Warby Parker founders look at charity through a new lens
The online eyeware company got its start with the help of Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program
October 10, 2012, 7:55 pm·
When 2010 Wharton MBA recipient David Gilboa left his glasses on an airplane, little did he know his mistake would eventually lead to a life-changing business opportunity.
Two years ago, Gilboa and three other Wharton alumni — Neil Blumenthal, Jeffrey Raider and Andrew Hunt — launched Warby Parker, an online eyewear company that is changing the way the eyewear industry operates.
The company got its start with the help of Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program. Blumenthal, who runs Warby Parker today, recalled how the four students initially conceived the idea.
“We were full-time MBA students and became good friends,” he said. “One day we were all in the computer lab in Huntsman chatting about how expensive glasses are. When Dave Gilboa had been traveling and left his glasses on the airplane, as a full-time graduate student he couldn’t buy a new pair.”
Blumenthal, who was the only co-founder available for comment, went on to explain that this eventually led to the idea of selling glasses online.
“I knew about manufacturing glasses and knew that the price in the U.S. didn’t reflect the cost to the manufacturer,” he said. “The light bulb went off in all our minds. That night we couldn’t sleep, and when we returned to school the next day we tried to explore this idea.”
Today, Warby Parker provides customers with fashionable, vintage-inspired glasses at what the founders believe is a reasonable price.
While selling glasses is atop the company’s priority list, it also places great emphasis on fostering a spirit of giving back.
For every pair of glasses sold, Warby Parker donates one pair to people in need who cannot otherwise afford to buy glasses on their own.
“Even though we were bringing down the prices, with hundreds of millions of people without access to glasses, we committed to do this,” Blumenthal said. “What mattered most is that people got glasses and that they are using them.”
In 2010, Warby Parker reached its sales target in three weeks. In the process, it also sold out its top 15 styles — all while accumulating a waitlist of 20,000 people. Every pair of glasses costs $95, and customers can try up to five pairs of glasses for free by participating in a Home Try-On Program.
“We could design and produce the glasses that we loved using the best materials but sell them for a fraction of the price by selling them online, literally cutting out the middle man,” Blumenthal said.
For College sophomore Michelle Reap, the company’s “buy a pair, give a pair” initiative is appealing.
“I’m really impressed by them — they’re the whole package,” she said. “You’re getting affordable glasses and you know that you are going to help other people too. It’s a win-win.”
Wharton junior Daniel Ortiz, who took advantage of the Home Try-On Program, believes Warby Parker is innovating a once-stagnant industry.
“Not even at physical stores can you do that,” he said. “They really want to help you find the best pair and help people who actually need them. It’s a very forward way of thinking for a business.”
In terms of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, Blumenthal encouraged students to follow their genuine passions and interests.
“Follow your heart and do what you love and you’ll end up being successful as long as you’re doing that,” he said. “If you follow money, chances are you won’t be as productive as you could have been.”