Wed, 4 September 2019
266: How Warby Parker Changed the Way We Shop for Glasses, With Founders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa
Why are glasses so expensive?
Dave Gilboa could not stop asking himself that question. After leaving his $700 pair of eyeglasses on an airplane while returning from Southeast Asia, he could not wrap his head around why a technology that was so archaic could cost him more than his iPhone.
Within his first weeks as an MBA student at the Wharton School of Business, he repeatedly brought this question up among some of his new peers. Gilboa, along with fellow students Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, and Jeff Raider, had all shared in the pain of losing or breaking glasses and had all agreed: the high markup made no sense.
Inspired by Gilboa’s pricey misfortune, the four of them founded Warby Parker. Now led by co-CEOs Gilboa and Blumenthal, the billion-dollar empire with 2,000 employees is revolutionizing the prescription glasses industry by selling stylish eyewear online at affordable prices.
The New York City-based company is also on a mission to combat the global problem of impaired vision through its charitable Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program. Since the company’s start, the program has distributed over 5 million pairs of glasses to those in need by donating a pair of glasses for every one sold.
But long before they could build an ecommerce giant, the team would first have to learn how to even build a website.
A Moment of Clarity
Prior to going to Wharton, all four co-founders had already spent some considerable time in the workforce. This allowed for each of them to gain valuable real-world experience, and it helped guide them to understanding if they had an actual problem to solve and a business to move forward with.
However, it was Blumenthal’s experience while running the nonprofit VisionSpring that would become crucial to the early concept of Warby Parker. During his time with the company, they trained low-income women in the developing world to start their own businesses. Participants were to take their new skillsets back to their rural communities and administer vision screenings and sell glasses. But it was something else Blumenthal had witnessed that would have a lasting impression on him.
“I had been to the factories,” Blumenthal says. “Here I was producing glasses for people who were making less than four dollars a day, but 10 feet away were factories that were producing…the $700 pair of glasses Dave had. So we knew something was awry.”
A light bulb went off and the classmates soon pulled together $120,000 and went to work on developing Warby Parker in 2008. The problem they wanted to solve: How can we make glasses we want, but at a low cost?
Eager to launch, but more focused on preparation and planning, the founders began sketching out all the main aspects of the company. With limited funding, they knew they’d have to really refine and plan each facet of their business before revealing it to the public. Their first steps were to design glasses that they’d want to wear and then find a manufacturer who could produce them for less, starting with Blumenthal’s connections.
The next step would be trying to figure out how to sell their glasses directly to the consumer. The answer was simple.
“This magical thing called the internet,” Blumenthal says.
The founders all knew that ecommerce was an innovation they wanted to take advantage of for their direct-to-consumer brand. Had they come up with this idea 10 years prior, the company may not have gone any further than an idea. With a brick-and-mortar store requiring a lease, utilities, and other costs, they knew it would be hard to make their new dream a reality with limited capital.
“If we did , we would have one location that we might be able to attract some local customers, but with the power of the internet, we were able to all of a sudden, launch a store to the entire US,” Gilboa says.
But there was a small problem. None of them knew how to build an online store, nor did they understand the many other details that came with creating an online shopping experience.
“We started talking to friends on how you build a website,” Blumenthal says. “And then we started visiting a bunch of websites that we would normally already go to. But now with a critical eye, we were understanding, okay, what’s the shopping flow?”
Over the next year and a half, the four of them kept chipping away at all the details of Warby Parker. Nothing got overlooked. They spent countless hours going over the vision and mission of the company, and worked on all the brand architecture of what they wanted their company to be.
In addition, the group constantly sought out feedback from friends and professors. Could something like this work?
One glaring concern that kept surfacing was whether or not a person would actually buy a pair of glasses online. With fit being so important, it would be hard for a person to gauge on a computer screen if a pair of glasses would fit their face and feel comfortable.
This forced them to reconsider their business model, and ever the problem solvers, the home try-on program was born. Breaking new ground, Warby Parker would allow a customer to select five pairs of glasses from the website and then ship them free of charge, allowing five days to test out the frames.
This was a major ecommerce innovation that would get them past the biggest challenge facing the business’s core premise. But there was one other challenge that would prove nearly impossible to overcome—agreeing on a name.
Thank You, Jack
Prior to Warby Parker’s launch, brands had already started to emerge that were selling glasses online. Customers were able to purchase glasses from sites such as 39DollarGlasses.com and FramesDirect.com, but they were sacrificing other elements, such as quality and customer service, for their lower prices.
The founders wanted to take a different approach with their company. They wanted to launch a fashion brand that not only offered great quality, prices, and service, but also one that made the world a better place. The company vision was clear and ambitious. But they could not come up with a name.
“We wanted kind of a proper name and didn’t think Gilboa-Blumenthal, our last names, really rolled off the tongue,” Gilboa says.
