Neil Blumenthal, Founder of Warby Parker

Epic brands are easy to spot. They have incredibly compelling stories about the early days. And they always have super cool founders that dared to buck the status quo and lived to tell the tale. I got to talk to one such founder, Neil Blumenthal, who is also co-CEO of Warby Parker. To say that I love this brand is a bit of an understatement. At 52, I wear Warby Seymours to read and see things close up. I love my Warby glasses like I loved my first Nike Waffle Trainers. In addition to having super cool founders, it seems that great brands also create a feeling state for your experience of the product. Nike always made me feel like a champion just for getting out and hitting the road to run some miles. Warby Parker makes me feel optimistic about the future. For some reason I don’t mind that I am a couple of decades older than their core consumer target. I went to a psychic once who told me that my spiritual age was 30. Warby Parker plays to my spiritual age. I feel like I’m 30-something when I interact with the brand. Mirrors can break the spell. But here’s the cool thing. I only wear them for reading, a very on-brand activity for the company that celebrates “the literary life well lived” and is named after two characters in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. I also wear my Warby’s for writing. So I am in character now. Happily feeling two decades my junior. Thanks to a brand I love.

Neil represents the new generation of purpose driven capitalists that make me very hopeful about business as a force for good in the world. In the following interview Neil talks about the importance of designing thoughtful constraints around your brand that help inform every decision you make as a company. He talks about the Warby Parker mission and offers insight about how he plans to get eye-glasses to the hundreds of millions that need them through a sustainable business model vs. a pure charitable donation. And he answers the question, “Is Warby Parker a Millennial brand?” He is wildly generous with his insights about why Warby Parker has become such an indomitable challenger in the eyewear category and such an inspiration to all of us in business.

LUCAS: Generosity of spirit seems to be such a hallmark of the Warby Parker brand. You send up to 5 pairs of glasses to try, for free. And then you only pay for the ones you keep. It’s a far cry from the days of continuity offers that trick you into contracts. How did the idea of sending 5 free glasses come into being?

NEIL: Well, if I think about our core values, one of them is to treat others the way they want to be treated. And that’s actually a slight deviation from one of the core values that we started the company with – Jeff, Andy, Dave and I – which was, treat others the way we wanna be treated. I’d like to say it was deliberate, but it also just seemed very natural and intuitive. As consumers ourselves how did we want to be treated? We definitely didn’t want to be, tricked into something. We, you know, loved the idea of free shipping, we liked the idea of being able to return stuff for free. If you stand by your products, why wouldn’t you do that? And a lot of companies already do that. Being able to have this company play a larger role in the world, you know, is what motivated us to spend time on Warby Parker early on, and still motivates us to this day. Thinking about fair and appropriate pricing, that makes sense for consumers, but also makes sense for owners and employees of companies. We completely believe in making profits, but not by being exploitive, as I think we saw was happening in the eyewear space. Especially where people were paying large premiums for glasses, just because they had a logo on it.

And most eyewear is licensed, so if you’re gonna pay for a logo, at least hopefully, the people behind that logo are very involved, and are designing the product. It just seemed wrong for us that someone’s paying a premium for a logo that some third party is designing and manufacturing. That’s sort of the genesis of it. Your question about some of these business models that would sort of lock people in, or the continuity programs.

It reminds me that Jeff, Andy, Dave and I all grew up in the CD era. 10 cd’s for one cent, but of course, you get that eleventh CD, and suddenly you start paying, you know, out the wazoo. Or even for those free CD’s, that you’re paying shipping and handling, and everybody knows that handling is really about profits for the company. So this idea of tricking people, to us, didn’t make us feel good; it didn’t seem like a way to build a long-term relationship.

In this day and age, we have so much access to information, and every body has such big BS detectors, because we grew up since, you know, infancy exposed to advertising and commercials. So the days of Mad Men, convincing people that bleach is a good smell, are over.

LUCAS: You hit on something that I think is such an important moment in time, and that is this notion of big data and technology enabled transparency – that people kind of know better now. It just seems to me that it changes the game totally, right? Like, before you could kind of call out some companies for bad practices through letter writing or the press, but now transparency pervades almost everything in business.

NEIL: Absolutely. So, I was talking to some friends that have teenagers and they were saying that teenagers these days seem to be lying less to each other and to their parents, just because it’s too easy to get caught.

LUCAS: Ha! Funny!

NEIL: And I think that the same thing is happening, right, in industry and in business. It’s just too easy to research and look into a company’s practices, the people behind those practices, who they partner with. It’s easy for any individual along an entire values chain, right, to speak up and, and share information. So, I think that technology has completely changed transparency from just being a nicety, to now, a requirement. And those that have something to hide, really just get screwed.

