Companies We Love: Warby Parker
Hear from the co-CEO's of the innovative optical brand.
Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa bootstrapped Warby Parker to their life savings and started the business out of their grad-student apartments when they were classmates at Wharton. “We started the company to solve our own problems,” says Dave. Before business school, he went backpacking around Southeast Asia and lost a pair of $700 prescription glasses; he showed up on the first day of business school without glasses and spent his first semester as a full-time student with impaired vision. “I couldn't understand why they were so expensive,” he says. “I'd just bought a new iPhone that cost me $200, yet the technology in a pair of glasses is hundreds of years old, and they cost significantly more—the math didn't make sense.” Along with their co-founders, Jeff Raider and Andy Hunt (Neil and Dave are now the sole active co-CEOs of the company), they created a business model that allowed them to sell high-quality, well-designed glasses for reasonable prices. In addition, for every pair sold, the company distributes one to someone in need. Since then, the revolutionary eyewear brand has been named on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list, topped $100 million in annual revenue and inspired a slew of direct-to-consumer businesses to follow in its footsteps. “Dave, our team and I are motivated by the belief that we're able to scale Warby Parker and have it be profitable and do good in the world, without charging a premium for glasses,” says Neil. The brand has changed what it means to be a mission-driven organization, which, according to Dave and Neil, is one of the reasons they’ve been able to attract top talent for their growing team. “People have always wanted to work for mission-driven companies, but for the first time ever, there’s a lot more information available to job-seekers about the organizations they’re considering,” says Neil. Since Warby Parker’s earliest days, Neil and Dave have stayed laser-focused on their mission, establishing a set of “stakeholders” to serve as a guiding light. “We consider our four stakeholders to be our customers, our employees, the environment and the community at large,” explains Neil. “We think about them in every decision we make.” Dave and Neil shared the practical ways they’re serving those stakeholders as they continue to grow their unstoppable business.
1. Provide exceptional value
In 2008, e-commerce was taking off in most categories, but over 99% of glasses sold in the US were still sold in typical stores. We realized that even though the eyewear industry is a $100-billion global market, it's largely controlled by a small handful of companies. As a result, most glasses are marked up 10 to 20 times what they cost to manufacture. We saw an opportunity to create a vertically integrated brand. We design and produce the glasses that we want to wear, and we sell them directly to consumers on our site and in our retail stores. We cut out the licensing fees and retail markups that are normally associated with eyewear. We’re able pass those savings on to consumers, offering a product that normally costs $500 or more for $95—including prescription lenses.
2. Improve the shopping experience, both online and off
When you call us, someone who is happy and empowered answers the phone and is ready to help you in any way possible. We offer free shipping and free returns. We developed a first-of-its kind home try-on program, so you can select any five frames from our website, and we'll send them for free for you to try on. We’ve offered a great customer experience online since no one else was doing it. Now that we've launched our own retail stores, we've leveraged our technology team and systems to build an integrated experience across online and offline. We built our own point of sale that we call “the point of everything;” it’s iPad-based, so if you walk into any of our retail stores we don't have a cash register. If you've ordered a pair of sunglasses from us online or you've done a home try-on, any one of our advisors can pull up your customer record. They’ll know what's worked for you in the past and what hasn't, and they can provide you with smart service. It seems like a pretty simple thing that just makes sense, but no other retailer can do that because they don't have the systems that allow a unified view of the customer.
3. Help your team grow
We’ve created an environment where people can learn, develop and thrive. We revamped our performance management process, replacing biannual reviews with a “month in review,” where our managers offer their reports ongoing, monthly feedback. We also have a speaker series that’s open to all employees, which is meant to foster personal and professional development.
4. Be an accessible leader
We have an open office, which offers physical visibility and creates a culture of transparency. The two of us lead weekly meetings, where we share details about customer performance and updates on projects that different teams have undertaken. It’s our chance to demonstrate not just what we're doing, but how and why. Now that we have a second office in Nashville, we record these meetings for that team to watch.
5. Hire people who are adaptable
We feel super lucky to be working with the team that we do. Our business is changing so rapidly—we've been around for six years, and we have over 800 employees now. We started off selling online, and even though e-commerce still makes up the majority of our business, we're building stores, and we and the business need to be flexible and adapt to what we're hearing from our customers; we need that out of our team, as well. As we grow, we want to attract people who are curious, love learning and are able to not just take something that they've been doing their entire career one way and think that's the only way to do it, but to be adaptable. We want a team that’s able to use data and customer feedback to pivot, and to constantly question the way that we're doing things and question assumptions, so that we have continuous improvement across the organization.
6. Minimize your negative impact on the environment
We’re always asking ourselves how we can minimize our negative impact on the environment. We track our carbon emissions and work on finding ways to reduce them; we purchase carbon offsets for those that we don't reduce. As we open up new offices and stores, we put together sustainability scorecards for construction projects.
7. Partner with existing organizations to broaden your impact
We want to be proactive members of our community to make things better. The best example of this is our “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program, where we distribute a pair of glasses for every pair that we sell. We do that primarily overseas through a partnership with VisionSpring, a non-profit social enterprise. They train low-income men and women to give eye exams and sell glasses in their communities to people living on less than $4 a day. This model creates a job for the person selling glasses and an economic incentive for them to continue providing glasses as their customers’ prescriptions change, they lose their glasses or their glasses break. When you treat somebody as a value-conscious consumer rather than a needy beneficiary, things change. For example, in rural Bangladesh, where somebody might be living on less than $2 a day, some people would still rather be blind than wear an ugly pair of glasses that their neighbor is going to ridicule. We work with VisionSpring to provide glasses that people want to wear. We also started a partnership with the City of New York where we're going into 130 schools, vision-screening 65,000 kids and providing the glasses they need; we estimate we'll provide about 20,000 pairs over the next year and a half. We also partner with non-profits to sell limited-edition sunglasses, where the proceeds go to everything from building schools in Africa to rehabilitating childhood soldiers to educating US school children on proper nutrition.
8. Lend your team’s talents
Our charitable initiatives are a large part of why our employee base has been attracted to come to work for us and something that motivates them on a daily basis. We're constantly thinking of how we can use the skills and the team that we have here to make an even bigger impact. For example, we lend some of the engineering talent on our team to non-profits, so that they can build tech systems to make their own operations more efficient. Our designers also help revamp their websites to increase donations through those sites.
9. Don’t put short-term profits first
We're not apologetic about the fact that we're a for-profit company. All of our community-focused initiatives cost money in the short-term; we certainly could be more profitable this quarter or this year if we cut a lot of those activities, but we'd be sacrificing a tremendous amount. Our social mission helps us get talented people to come work for the company and keeps them motivated to have a lot of impact over the long term.
Images courtesy of Warby Parker