Warby Parker CEO on the Challenges of Breaking in to the Direct to Consumer Model

What were some of the biggest challenges in creating a direct-to-consumer product and brand? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Dave Gilboa, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Warby Parker, on Quora.

When we launched Warby Parker we were trying to do many things at once:

  1. Change consumer behavior by making people feel comfortable buying glasses online. At the time, less than 1% of glasses in the US were sold online.
  2. Gain credibility as a fashion brand. Glasses are one of the only things people wear on their face so design and aesthetic are critically important.
  3. Generate awareness and sales with no marketing budget. We bootstrapped our business and launched without any outside investors.
  4. Convince consumers that we offer a high quality product despite costing a fraction of the price. We introduced glasses for $95 including prescription lenses when most optical shops sell them for $400+.
  5. Set up a mass customization supply chain. We custom manufacture every pair of prescription glasses to order.
  6. Incorporate a social mission into a for-profit company. We distribute a pair of glasses for every pair sold, have been carbon neutral since we launched, and consider all stakeholders that our business touches.
  7. Build a website and e-commerce experience when none of the founders had a technical background.

Conventional wisdom in the startup world is to start small, launch a minimal viable product, learn, iterate, rinse and repeat. The goal is to get one thing right, to solve a customer pain point in the narrowest way possible, and then expand from there. In our case we were launching a physical product that helps people see and is one of the only things people wear on their face. So our definition of "minimal viable" had a pretty high bar. We also recognized that if we just launched a brand of eyewear but sold through existing retail channels, we wouldn't be able to offer real value to consumers. Optical retailers typically mark up glasses three to five times from the wholesale price. We wanted to take these unnecessary markups and pass them on to our customers. The only way to do that was to launch a vertically-integrated brand and sell glasses we design and manufacture directly to consumers, bypassing all the middlemen and offering the highest quality materials at a fraction of the price.

We spent a year and a half building behind the scenes: designing our first collection of twenty-seven styles in three or four colors each (we needed enough variety to fit different face shapes, sizes and preferences), building our brand identity, designing our website (first in Powerpoint), setting up global supply chain partners, becoming optical experts, building relationships with editors of key fashion publications, setting up non-profit partnerships for our Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program, and dozens of other workstreams. Getting all these things right required (and continues to require) many different skill sets. Coordinating all those different disciplines into a polished product and seamless experience for our customers is without a doubt the hardest thing about building a vertically-integrated brand/direct-to-consumer product.

But if vertically-integrated brands are able to get this multi-disciplinary approach right, they're have a massive advantage over traditional retailers and wholesale brands in that 1) they can offer significantly better value to customers by cutting out middlemen, and 2) they have a direct relationship with their end customers, enabling them to use customer data and feedback to continually improve every part of their business.

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