Neil Blumenthal, co-chief executive officer and co-founder of Warby Parker, dreams big. When he launched his company two years ago, Blumenthal had loftier goals than simply selling affordable yet stylish eyeglasses on the Internet.
This story first appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I was just one of those guys who wanted to change the world,” Blumenthal said.
With prior experience working for VisionSpring, a nonprofit organization that helps distribute eyeglasses in the developing world, Blumenthal set out to build a business that not only had a social message, but also the ability to transform the somewhat static eyewear industry.
With a handful of eyewear-makers dominating the space, Blumenthal wanted to launch a company that could, in a sense, democratize the price of glasses.
“There is no reason eyeglasses should cost $400,” he said. “Eyewear should not cost as much as an iPhone.”
Taking that into consideration, and the fact that people are shopping more online, the concept seemed like a no-brainer. Blumenthal and his colleagues Andrew Hunt, Jeffrey Raider and David Gilboa, all of whom met at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, founded Warby Parker in February 2010.
Named after two characters in Jack Kerouac’s journals, Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker, Warby Parker sells eyewear for just $95 by cutting out optical retailers, which mark up frames two to three times before selling them to consumers. The brand also saves money by designing its own frames, which are made from acetate handcrafted in Italy.
With a low price point and a fashionable product, Warby Parker hit its first year’s sales target within three weeks of launching. It sold out of its top 15 styles in four weeks and accumulated a waiting list of 20,000 people — all without any paid advertising.
“It went from ‘This is amazing’ to ‘S–t, what do we do?’” Blumenthal said, noting that the brand has gone on a hiring spree to meet demand.
Although the company enjoyed quick success, there were still a few snags in the process, such as the “try-on issue,” as Blumenthal called it.
To get around the try-on issue, Warby Parker sends customers five pairs of frames for five days. The free-of-charge service allows shoppers to try on different looks at home.
But price is only one side of Warby Parker. Instrumental to the mission of the brand is the fact that almost a billion people, or about 10 percent of the world’s population, don’t have access to glasses. As a result, every time a pair of frames is purchased, the New York-based firm donates a pair of glasses to someone in need. The company also partners with nonprofits such as VisionSpring, which trains low-income entrepreneurs to sell affordable glasses within their communities.
Consumers flock to brands with a message, Blumenthal said, noting Warby Parker’s credo as a “fashion brand that offers value and service with a social mission.
“We think that doing good and being social has to be core to every business going forward,” he said. “Soon it’s going to be status quo.”