They are retro chic. They have a social mission behind them. And they are surprisingly affordable.
Sounds like a story made in startup heaven, but the real question is: Would Jack Kerouac have been seen sporting a pair of Warby Parker glasses? After all, the 2 1/2-year-old company is named after characters in some of his writings.
Well, that's a question that can't be answered, but it doesn’t seem an unlikely thought. Like Kerouac, Warby Parker is also raging up against the status quo, which, in this case, is the big eyewear industry that the founders said have been overcharging customers for far too long.
“Eyewear consumers don’t realize that there are really a couple of companies that control the entire industry,” said Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker. “So if you walk into a Lens Crafters and you see 50 different brands of glasses, most of those brands are owned by the same company and probably produced in the same factory.”
“Entrepreneurship is not a leap of faith. It’s really project management and hundreds of very small decisions,"
- Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker
Blumenthal, 32, along with co-founder Dave Gilboa, 31, said because of this tight control, there hasn’t been much innovation in the estimated $65 billion industry.
“So we saw it as this massive opportunity for us to build our own vertically integrated brand where we focus on high-design products...at a reasonable price,” said Blumenthal.
The reason why Warby Parkers can carry a $95 dollar price tag is because this e-commerce site sells solely online.
Started out of a dorm room while the two were at Wharton business school (two other co-founders are still on the company’s board but went into other professions), the buzz about the business happened instantaneously.
“We were full-time students trying to make sure we graduated from business school,” explained Gilboa, who said in the first week of operation Vogue and GQ wrote pieces about the company (which they attribute to investing in a marketing team early on).
“We had one employee at the time and we told her she would probably work 10-12 hours that first week when we all had overlapping classes just to make sure someone was available,” he said. “But I think that first week she worked 90-100 hours, and it was really just off to the races from there.”
So far Warby Parker has received $15 million in capital and has plans to expand in the next year.
“Entrepreneurship is not a leap of faith,” said Blumenthal. “It’s really project management and hundreds of very small decisions, and I think the best entrepreneurs break challenges down into small projects with many little steps. It’s how you make progress and feel confident—and it also prevents you from taking those giant risks and investing too much money too soon.”
Follow Christina on Twitter @ChristinaScotti
Six Shooter with the founders of Warby Parker
1. What is your favorite quote and why?
"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." Oscar Wilde
It's easy to wake up every morning and go through the motions--this quote serves as a reminder to make every day count and think about pushing ourselves to do extraordinary things.
2. What are your three biggest tips to entrepreneurs?
1) If you feel passionate about something and believe in it yourself, just do it. There will always be reasons to delay.
2) Don't jump off a cliff. You can always break down big unknowns into smaller issues and then test those systematically.
3) Don't listen to too much advice.
3. Who is your role model or inspiration?
The blue-footed booby. Its a bird that has a gray and white body but bright blue feet. We think it embodies how we run our company--we try to inject an element of the unexpectedness and quirkiness into everything we do. We take our work very seriously but don't take ourselves very seriously.
4. Were you ever intimidated by trying to break through an industry that already has some powerhouse companies in it?
We were encouraged by this. These large companies had no reason to innovate and created the opportunity for us to provide an alternative.
5. You manufacture a good portion of your business in the U.S. It is cost effective or do you do it for other reasons?
We think about providing the best customer experience with everything we do. Having all our optical labs in the US allows us to deliver glasses to customers within a couple days of ordering.
6. Where do you see Warby Parker in five years?
Having millions of happy customers, having helped distribute millions of glasses around the world, and serving as an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs.
Christina is on Twitter @ChristinaScotti