The best business people and managers understand design, and the best designers understand business and management. There has to be more cross-pollination.
Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to create boutique-quality glasses at a revolutionary price point. The vintage-inspired eyewear company, named after two of Jack Kerouac’s earliest characters, is one of the coolest companies in business today. In fact, we felt cool just talking to co-founder Neil Blumenthal.
Neil is the former director of VisionSpring, a non-profit that works to bring vision to people without access to glasses. For 5 years, he dedicated himself to helping people who made less than $4 a day, and learned about the eyewear industry. We asked him what he gained from his experience at VisionSpring that helped shape Warby Parker. He told us, “I learned a lot about the manufacturing process. I learned that glasses aren’t that expensive to produce, even good quality ones, and I developed relationships with suppliers that we could then use at Warby Parker.”
He called it serendipitous that he met Jeffrey Raider, Andrew Hunt, and David Gilboa at The Wharton School in Philadelphia. When the fashion-forward friends realized that they were collectively complaining about the high price of glasses, they decided to do something about it. Neil said, “We saw this great opportunity to build a brand that reflects who we are, and answers or corrects the problems that we experienced. We would walk into an optical shop and get really excited about a pair of glasses and then walk out like somebody had kicked us in the stomach.” So, they built a company that brought the price of a $500 pair of glasses down to $95.
Even at $95, the founders recognized that there are hundreds of millions of people that don’t have access to glasses. Their solution is the Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program. For each pair of glasses purchased, a person in need receives a pair. Neil told us, “At the end of the day, we wanted to build a company that made us excited to come to work to every day, and we wanted to have a positive impact. That’s where the Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program came from. It was part of our DNA from day one and just something that personally motivated us. We have a history of doing good in the world. This is something that is near and dear to our hearts, and it makes sense.”
While they haven’t been properly trained as designers, Neil told us, “We each have pretty distinct design sensibilities. I designed a collection while I was working for VisionSpring so I got some experience and learned on the job. We draw references from what we like. We’ve often looked at what our grandparents wore. We get the social impact and revolutionary spirit from our parents who were part of the hippie generation, and we get the design aesthetic and the fashion sense from our grandparents, who went to work everyday in the ’40s and ’50s.”
Warby Parker’s disruptive business model doesn’t stop with Buy a Pair, Give a Pair, or when they cut out the middlemen. The company places its customer’s desires front and center. Neil said, “When we thought about how we would want to buy glasses online, we knew that we wouldn’t want to pay shipping, we would want the ability to return products, and we would want the ability to try-on. So we created the Home Try-On program.” One of Warby Parker’s mantras is: “treat others the way you want to be treated.” Based on the company’s enthusiastic support from their 61,000+ followers on Facebook, the mantra has paid off.
We closed our interview by talking about leadership, business, and design. We’ll delve further into our conversation in the book, but we’ll leave you with one more thought from Neil. He said, “The best business people and managers understand design, and the best designers understand business and management. There has to be more cross-pollination. Leadership needs to be taught in every school, design, non-profit, you name it. I think that there is a big hole in our education system that we’re not teaching people how to lead.”
If you’re still not convinced that Warby Parker embraces a new type of business model, check out the way they’ve designed their 2011 annual report. Looking to upgrade your career’s cool factor? Check out their job postings here.