It’s a warm fall morning when we reach the headquarters of Warby Parker on 6th Avenue, right on the edge of Hudson Square in downtown Manhattan. There are eleven of us from the Yale Entrepreneurial Society here to meet Neil Blumenthal, one of the company’s founders and CEOs. Blumenthal is sitting across from me at a round table. He’s excited to talk about Warby Parker and the story of how he got there. Of course, he’s sporting a sharp pair of glasses.
Blumenthal and his cohorts at Warby Parker have turned a simple idea into a full-blown business. By selling designer glasses directly to consumers at much lower prices than the competition, they’ve eliminated the middleman and attracted a loyal online following with their elegant designs. This took them from a small e-commerce site to a company with 5 physical branches and nearly 200 employees. According to New York Magazine, they were valued in the neighborhood of $300 million earlier this year.
The founders of Warby Parker have certainly come a long way since they began running makeshift showrooms out of the founders’ apartments in downtown Manhattan. With a relatively small slice of the $16 billion optical industry, they also have a lot of potential to expand.
One of the employees comes over and welcomes us into their headquarters and showroom on the second floor. It looked exactly as you might imagine a startup would look like—broad windows letting the sun in on a massive open work area, the central hub of activity. Bare floor that felt vaguely industrial. Rows of simple, sleek workstations on long desks that seemed elegant in a casually put-together way. The setup seemed ephemeral, as if it could have been put up or taken down in a day.
As we would later hear from Blumenthal, branding matters. People’s perceptions of the brands they use are linked to their identities. For these entrepreneurial millennials in their sleek, new-age warehouse, everything they use is a metaphor for who they are.
Following the economic crisis of 2008, the startup landscape changed as investors became far more risk-averse. It was harder for a promising idea to become a successful business. But for Warby Parker, the idea was there from the start. It just took some time, entrepreneurial spirit, and the epiphany that brought it all together.
After graduating from college with an interest in public policy, Blumenthal joined VisionSpring, an organization that distributes affordable eyeglasses to people in developing countries.
“Because I was working for a smaller organization that covered a lot of regions, they gave me a lot more responsibility early on,” says Blumenthal. He talks about his work in India, and how he had to manage his employees. The owners hired a local to deliver the shipments of glasses, but he was slow to respond and didn’t do his job properly. Blumenthal tried to work with him, but ultimately had to fire him.
Those early, formative experiences in the developing world planted the seeds of an idea that would grow into something much larger he could’ve ever expected.
In 2008, Neil was just getting started at the Wharton School as an MBA student. Beyond the networking and the recruiting meetings, he found a close circle of friends early on during his first semester. The idea of selling eyeglasses came to him within weeks, and his friends thought it was a promising lead. They spent a lot of time understanding and researching the optical industry so they could best position their own company for success.
Soon, their efforts began to attract attention. Warby Parker offered a novel service: an interested customer could sample the lenses from the comfort of his or her own home. Neil and his friends would send out the designs that the customers wanted to try (5 pairs at a time) and allow them to send back the ones they didn’t want. This turned out to be immensely popular, and they quickly ran out of eyeglass samples. In a world where marketers push customers to buy things as soon as possible, their plan to slow the pace of sales was a radical one.
Ironically, this didn’t deter the dedicated shoppers, who emailed them about stopping by their physical showroom. Their enthusiasm surprised Neil. “We didn’t have a showroom, just the living room of our apartment, so we set up a stand on the table for people to look at. We found that the intimate setting helped people open up about what they thought. They told us what they wanted and how they wanted it. And we listened!”
After being featured in Vogue and GQ, the dramatic increase in publicity helped the company truly take off and gain a greater number of followers in what was, at the time, a unlikely enterprise. True to its VisionSpring roots, Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses for every pair that they sell. For Neil, it’s more than just doing business. “It’s about showing people that you can build profitable and scalable businesses while doing good.”
As one of the most prominent new businesses in the post-recession era, Warby Parker has been a success story in an inauspicious entrepreneurial landscape. Says Neil, “Everyone knows that the vast majority of companies don’t make it. But as an entrepreneur, I tend to be irrationally optimistic.” It is a fitting kind of entrepreneurial spirit for a company who is literally changing how we see the world.
Photo credit: Warby Parker