And that goes through supply chains and insuring that workers are treated fairly and are in safe working conditions, but even up to the way that colleagues treat each other and talk about others, right. If, if all of these most recent hacks, particularly the Sony hack, sort of demonstrate is that this concept of transparency goes a lot further and it’s really about all different types of behavior that are either acceptable or unacceptable.

LUCAS: You guys are a disruptive force. You came into a pretty big company that was a dominator in the eyewear space. Did that tweak them at all when you guys cam in and said: “Hey, you know, let’s challenge the current structure and come up with a new way. Did you hit any headwinds at all? Or did they respond in any way?

NEIL: Yeah. We, we’ve definitely seen some of the big guys respond by advertising lower prices, by re-branding some of their core assets and I guess making creative that, you know, appears very similar to ours. One of the ways that we approached Warby Parker was to attack the structural problems with the industry, and that is, we went direct to consumer under our own brand. So, a lot of the big guys, might either wholesale to retailers that sell their product, or they’re retailers themselves that then need to buy from third parties. And there’s also the whole licensing component where those sort of selling frames are paying licensing fees. So by being under our own brand, we’re not paying licensing fees, so that goes directly to consumers. We’re going direct to consumer so we don’t have to sell wholesale and then have the retailer mark it up, so all that retail mark-up goes to consumers. So it’s really hard for the, the big guys operating under the status quo to compete with us on price, because of those structural issues. I think the other thing that we’ve seen is a lot of copycats emerge, but most of those have not been successful, and have actually gone out of business, usually with a, a year of launch. And that’s because they are copycats and in this day and age people can sense authenticity and aren’t particularly, you know, attracted to brands that are just mimics of others.

LUCAS: Malcolm Gladwell talks about the orbiculous oculi muscle in the eye that contracts only when it’s experiencing genuine emotion, that we as human beings have an ability to sense that, and read that, and the same seems to be true with brands. How do you guys strike that chord of authenticity, such that it resonates so much people actually look forward to hearing from you with a fairly high degree of frequency?

NEIL: I think the first part is that we spent a lot of time to define what the brand is, so it had depth. And that also created constraints for us. I think constraints actually breed creativity, and allow us to do some pretty interesting things. But more importantly, it keeps the brand nice and tight, and core to the narrative, so a lot of the brand is about the literary life well-lived. Our name, Warby Parker, comes from two early Jack Kerouac characters, Warby Pepper and Jack Parker. So, our first store is modeled after a library, the New York Public Library, where we stumbled upon those two Kerouac characters. And so there’s an authentic narrative through the brand that allows people to connect with it. But, when we’re deciding what to do – whether that is a big marketing activation, whether that is expanding into other categories, or what have you, when we make strategic decisions and, even tactical decisions, we pass everything through a brand filter. And the very first question of that filter is: Is this authentic to Warby Parker? And if it’s not, then we don’t do it.

LUCAS: When you think about Nike, Apple and other great brands in the world, so many of them seem to be an anthropomorphic representation of the founders. And that seems to be the case with you guys. It seems like that authenticity is, when you go back, it would be pretty close to how Neil, Jeff, Andy, and Dave view the world. Do you think that’s part of what makes it for a great brand?

NEIL: I think we had an inherent advantage, that Jeff, Andy, Dave and I were building a business to basically solve a problem that the four of us experienced. In that sense, it was very real, and we were designing something that would resonate with us. So I think that, in itself, leads to authenticity. I think it takes a lot of talent to be able to create something completely divorced from someone’s core, and I don’t know if we’re that talented.

But what it definitely seems like, is that there’s a lot of people, who have the same problem as us, in terms of walking off, you know, feeling like they got ripped off as they’re buying a pair of glasses. There’s a lot of people that are looking for more mission driven companies. There’s a lot of things that we do that resonate with others, so, yeah. I think that’s also probably a, a sign of the times in that, the same things that influence and guide us are, are likely, influencing the views of our customers and our community.

LUCAS: You touch on something which is, it takes more than just you guys too. You seem to attract this amazing talent. Ivy League graduates to work in your call center and find their way through the culture at Warby Parker. How do you attract talent

NEIL: Well, originally it was just, you know, completely word of mouth, friends of friends. Now we do have a robust talent team that has recruiters, that goes out and elicits talented individuals. One of the things that Dave and I, who serve as co-CEOs, still do is, we still interview all of our sort of corporate employees, and without fail, the number one reason why people come to work for Warby Parker is because of our social mission; is because we’re trying to build a business, that’s scalable and profitable, but does good in the world, and doesn’t charge a premium for it, and that can serve as an example to other entrepreneurs and executives to run their businesses in a similar fashion. I think there’s research upon research that shows that, you know, people want to work for mission-driven companies.