They sought out inspiration and ideas from historical authors and artists. People who represented the brand ideals that they were trying to carry out. One author that stood out to them was Jack Kerouac, the novelist and poet who was a pioneer of the beat generation.
Coincidentally, the New York Public Library was holding an exhibit one afternoon with some of Kerouac’s private diaries and journals. Seeking inspiration, Gilboa made a visit to the exhibit and stumbled upon some of Kerouac’s unpublished works, finding some interesting character names.
Two jumped off the page: Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker.
“So I took those back and the four of us were discussing,” Gilboa says. “We all loved those names and were debating, do we pick one of those, and we decided to combine the two and make it our own. And the URL happened to be available for nine bucks.”
After six months of debating and with over 2,000 names rejected, Warby Parker came to life.
The challenge for any new brand is figuring out how to gain exposure. With a small marketing budget, the co-founders had to be strategic about finding a cost-effective way to maximize their exposure in such a competitive industry. Realizing glasses are an accessory and that the fashion industry was an insider’s game, the team hired a fashion publicist to help set up meetings with editors and writers at major publications.
In February of 2010, WarbyParker.com officially went live. Within days of launching the website, they were featured in GQ, where they were dubbed “the Netflix of eyewear.” Soon after, another profile appeared in Vogue. From there, things went viral.
“We ended up hitting our first year’s sales targets in three weeks,” Blumenthal says. “Sold out of our top 15 styles in four weeks and it was just complete mayhem.”
Soon, they found themselves sold out of all their inventory with a waitlist of over 20,000 new customers. Warby Parker was an overnight success, a year and a half in the making.
Onward & Upward
Today, Warby Parker is valued at over $1 billion and has cemented its place among the top glasses retailers in the world. Even after they made it to the big time, however, the team kept innovating.
In 2013, Gilboa and Blumenthal began to expand their brand with more storefronts, having now opened close to 100 stores in the US and Canada. And within some of those stores, they’ve begun to employ their own optometrists where states allow it.
On the technology side, they’ve found new ways to cater to the customer. Within the Warby Parker app, any customer with an iPhone X can now virtually try on any one of their frames. In addition, they’ve made a move into telemedicine by allowing eligible customers to take eye exams from their phones, allowing a licensed doctor to write them a prescription remotely.
But no matter how large the company becomes, the team’s underlying values remain the same: they do whatever it takes to make customers happy.
3 Tips for Standing Out From the Crowd
When Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andrew Hunt, and Jeff Raider founded Warby Parker in 2010, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. But with the right planning, execution, and maybe some good luck, they felt they could make the world a little better, one pair of glasses at a time. The founding team knew that in order to get any attention in the noisy fashion industry, they had to be different and they had to stand out.
Here are Blumenthal and Gilboa’s tips for helping your new startup gain exposure.
From the beginning, the founders knew that it would be hard to get any immediate attention in the fashion industry without the help of insiders. They knew their service and product would be different from any other retailer before them, but if no one knew who they were, it wouldn’t matter.
So the team hired a fashion publicist to get them meetings with top fashion publications. By being able to tell their story directly to their target audience, and through a medium that their audience trusted, it was a giant step in the right direction. And since Warby Parker was so different from its competitors, once it got on the insider crowd’s radar, it wasn’t hard for them to draw media attention.
“There was a bunch of things that we were doing that were novel,” Blumenthal says. “Selling glasses online, in 2010, was pretty novel. Having this home try-on program was really novel. Providing a pair of glasses for every pair we sell, was really novel. Charging $95 instead of $500 was really novel. So they really wanted to write about us.”
In today’s startup world, it’s never been more crowded and harder to stand out. Be different with your concept and separate yourself from the fray.
Although WarbyParker.com went live in February of 2010, the four co-founders spent over a year and a half focusing on their company’s mission, product, and business model. And after they found success, staying focused became an even more important priority.
“We got some advice early on that if you’re walking down a path towards a giant pot of gold, you shouldn’t stop to get distracted by any shiny little coin that you see along the way,” Gilboa says.
It would have been easy for Warby Parker to launch dozens of different products or to expand into new markets for monetary gain. However, that would’ve brought about great distractions that could have pulled them from their main goal, which is to solve their customers’ problems by offering them quality products and experiences.
“We’ve just seen so many businesses that have failed due to lack of focus,” Gilboa says. “But it’s rare that you’ll see a business that fails for being too focused.”
Remember the problems your business is trying to solve and stay focused on it. By always learning and iterating, you’re working towards providing the best service possible for your customers.
From the very beginning, the Warby Parker team knew they had to keep their customers happy. They understood that they had to not only provide a great product, but also provide superb customer service.
In the beginning, all four co-founders were directly in touch with their customers. They each replied to customer emails and even set up an 800 number that would be sent to their personal cell phones until someone picked up. They were willing to do anything to make sure the customer was always satisfied.
“Do whatever it takes to make customers happy and make them feel good,” Blumenthal says. “Smile, personal notes, whatever it takes.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Nick Allen