This bodes well for Warby Parker. The burgeoning e-commerce eyewear company takes pride in likewise transforming those of us who vividly remember wandering blindly through school hallways into trendsetters for the “in-crowd” without breaking bank. But Warby Parker offers more than a pretty face. The student-founded start-up acted on a deeper vision and managed to hit its first-year sales goals in just three weeks… on a $120k budget.
For a mere $95 you can purchase “fully loaded,” custom fit glasses with anti-reflective, prescription lenses—which, by the way, are manufactured in the same facility as luxury brands that charge hundreds of dollars for frames alone. But the three-year-old retailer embraces an even greater purpose at its core—donating stylish specs for every pair sold to those who have forgone proper vision because they can’t afford to buy even low-priced eyeglasses.
Similar to what TOMS did for the shoe industry, Warby Parker is shaking up the optics market. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal explains, “[Glasses] stand for something…. So it wasn’t just about getting a bunch of cheap glasses and selling them online.”
When Blumenthal and three of his Wharton classmates heard that one billion people worldwide were without glasses, they risked trips to the Dean’s office to embark on this venture. Blumenthal tells Mike O’Toole, host of PJA Radio’s The Unconventionals, “[We wanted] to build… a business that is scalable, profitable, but does good in the world and doesn’t charge a premium for it…. The problems that we face are more complex and larger than ever before. And volunteering on the weekend is not going to solve it.”
Blumenthal explains that Warby Parker exists in three distinct worlds—fashion, technology and social enterprise. “We spent a lot of time thinking, ‘What are we?’ and ‘What are we not?’ ‘What do we stand for?’”
Warby Parker, the David in a Goliath world, competes with industry brands like Luxottica (Ray Ban, Oakley, Oliver Peoples) and LensCrafters that monopolize the market. But Blumenthal and his cohorts aim to make their business model an example for small enterprises and Fortune 500 companies alike. “Ultimately businesses can be and should be a catalyst for good,” says Blumenthal.
For many, eyewear is more than utilitarian. It is indeed an extension of the fashion world, a form of personal style and expression. So the founders were challenged with persuading consumers to buy prescription glasses online rather than in-person at a retail establishment where they can immediately try them on.
Warby Parker implemented the “Home Try-On” program. Customers can select up to five different, non-prescriptive frames which are shipped at no cost to their doorsteps. They then have five days to try the frames, solicit feedback from family, friends, and style gurus. After making a selection, customers simply return the frames using a pre-paid shipping label and order their chosen pair through Warby Parker’s website.
The team behind Warby Parker succeeded in building awareness through a well-targeted campaign convincing aspirational media outlets like GQ and Vogue to feature them. After selling out of their top 15 styles in four weeks, Warby Parker accumulated a waitlist of 20,000 people.
Warby Parker has since expanded from operating out of Blumenthal’s apartment to selling frames at their own brick-and-mortar stores. More recently they launched the “Warby Parker Class Trip,” transforming a school bus into a mobile showroom for a cross-country road trip to bring the Warby Parker experience to the masses.
To hear more about how this start-up became one of the most talked about entrepreneurial ventures, listen to Neil Blumenthal’s full interview on PJA’s The Unconventionals.
By ALLIE ABODEELY