider taking out a private pension, which I should probably do in the next six months.

Do you believe in giving something back to the community?
We donate excess frames to eye charities in Kenya, such as the Kwale Eye Centre. We offer free sight tests and frames to homeless people through the New Horizon Youth Centre [a London charity].

We give surplus acetate material to Pivot, a support service which assists prisoners preparing for release. They make jewellery.

We have artists’ pictures on our lens cleaning cloths and donate the money from their sales to the charity of each artist’s choosing. They include Tracey Emin, David Shrigley, Grayson Perry and Jeremy Deller. Some recipients are Guide Dogs for the Blind, Shelter, the Terrence Higgins Trust, and a King’s Cross venture, the Copenhagen Youth Project.

Do you believe in leaving everything to your family?
I haven’t thought about it that much, but I’d like to give away as much as possible.

The place where I live is rather special architecturally. It is a Grade I listed modernist Art Deco building, with 34 flats. The old garage of the building has been converted into a museum and gallery. I would like to leave my flat to the building, as an exhibit, to support the gallery, and contribute to the upkeep. When it was built in the 1930s it was meant to be this progressive way of living and had an on-site restaurant and bar.

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