Back in the winter of 2008, in between classes at Wharton Business School, Neil Blumenthal had a chat with his friends Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, and Jeffrey Raider – about glasses.
“Dave was talking about how he’d recently forgotten his frames in the seat pocket of an airplane. Jeff had a similar story. Andy was wondering why nobody was selling glasses online,” recalls Blumenthal. “And we sort of thought: why can’t we design the frames we love using the best materials and create premium eyewear that’s affordable? We already knew that the cost of production didn’t justify the prices on the market.”
Today, VisionSpring is one of Warby Parker’s longstanding partners in their lauded Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program: the company’s founding promise that for every pair of glasses sold, a pair goes to someone in need. The company also has a direct giving scheme that offers vision care and glasses to school-age children. To date, more than three million pairs of glasses have been distributed around the world.
After nearly eight years in business (and a $1.2 billion valuation), Warby Parker has become known as the brand that officially disrupted the traditional eyewear market model, while doing some good along the way (to boot, they’re one of the only carbon neutral eyewear brands around). While he was in transit from Baltimore back to his hometown of NYC, we caught up with Blumenthal to talk shop covering topics from the power of remaining focused, and the future of retail, to paper towels and Venn diagrams.
Natalia Rachlin: Warby Parker is arguably known as much for its ethos as for its glasses. Was the one-for-one business model always at the core of the brand concept?
Neil Blumenthal: It was absolutely there from day one. We wanted to build a brand that would have a positive impact on the world. We were looking to transform the eyewear industry by selling beautifully designed, premium eyeglasses for $95, instead of $500 plus. But we also knew that even at $95 there were hundreds of millions of people around the world who didn’t have the glasses they needed – so as part of our very first business plan we committed to distribute a pair to someone in need for every pair we sold.
NR: Going forward, do you think having a socially engaged approach will be a prerequisite for founding a successful company?
NB: I think it will be a prerequisite for companies that want to recruit, retain talent and build a business that lasts in the long term. Unfortunately, I think there is still the opportunity for people to make some short-term gains by being short sighted and not thinking about the impact that their company has on all of their stakeholders – their employees, customers, the environment and the community at large. I do think it’s a conversation that is progressing though, and one of the great things about the internet is that it forces transparency. You can now learn more about companies and brands than ever before, how they behave, how they treat their employees and what they stand for. And I think that forced transparency will hopefully encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.
NR: Speaking of the internet - you launched as an e-commerce business. Is that still how you see yourselves today, some sixty retail outposts later?
NB: We were never dogmatic about being only e-commerce. We viewed e-commerce as this great way for us to interact directly with our customers and at the end of the day, that’s what’s most important. We have a saying that we’re “experience focused, but medium agnostic”. What that means is that we want to provide the absolute best experience for our customers, and the only way to do that is to control it, by controlling our distribution. What e-commerce allowed us to do was to develop that direct relationship and bypass optical retailers who were marking up glasses ten to twenty times. And we were then able to pass on those savings to our customer and provide a superior experience.
NR: Do you think the bricks-and-mortar shop still has a place in the future of retail?
NB: Bricks and mortar isn’t disappearing and it’s changing at different paces for different categories: fewer people are going to buy paper towels in store in the future than they do today. While other categories’ online penetration will be a little slower. Our point of view is that a core attribute of humanity is physical interaction, so there is always a place for physical experience, and we are just going to keep iterating on what kind of experience makes most sense for our customer.
NR: Who would you say is the average Warby Parker customer?
NB: Obviously, we’re known for sort of being one of the quintessential millennial brands, but we’ve found that the attributes of our brand appeal to a much broader part of the population. Our shopper is someone who appreciates beautiful design and details, doing good in the world, and values great quality at a reasonable price.
NR: Do you consider Warby Parker a fashion brand, or do you see the eyewear industry as a category of its own?
NB: We consider ourselves a lifestyle brand. I think we have a really strong point of view, that centres around fun, creativity and doing good. If this was two decades ago, everybody would have immediately expected us to go into watches, other accessories and then into apparel. But I think one of the things that has brought us success is being focused. And thinking about a holistic experience - from the moment someone hears about the brand, to their shopping experience, to the act of transacting and our engagement post-purchase. By being focused, we have been able to consistently improve that journey.
NR: Are you’re saying you won’t venture beyond eyewear?
NB: I wouldn’t commit to that. But I will commit to staying focused and creating awesome customer experiences. You know, I think the way that we define ourselves is that if you have a Venn-diagram; one circle is the fashion and design world, another is the tech start-up world, and the third is the social enterprise world - if those three were to overlap, Warby Parker would be smack in the middle.
NR: You recently launched an app called Prescription Check, can you tell me about it?
NB: It’s an iPhone app that allows people to take a simple vision test wherever they are and we are then able to issue them a prescription. Traditionally, no one would think a fashion company would have robust enough technology, skills or ethos to solve something like that. But by offering that we’re making the entirety of the experience better, and solving one of our customers’ problems as it’s inconvenient and expensive to get eye exams. So, we view ourselves as experience designers, and part of that experience is our product, our stores, the digital design of our sites and apps. But it’s really about connecting all of the dots.
NR: Ok, so we’re twenty years down the line: what impact do you hope Warby Parker would have made on the industry and more widely, on a social scale?
NB: I hope that Warby Parker will have inspired a lot of other entrepreneurs and executives to run their business in a way that has a positive impact on the world - that would be my dream.
Neil Blumenthal is a speaker at the BoF VOICES 2017 conference that QICGRE is a principal sponsor of.