A very special atmosphere is assured at contact lens supplier Lensspirit in Leipzig, and so is success – the company recently received the prestigious “Europe’s Digital Icon” award from the European Commission.

A kitchen in north Leipzig in 1997. Swetlana Reiche, just 25 years old, is sitting around with friends and chatting about their plans for the future. “Someone should set up a mail-order contact lens business like they have in America,” says one of the group. Reiche, a qualified economist who arrived in Saxony from Crimea in 1991, thinks it’s a great idea and is immediately inspired to start her own business. She finds suppliers and places self-designed adverts in weekly newspapers. “And the crazy thing was, we actually got a response. We received three to six orders a day at the beginning,” recalls the businesswoman.

Lensspirit is sole German company to receive EU award

The company now handles 15,000 orders a month on average. Over the past 17 years, Lensspirit has grown to become the largest owner-managed mail order supplier of contact lenses in Germany. Its range – which fitted into a shoebox when the company was first launched – consists of 100,000 products stacked up in the warehouse. “We now deliver to 26 countries,” says Reiche. In October 2014, Lensspirit was recognised as an outstanding e-commerce company during European SME Week and was the only German company to receive a “Europe’s Digital Icon” award. European SME Week is a European Commission initiative to promote small and medium-sized businesses. Swetlana Reiche travelled to Naples for the awards ceremony and delivered a speech to European business leaders about her experiences as a businesswoman. “Those were the most exciting seven and a half minutes of my life!” she says of her time on the podium. So what is her recipe for success? “I think I have a knack of meeting the right people at the right time, who can help me and my company. And I don’t over-reach myself. Our strategy of taking small steps has got us where we are today,” says the 42-year-old.

Businesswoman and mother

Swetlana Reiche also has the self-confidence and resilience necessary to deal with crises. “Obviously there have been some difficult times over the years. One in particular was back in 2010, when we changed our software. We had to cope with a significant drop in sales and I had sleepless nights… but somehow I just can’t give up,” she says with a smile. She achieves her aims because she wants to, and because she enjoys the challenge. And not only is she an entrepreneur in charge of 35 employees – she’s also the mother of two sons, aged twelve and two. How does she manage everything? “Just like any other working mother, I make sure I have help,” she says. It’s clear that she loves her business and manages it in her own way – by taking a creative and open approach. “I think it’s important to listen to my employees,” she says.

Creative leadership

The company has a “FunFriday” once a month when everyone dresses according to a specific theme. It may sound like something from an American management manual, but it actually came out of an employee review meeting. “I thought it was a great idea and decided we should do it. Everyone really enjoyed it the first time, so we made it a monthly event,” says Swetlana Reiche. Another example illustrating how the company puts its employees’ ideas into practice is the Lensspirit Mothers’ Day. Reiche says: “Lots of parents find it hard to imagine what their children do at work, especially if they aren’t from Germany themselves. Our employees come from eight different countries, including Russia, Lithuania, Belarus and Kazakhstan. We invited our parents to come to work with us, baked cakes for them, made little gifts and showed them around our workplace.” And how did that go down? “Nearly all of the mothers cried, they were so moved and appreciative. And we did, too.”