LUCAS: Lets talk more about that. So, yeah, there’s tons of research stating that Millennials want to work for purpose driven companies. And want to interact with them as consumers. That seems very hopeful to me, I have a seventeen year old daughter, so I see first hand how important corporate conduct is, and how she can enforce good citizenry with her cell phone. So, she’s a vegan, and she doesn’t buy anything that’s tested on animals, for example. And she’s literally at the store, looking up companies on her cell phone. I’m a died in the wool believer in this up-and-coming generation, and maybe it’s just because the intern program I have, and my daughter and her friends, but, how, how deep is mission and purpose for you guys?

NEIL: Sure. Well, I think we define it as: doing good. And literally one of our core values is: Do Good. And the question is: how do you actually operationalize that? And the way that we approach it is to be considerate when we’re making decisions. We try to take in account all of our stakeholders, our customers, our employees, the environment, the community at large. So that way we’re thinking of these different groups when we’re making decisions. So when we’re opening up a new store, which benefits customers, benefits the financial bottom line of the business, but there are negative environmental externalities, how do we reduce those, immediately and over time?

So, just creating a sustainability score card and constantly improving that score card, and constantly finding ways to reduce waste, tracking our carbon emissions, and purchasing carbon offsets. Those sorts of things, that we can inject, throughout the organization, creates this mission-driven company. Trying to resolve the fact that over 700 million people around the planet don’t have access to glasses, which is just crazy, because glasses were invented 800 years ago. So, every pair of glasses we sell, we distribute one to someone in need. We do that through a partnership with Vision Spring, a non-profit that trains low-income men and women to start their own businesses giving eye exams and actually selling glasses in the developing world. Uh, through Vision Spring and other partners, we’ve distributed over a million pairs of glasses.

Now, that approach, of actually working with non-profits that actually sell the product – purchasing it for a very affordable price, often just a few dollars, is counterintuitive, where somebody might say: Oh, if you’re trying to help people, why don’t you give it for free? And, the, the thing that we think about is: how do we approach some of these mission-driven activities with the same rigor and consideration that we do the core business? And at the end of the day, distributing glasses for free isn’t the right way to solve this problem for the 700 million people.

First of all, the majority of them live in economies that are emerging. It’s not necessarily a relief situation, where they need food, shelter, or free goods to get them back on their feet. So if you just distribute free goods in a developing economy, that can actually hurt jobs, hurt economic growth, and create a culture of dependency, as opposed to treating people with dignity, and design according to their needs and laws. It also creates the economic incentive for people to distribute those glasses over time, as people lose their glasses, they break their glasses, their prescriptions change, and new people need glasses. So the Vision Spring approach, our partner, we thought was the right approach. And we tried to, no matter what we’re doing, we always try and find the right approach, and ensure that our good intentions don’t have unintended negative consequences.

LUCAS: I was recently at a conference, and Paul Pullman, the CEO of Unilever, said: “It’s too late to be a pessimist.” As you’re talking, this notion that, in this age of enlightened industrialism, business becomes one of the most powerful forces for good in the world, versus just giving glasses away, you’re creating a new economic structure that is sustainable, and that can endure, and distribute a surplus, a dividend that will be self-sustaining. What is your thinking about the future? Are you generally an optimist about the prognosis for the planet as you guys are coming up?

NEIL: Yeah. Definitely. I think most entrepreneurs are optimists. And that’s actually probably one of our biggest flaws, (Laughs)

LUCAS: Double edged sword.

NEIL: …that we always think we’re gonna work it out, and that you know, a situation isn’t as difficult, I mean, it – who was it, Walter Isaacson, who rang up Steve Jobs to talk about these reality distortion fields, that entrepreneurs have. I don’t know. I would be too depressed if I wasn’t optimistic.

00:35:51 LUCAS: But do you think-, but in a more pointed way, do you have a feeling that we’re gonna figure it out and create a more sustainable way on the planet? I mean… you know, beyond just blind optimism, do you have a sense that, through the example you’re setting with Warby Parker that you will be an inspiration to others, and show young entrepreneurs that you can do it without raping and pillaging?

NEIL: Yeah. I think so. I… I’m optimistic that there are really smart people out there that will continue to drive technological innovation, that will help resolve some of these issues, whether it’s, ways to reduce the amount of electricity that we need, or find ways to desalinate water in a way that supplies people the fresh water that they need, but also, the act of desalination doesn’t have negative environmental externalities. I feel like we’ll be making those technological advancements, but equally, we need the same attention, to be paid to our political structures, to the way that we do business, and I feel that that is trending in the right direction. I don’t’ think that our federal government is particularly functional right now, but, I think that, if we have, more social entrepreneurs out there, or just more people that know about these problems, that compels folks to act. I think we’re just right in the beginning stages of a more active citizenship that – and by active, what I mean is, is not just folks that vote, I think that those that problem solve. I am optimistic for the future, in that we have more problem solvers then we had ten years ago, then we had fifty years ago, and we’ll continue to have more and more. And that will help us to resolve some of these major, complex issues that we’re facing.

