It takes no small amount of moxie to start a business in an entirely established, virtually monopolized industry. It takes no small amount of talent to succeed as rapidly and as seamlessly as the eyewear crafters, Warby Parker. We are so excited to be in partnership with this burgeoning brand (The Readery, Limited Edition Sunglasses, Instagram Contest & Writing Contest). They’re opening their first retail store in SoHo later this fall and so we popped over to Warby HQ (an experience something akin to literally entering a massive, happy beehive) and cornered Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa, founders of Warby Parker, to talk retail, glasses, literature and vertical integration.
Standard Culture: So, what’s your correction?
Dave: I’m near sighted and I have astigmatism; I’ve worn glasses since the 6th grade.
Neil: I don’t need glasses. So these are fake, but my whole professional career has been dedicated to eyewear.
Can you talk a little bit about how the eyewear industry and how you fit in?
Neil: When you look at the eyewear industry you realize that it is dominated by a few very large players and they’re marking up glasses and lenses 10 to 20 times what they cost to manufacture. One company in particular – that sort of dominates the industry – is a company called Luxottica. They own Oakley, Ray Ban, Oliver Peoples, Persol, and Arnette. They license most of the major fashion brands (Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Prada, DKNY… and then they also acquired all the retail chains (Lens Crafters, Pearl Vision, Sunglass Hut, Sears Optical, Target Optical, then the icing on the cake is that they own the second largest vision insurance company in the world, EyeMed.
OMG, they’re the Haliburton of eyewear.
Neil: We did have an initial meeting just to learn more about each other. For us, it just didn’t make sense that a pair of glasses should cost just as much as an iPhone. We knew that we could manufacture glasses using some of the best production lines using amazing materials, but do it for a fourth or a fifth of the price. We figured it was going to be that kind of set up, the David versus Goliath scenario, but for us it was just about solving the real problems we have experienced.
What are the most important elements that go into the design of your glasses?
Neil: One of the big parts is how to do make something wearable. The difference between eyewear and most apparel and accessories is that there is no tolerance for error because it’s on someone’s face. It’s the first thing that someone sees. The human eye can see up to a 0.2 millimeter difference so when we’re designing we need to be super precise and know what kind of facial characteristics we are designing for and trying to make sure that we leave something for everyone.
I think the other big thing is how we combine references from the past. We’re inspired a lot by the “eye world” of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but then sort of update it and combine it with something that is contemporary and fits this era, fits the personality of the people wearing glasses today.
Dave: It’s all that beautiful timeless design. We started the company because we wanted to make beautiful glasses affordable so people could think of them really as fashion accessories, not just something you buy every time your prescription expires. You could afford to own multiple pairs; you could wear them with different outfits for different occasions, for different moods.
We hear you’re opening a store in SoHo, how are you bringing your unique retail approach to the street?
Neil: One of our core values is to treat others the way we want to be treated and I think that we were flustered with the eyewear shopping experience. We’d walk into a store and there would be literally a thousand options to choose from. The glasses would be in a glass case or against the wall behind the counter, out of reach. Some person – that probably doesn’t share your aesthetic sensibilities – then guides you through the process and every step of the way you’re getting sold for coatings on lenses and just not much is billing to what they cost, what they are, and what they do. We wanted to rethink the entire shopping experience. For us, the Warby Parker world is very much influenced by learning and literature so we want to draw inspiration from great libraries of the past. You will be able to grab any pair of glasses that you want, throw them on easily, look at yourself, get feedback from your friends because buying glasses is social and you want that feedback and have fun trying on glasses that even might look ridiculous.
Are you going to continue to integrate your online experience at the stores or have a more traditional retail approach?
Neil: We will always integrate digital components because we think the future of retail is this intersection between e-commerce and traditional bricks and mortar, whether that is iPad checkout or specific vantage points for your Instagram or some virtual trial and sharing capabilities, learning about our social mission…
The glasses you give out to those in need, what are the logistics of that?
Neil: We work primarily with Vision Spring, which is a non-profit social enterprise based here in New York and it’s actually an organization I used to run. I was the second employee and built programs in ten different countries. What they do is they train low-income men and women to start their own businesses selling glasses in their communities so it actually uses glasses to alleviate poverty by creating jobs, making sure the glasses are always available.
Dave: There are close to a billon people who don’t have access to eyeglasses and given Neil’s personal experience running this organization, it made a lot of sense to try to address that problem. I think its something that allows us to attract and retain really talented employees and it gets us excited about coming to work everyday and allows us to build a deeper relationship with our customers.
We remember watching you on a PBS News Hour segment about “B Corporations.” Can you explain what that is?
Neil: We take a lot of pride in being a B Corporation and what that means is that we are “For Benefit” [as opposed to For Profit]. So the idea is that we want to think of our “stakeholders” in every decision that we make and not just our “shareholders.” When we think of stakeholders we’re thinking about our customers, how we provide exceptional value and great customer service, our employees, how we are going to create an environment where they are going to thrive, for the environment, how we minimize our environmental impact. We’re the only carbon neutral eyewear brand in the world.
Let’s talk about this Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker, the Romulus and Remamus so to speak of the Warby Parker name.
Dave: We joke that the hardest thing about starting this company – harder than building the website, designing the first collection of glasses, hiring the team – was finding a name. We spent about 6 months and had a list of 2,000 names. We kept going back to different authors and artists we felt represented the brand ideals and one person we found ourselves talking about a lot was Jack Kerouac and the whole beat generation, what they were trying to do in terms of standing up, going against the grain, and being independent thinkers. Coincidentally, the New York Public Library had an exposé on Jack Kerouac’s private diaries and that’s where we found all these unpublished characters with funky name like Warby Pepper and Zag Parker. We decided to combine the two and make it our own.
The Readery at The Standard, East Village (soon to be flying South to Miami), also at The Standard, Downtown LA.
What are other companies/founders did you look to for inspiration?
Neil: I think we have learned a lot about customer service and making people happy from Zappos. I think that we learned about simplicity and design from Apple, their philosophy is simplify, simplify, simplify, reduce, reduce, reduce.
Dave: We look at a company like Patagonia which has been able to scale a pretty big business while maintaining their philosophy around having a strong social mission built deep into the company.
Steve Jobs talked about the idea of not just building a product, but about building a company that builds products. Do you think that is important?
Neil: We think of it more as building a community. One of the first things that we did was articulate our core values, what do we stand for, what is going to govern every decision that we make and which criteria are we going to hire and fire people by. So one of our core values is to inject fun and quirkiness into everything that we do and to treat everyone how they want to be treated. 75% of our interview process is dedicated to personality and making sure that this is somebody that is going to help perpetuate the brand and ideals.
Dave: We really think about building a brand that’s going to be around in 100 years. We think about building a relationship with custumers for the rest of their lifetime, and so we are thinking very long term about what we are creating.
Any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Neil: I think one is to break down all the decisions into a million different parts. A lot of entrepreneurship is project management so if you find yourself needing to make a major decision that is equivalent of jumping off a cliff it might be wrong, take a step back and think about how you can break it into smaller decisions so that you can move forward.
Dave: I think something else is that you can always justify reasons not to start a business, not to become an entrepreneur. Some people have some options in front of them that are lower risk and decent reward where as becoming an entrepreneur is very high risk. You can always justify the, “I need this experience or that I need these connections in order to learn X Y Z but before I start a business.” You can justify that forever so you need to just figure out. If there is something you’re super passionate about, if you believe in yourself, you should be willing to take that leap of faith (but not a blind jump of course).
STANDARD x WARBY PARKER: New contest theme for the month of September is FASHION. Tis the season.