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Lessons Learned from Neil Blumenthal, the Cofounder and Co-CEO of Warby Parker

 

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Warby Parker started in 2010 with a small founding team, but with an ambitious goal to create a global brand that would redefine the eyewear industry. Warby Parker (WP) was the first company where one could order glasses online and try them at home.

Today, WP is the biggest independent eyewear brand and a company with over one thousand employees in 44 locations. In a conversation with Scarlet Fu, the anchor of the show “Bloomberg Markets,” Neil Blumenthal, the Co-CEO and Cofounder at Warby Parker, shares his vision and thoughts on WP’s business model, culture, and how it all started.

  1. On expanding to physical locations:

Warby Parker decided to expand its presence from online only to physical stores to build and maintain a connection with their customers through vulnerability. After hitting the first year’s target in a three-weeks-time, WP’s team started receiving requests from clients that required a physical location. The customers wanted to come in and try glasses in WP’s “store.” Little did they know a physical store didn’t exist! Blumenthal and team decided to test out the idea of a brick-and-mortar store with five customers. This small group was surprised to go into an office with laptops and couches; however, through this safe, small-scale experiment Blumenthal learned two things:

  1. People wanted to try WP’s products
  2. The WP brand could start building a relationship with customers through vulnerability, or in the same way that relationships were built between people.
  3. On splitting WP’s lines of business:

Warby Parker split design teams for sunglasses and prescription glasses due to the different purchase cycles of these products. Blumenthal shares that a majority of people who need sunglasses do not need prescription glasses. On average, people buy glasses every two years, while sunglasses are often bought on a whim, representing an impulse buy.

  1. On the company’s core goal:

Once Neil Blumenthal told the CEO of Luxottica, which owns WP’s competing eyewear brands Ray Ban and Oakley, that he is trying to build the world’s biggest optical company. Luxottica’s CEO was puzzled.

  1. On tech founders’ desire to always change everything:

“We [founders, as a whole] want to disrupt and change people’s behavior, but changing behavior is really difficult. It’s better to understand behavior and create better experiences,” says Blumenthal. He mentions that WP would not be able to trick people into buying 10 pairs of glasses every year (and it isn’t his company’s goal); however, if all of the glasses bought through a regular purchasing cycle – or once every two years – were bought from WB, the company would be able to easily maintain its growth trajectory. Thus, WP is not as heavily focused in following the latest ecommerce models, such as coupons, flash-sales, and now subscriptions, but is dedicated to “constantly do everything better than everybody else and not trick a customer into anything.”

Blumenthal and his team are motivated to build a brand that will last for 100 years.

  1. On brand attributes:

Today, when the quality of all products within a certain niche has evolved to a high and equal standard, people are paying attention to brand attributes outside of the product’s functionality. For example, when buying a detergent, consumers are likely to pay attention to the brand’s impact on the environment, health, stance on people’s rights, and so on.

  1. On lean startup methodology:

According to Blumenthal, the lean startup methodology can be corrupt, since the minimal viable product (MVP) requires more work to get interest from its target audience than it is usually assumed. It took Blumenthal and his team 1.5 years to prepare for the company’s launch.

  1. On delivering WP products:

“When delivering something, we want to deliver it in an exceptionally awesome way,” says Blumenthal. Some may be familiar with the company’s recent school bus campaign that served as a moving store.

To try something new at your company, Blumenthal recommends testing the idea first with a small number of customers to not incur a large negative effect.

  1. On driving success with client satisfaction:

Warby Parker continues to get more profitable every year, says Blumenthal. The key factor of the company’s financial success lies in client satisfaction. The most recent company client satisfaction survey showed that WP has achieved a record-breaking high NPS, or net promoter score, of 84, when a lower score of 50 is considered extremely good and above average across multiple industries. In addition to providing outstanding customer service, the company has launched its first Optical Lab. Now each WP’s customer can receive a customized product from the company.

  1. On raising money:

It was easier to raise money for WP than for VisionSpring, a non-profit Blumenthal launched prior to his and his Co-Founder’s for-profit business. Blumenthal shares that non-profits operate in a continuous mode of fundraising. Always looking for funds takes the leadership’s attention away from managing and growing an organization. Within for-profit companies fundraising is usually done via a focused and finite effort-cycle.

  1. On operating with two Founders and two CEOs:

WP has successfully survived with two Founders and CEOs. Thanks to their physical proximity to each other (working in the same office), David Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal often check-in and talk through important updates and strategies. Also, it is convenient to have two key faces of the company to swap in and out at speaking engagements!

  1. On New York and Silicon Valley tech:

Warby Parker wouldn’t exist in any other city, says Blumenthal. Due to the intersection of technology, design, and fashion, New York was a perfect and the only suitable launch-pad for WP.

There is a stereotype that in the Valley you can have only one conversation and it’s about tech, says Blumenthal. New York’s startup scene is more collaborative and practical compared to the one in Silicon Valley, but it is also less experienced. Admitting that he still has a lot to learn, Blumenthal says that in Silicon Valley there is an executive class of people who have “been there, and done that” before they created and ran startups.

The larger “moonshots,” like Tesla or Snapchat, would not have likely been born in New York.

  1. On Lasik surgery:

Lasik is irrelevant to WP’s business. Lasik has not moved or experienced major breakthroughs in 20 years, says Blumenthal. Since paying for a Lasik surgery is a discretionary purchase, people’s decision to pursue Lasik coincides with the broader market’s fluctuations.

  1. On WP’s hiring strategy:

“Hire missionaries, not mercenaries,” says Blumenthal quoting an AirBNB executive. When people join Warby Parker, they go through a rigorous onboarding process by being immersed in company’s history and culture. For example, each employee gets a bag of pretzels of the same brand that Blumenthal’s mother used to bring him for lunch when the company just launched. Blumenthal agrees that each city or even team can develop its own sub-culture; however, as long as the overarching culture and traditions are preserved, WP will be able to scale without losing them.

To keep the recruiting process to WP free of unconscious bias, applicant names are removed from the resumes.

  1. On B-Corporation:.

Warby Parker is a B-Corporation, or the model of incorporation “for companies wishing to benefit society as well as their shareholders.”

Every year, the company goes through a review to measure and improve the ways it serves its customers, employees, and the environment. As the company grows, it should also be able to reap some tax benefits from being a B-Corp.

“We never thought that it has to be mutually exclusive to be for-profit or not-for-profit. Too many companies separate that and make much less impact,” says Blumenthal.

  1. Great quotes and thoughts on multiple topics:
  • “Happiness equals reality minus expectations.” WP plans to always deliver quality to its customers in a slightly better way than they expect.
  • Neil Blumenthal owns many more glasses than his wife would like him to. At his home, he has a separate drawer for glasses.
  • “I wear glasses to appear smarter,” says Blumenthal.
  • “People who come to WP generally act with integrity and intent.”
  • “In the near future we think that you will be taking your vision screening test on your mobile device.”

About the author: Lesya Pishchevskaya

Lesya is the Director of Account Management at 4C, a data-science and technology company pioneering the intersection of social and television advertising. She has extensive experience managing major Fortune 500 clients and identifying opportunities for growth. Lesya’s previous experience includes media and account management roles at Facebook, Noosphere Ventures and Validas. She is a recent graduate from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a cofounder of a the non-profit group, Nova Ukraine, which assists and promotes social and economic programs for her native Ukraine. Lesya also volunteered for Silicon Valley Open Doors, FSHN Magazine, and Startup Monthly as a reporter and communications manager.

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