How A Pair Of Lost Glasses Led To The Creation Of Warby Parker

The founders of Warby Parker explain that it's not about being a bigger risk-taker.

Not many people can say they've started a company that has revolutionized an entire industry. And even fewer people can say their company has a $1.2 billion dollar valuation. But then again, the founders of Warby Parker aren't just anybody.

The eyewear company was created by Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, Dave Gilboa and Jeffrey Raider, who met at Wharton Business School. And since its creation in 2010, Warby Parker has transformed the glasses industry. Warby designs all glasses in-house, sells direct-to-consumer to avoid retail markups and offers at-home try-on services free of charge. And if that wasn't enough, for every pair of frames sold, one pair is distributed to someone in need.

We chatted with Gilboa and Blumenthal, the two co-founders who are still involved in day-to-day operations, to find out how this genius idea came to be, what they have to say to copycats and how they are basically taking over the world eyewear industry:

(L-R): Dave Gilboa, Neil Blumenthal
(L-R): Dave Gilboa, Neil Blumenthal

On the problem they were solving for:

Dave Gilboa: The biggest problem was that glasses were needlessly expensive and it didn't make sense to us. We started off, with our two co-founders, really solving our own problems. We each had a frustrating experiencing, or we lost a pair of glasses or broke a pair of glasses and just couldn't understand why they cost several hundred dollars. This technology has been around 800 years and just doesn't make sense -- that was the main pain point that brought us all together. We were classmates at Wharton, getting our MBAs. We were friends first and I had been traveling before business school and I had lost my $700 pair of glasses. I didn't have glasses on campus and we got together in the computer lab and were talking about it. Neil [Blumenthal] had spent five years running this great non-profit called VisionSpring where they were producing glasses for people in the developing world and knew that there was nothing in the cost of materials that justified the high prices, so that was an initial spark for the business idea.

On how business school was instrumental to the launch of Warby Parker:

Neil Blumenthal: One of the best classes we took was called "The Legal Aspects of Entrepreneurship" that was taught by two attorneys, and it was basically teaching you how everyone else can screw you when you're starting a business. How landlords screw you when you're signing a lease, so how to read a lease properly. How investors screw you when you're raising money, so how to read a term sheet. How employees can screw you, so a little bit about employment law, so just enough to be dangerous ...

DG: Every day we were sitting in class and scribbling down, "OK we're doing these few things wrong" or "We could get sued for this and that."

Warby Parker campaign photo. 
Warby Parker campaign photo. 

On a major misconception about entrepreneurs:

NB: There is this false methodology that founders or designers have to take these giant risks to be successful and that's what separates entrepreneurs from the rest of the population -- that they are crazy risk takers. Whereas, in reality, entrepreneurs are just like everyone else, they might just be better at managing risk. So what I mean by that, since we were full-time students we were already forgoing a salary, so it wasn't like we had to quit our jobs to start the business. And then every step of the way we would figure out, what do we need to know to feel confident to invest more time and money into the idea, so even take Apple for example. Wozniak didn't leave HP for a year and a half after founding Apple. There is this thought process that you quit your job, you put your life savings into this business and it takes off, it's just not true. We were very methodical. For example, we met with 40 different PR freelancers and firms before selecting the first person that we wanted to work with. Designing our first collection was meticulous, we culled it down to 27 shapes and roughly three colors. We launched with just acetate frames with single vision lenses. And then a year later we introduced sunwear and prescription sunwear, and a year after that we introduced titanium and mixed material frames, and a year after that we introduced progressive lenses. The whole process has been a process of de-risking.

On how they feel about copycats:

DG: I think it depends. We have had a lot of copycats within the eyewear space and, especially initially, we had a pretty strong emotional reaction where we had been pouring our heart and soul and our life savings, every waking hour, into launching this business and then people were just blatantly copying what we were doing. We quickly realized that none of those companies were really impacting our business at all. The world is so connected today that there is transparency in every aspect of business and authenticity wins and no one wants to write about or talk about or wear something that really isn't authentic or that is a clear copy of someone else. Now we still see copycats pop up, but most of the copycats in the eyewear space have already gone out of business. None of them have scaled and we realized that it's not something that needs to illicit a reaction. In terms of other categories, there have been some articles, I think there was a Fast Company article called Why Your Company Is Not The Warby Parker of X.

NB: I think that what makes Warby Parker special is [that it provides] great design and premium materials and construction for a fraction of what it would usually cost. So you have this industry dynamic where there are a few very large companies who have been over charging consumers for decades and you bring in a brand that is socially conscious, that designs beautiful product and by working directly with customers, brings down the price. If more people do that, in different industries, that's the best thing in the world. And that's actually what motivates us. We want to build a great brand that can scale, that's profitable, that does good in the world, without charging a premium for that and if we can do that, hopefully we can inspire other entrepreneurs and executives to run their businesses in a similar manner.

Warby Parker campaign photo. 
Warby Parker campaign photo. 

On why they have their employees rate their happiness on a scale from one to 10 every week:

NB: It's more to provoke conversations between managers and direct reports to understand, "Hey this was a rough week, why was it rough?" Or, "What could we have done differently?" It's to help employees become more self-aware and to help managers and direct-reports work together more effectively. I would say the more important thing that we do, twice a year we do an anonymous employee engagement survey and we have a 99 percent participation rate and it's completely anonymous and it helps us really evaluate how we're doing. [Why] is Warby Parker an awesome place to work, what are things that we can be doing better to have our employees be more engaged? We spend a lot of time dissecting this survey and then there ends up being a lot of work coming out of it: How can we communicate better? How can we collaborate better? So we apply the same rigor as we do to something like financial performance as we do to employee engagement.

On the advice they would give their younger selves:

DG: I think we found that so much about starting a business can't be learned from previous experiences -- you just have to trust your gut, find a real problem that you're passionate about and you can do that whether you're in college or twenty years into your career -- there is never an optimal time. You never know enough.

NB: I wish that I spent more time understanding what people do. So what is a management consultant, what do they do? What is a data scientist, what do they do day-to-day? What does someone who works in production do? What does a designer do? And really understand what the day-to-day work is.

DG: I also tell myself, I wish I learned how to code.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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