LUCAS: I’m 52, and I love Warby Parker. It was always presented to me as a millennial brand, and I’m like: Oh my god. It’s beautiful. It’s great. And I was like: Whoa, but can I wear these glasses, too? How do you think about intergeneration--? People always think about Millennials as this segment, like this discreet segment, when in reality, we’re this ecosystem of moms, dads, grandparents, older, younger – we’re all in this thing together. Do you guys not want me to buy your glasses? Is it open to all? Or do you actually go: You know, we know who we are and we’re for this generation, and if you guys on the outside want to be part of that, you’re welcome, but..

NEIL: Yeah. I hate being labeled a Millennial brand. But I also understand why it happens, right. The press and the general public, right, it’s just human nature to want to try and categorize, and bucket people, things, organizations. You know, when we started, we were primarily focused on a demographic that was similar to us, just because we felt they were the easiest to reach. It was sort of a very pragmatic thing and that was sort of like an 18 to 35 year old at the time. But age was just one of many characteristics that we were looking at. We were also in business school so a bunch of our early customers just happened to be Millennials, just because that was our network at the time. When we started, we launched with acetate frames with single vision lenses. We weren’t providing bifocals or progressives for about four years. Now, that has definitely changed, so I’m, I’m happy to report that we now, um, can almost serve anybody who needs glasses.

The majority of folks who wear glasses over the age of 45, generally need progressives, or bifocals.

LUCAS: Thank you for that.

NEIL: I think your question about the brand has more to do with our values, with our creative, and how we externally present ourselves. That was definitely not designed to be exclusive to any one group. In fact, it was designed to be inclusive and, and to make our views, and our designs, as accessible as possible, and as democratic – small ‘d’ – as possible.

People often ask me: Oh, you know, is it just Millennials that care about the world? And, I always look at them and say: Do you realize the question that you just asked? It sounds ridiculous if you repeat it back. People care today. People cared yesterday. People have always cared.

I think the difference is that the Millennial generation is the first generation to have grown up with the level of access to information that we do now. And when you have that level of information, you can actually act, because you’re informed. There’s a philosopher and ethicist, Peter Singer, that would often argue that: Hey, you have just as much of a moral obligation to save somebody if they’re drowning right in front of you, than you do if they’re drowning, you know, a few thousand miles away. Right? That concept of distance doesn’t absolve your moral responsibility. I think in the past, though, that distance prevented us from knowing what was going on. And now that we’re all informed, we can make informed and good decisions; whether it’s where to work, how to reduce impact on the environment, and what companies to buy from.

LUCAS: Awesome. Last question. Vulnerability. I read that you guys are very open, particularly in your senior leadership group and you give very candid feedback and it’s very transparent. This notion of self awareness and also owning your weaknesses, is that an important component, going forward, of, of leadership? Different, maybe, than the industrialists of the turn of the century?

NEIL: Yeah. I think that vulnerability helps build strong bonds and strong relationships, and I think that the way that humans build trust and strong bonds, often is through vulnerability. And we as a brand have tried to build relationships with our customers and our community through vulnerability.

Originally, I don’t know if that was very deliberate, but when we first launched, we launched with our home try on program and had features in Vogue and GQ. The company took off like a rocket ship. We hit our first year sales targets in three weeks, sold out of our top 15,000 in four weeks. It was complete mayhem. But we ran out of inventory for our home try on program, so people started calling up and saying: Hey, can we come to your office to try on glasses? We were literally working out of my apartment at the time. We invited these first few customers to come into my apartment. Our first store was my dining room table. Our first cash register was Dave’s computer. People literally checked out on the website. We didn’t’ realize it at the time, but that was exposing ourselves quite a bit, right? There was a level of vulnerability there, that’s very rare for a company to invite customers into the home of the founder, to, you know, see us working on our laptops, sitting on the couch responding to customer email. And it created this awesome bond with these initial customers who ended up becoming these great advocates for us. So, when we opened up a proper office, we put a small showroom in it, where people could come and buy glasses, but also see the people behind the brand. When we screw up, we acknowledge it, and apologize for it. And we find that, you know, the ability to show our warts helps build stronger relationships with folks. So, I think that we’ve developed a culture internally that, you know, vulnerability does help, sort of, build community. It does help foster leadership, and ultimately create, a stronger brand.

LUCAS: Oh my god. Neil, thank you so much. I am just a mad fan of you, and Warby Parker and everything you guys are doing. I loved talking to you, and I really, I just so appreciate it. Thank you.

Photo credit: Alonso Nichols, Tufts Photo