Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa are co-founders of Warby Parker, an eyewear company founded in 2010 that specialises in affordable frames and social enterprise. The pair is also obsessed by books, holding staff reading clubs and publishing literary maps to mark the opening of stores, and selling books from small publishers and their own published works (50 Ways to Lose Your Glasses). Tank asked the founders to share their tale.
Naomi J. Bikis The name Warby Parker is an amalgam of two Jack Kerouac characters. How did you decide on that?
Dave Gilboa We joke that the hardest thing about starting our company was picking out a name that we all liked. There was a group of four of us who founded the company [Blumenthal, Gilboa, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider]. We were friends and classmates from business school, and we spent about six months coming up with different names. We didn’t want to name it after the founders; we didn’t think Gilboa Blumenthal really rolled off the tongue.
So we kept coming back to different authors and artists we felt represented the ideals of the brand that we were creating, and we spent a lot of time talking about the Beat-generation writers and Jack Kerouac in particular. Coincidentally towards the tail end of this six-month search for a name, the New York Public Library did an exposé of Jack Kerouac’s private diary and they had a bunch of his private journals on display. He’d written about characters with interesting names that never made it into any of his published works and a couple of names jumped out – one was Warby Pepper and the other was Zag Parker.
NJB Given the fact that you spent months rooting around the library for a name, I can assume you’re both big readers?
Neil Blumenthal I think we both had pretty progressive parents, and that’s the same with Jeff and Andy, our two other co-founders. We read a lot of Beat books, like On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye, and we read them in middle school or high school, whereas I think some people get exposed to those in university. That influenced Warby Parker in just trying to chart a new course for business. One in which you could do well and do good. Our hope with Warby Parker is that we can build a brand that scales, that’s profitable, that does good in the world and doesn’t charge a premium for it, then it can serve as an example that can inspire other entrepreneurs and other executives.
NJB You’ve established numerous projects centred around literature. Tell me more about those.
NB There are just threads of literary life throughout the entire brand because we think of writers as being smart, cultured and aware and some of the great creatives, and that’s what we are trying to do as a brand. Our first fashion presentation took place in the Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library to pay homage to that founding story and to see some of those unpublished works by Kerouac. It was pretty fun. We sent some of our first employees to sit and reserve some of the desks there, and then snuck the models in. We had invited a bunch of editors and writers and sent these beautiful letterpress invitations with a reading list and a library card. They had no idea what to expect because we wrote, “Shhh, come and meet us at the big building with the lions in front of it.” They came in at 3.30 on the dot and all the models put on their frames and we gave them books with bright blue book covers that said the frame name by Warby Parker. To date, when we do lots of activations we try and incorporate a literary component. Our very first concept shop was the Warby Parker Spectacle Bazar, a 45,000-square-foot garage that had never been used for retail before, and we created this experience where you could buy glasses. We also had a printing press where you could buy greeting cards that we had designed and we brought in McSweeney’s, the publisher, to sell some of their books but also to do readings in the evening from the latest issue of The Believer. Now that we have 12 permanent stores we still invite McSweeney’s to come in and do readings. We sometimes have book signings and we actually sell books out of all our stores, so it has become a core part of what we do.
NJB Tell me about the books clubs and the readings.
NB It started off with us actually asking some team members to read books and then has grown into these book clubs that are self-organised around different topics. The social-media team recently read Contagious by Jonah Berger and that is all about why people share what they share. We’ve had a cross-section of individuals, from our customer-experience team to our retail team to our consumer-insights team, read Give and Take by Adam Grant, which talks a lot about how one can derive happiness from helping others.
NJB Who have you invited to speak at your in-store readings and talks?
DG We regularly have people from different industries or roles come in and speak to our team. One person we had come in was Danny Meyer, a restaurateur who wrote a great book called Setting the Table. He talks about the power of hospitality and treating customers right and how that can be applied outside of the hospitality industry. We had Mayor Bloomberg, when he was mayor, come in and talk to the team about what he thinks the role of government is, New York as a technology centre and how the government can interact with businesses.
NJB Is there anyone who’s particularly stood out?
NB We are both looking at each other trying to figure out what’s a good example. They’ve each resonated in different ways. Even the fact that Mayor Bloomberg came when he was still mayor was quite a big coup for the team and a big milestone to say, “Hey, this is a brand that resonates and is important and has the potential to have a large impact.” Danny Meyer really focused on the devil in the detail. Shake Shack as a concept was born out of trying to retain some of his best coat checkers because coat checkers have a unique impact on the dining experience – they are often the first person you interact with and the last person you interact with – and at times over the summer, when some of the restaurants weren’t as busy, he would lose some of his best coat checkers. So he created a hot dog stand in Madison Park where some of them could work over the summer. The hot dog stand did so well it turned into Shake Shack.
NJB How much was this born from a love of books versus the greatest marketing idea you ever dreamed up?
NB [laughs] I don’t think it was necessarily a passion for books that led us to start a business but it was our passion for literature that helped define the business, if that makes sense. Warby Parker was really born out of a frustration that eyewear was very expensive but when we thought about how we could solve this problem, how we could build a brand that could achieve all that we wanted to and reflect us as human beings – us being Jeff, Andy, Dave and me – the first place we went was literature.
DG It was such a natural tie between glasses and being able to see and learning and literature that for us, as we were thinking about the name of the brand, our first thoughts were immediately of authors. The brand had natural ties to reading and literature and authors. We never thought of it as, “Let’s use this as a marketing tool” – it was just really the natural ties that we gravitated to.
NB What’s fun is that we can now encourage younger folks and those less fortunate to develop their creative-writing skills. We partnered with a nonprofit called 826, which was started by Dave Eggers who created McSweeney’s. We were able to raise awareness for 826 and we created a pair of frames where a portion of the sales went to 826, and it was able to fund a few projects that supported kids coming from more vulnerable communities. We focused on L.A. and New York and were able to publish a bunch of short stories that the children had written during this course. Likewise, a whole activity book designed as work that could be done as a family at home. So it’s just where we are trying to figure out how we can leverage what resources we have now to have a broader positive impact.
NJB Can you explain about first meeting at Wharton and developing this idea?
DG Neil and I met in business school. We were friends first and got to know each other socially with our other co-founders Jeff and Andy. We each had different experiences around glasses that brought us all together. I took a few months off to travel before business school and I lost my $700 glasses when I was backpacking. So I showed up the first day of business school without owning a pair of glasses. I was complaining to anyone that would listen about how expensive glasses were. I had contacts that I would wear for 18 hours a day that bothered my eyes. Jeff was wearing a pair of glasses that were five years old and his prescription had changed twice, but he didn’t want to pay several hundred dollars for a new pair. Neil had spent around five years at a non-profit called Vision Spring, which is now one of our nonprofit partners. He was training people all over the world to become entrepreneurs and sell glasses to communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access to glasses, as well as helping to address the hundreds of millions of people around the globe who don’t have glasses and need them. Through that process he had been to factories all over the world and realised that a lot of the glasses that were sold in the US for hundreds of dollars really had egregious markups. Most consumers don’t realise that you might see hundred of different glasses but they are all owned by the same company. We thought there was a huge opportunity to cut out all the middle men and create our own brand, and design glasses that we love and sell them direct to consumers for a fraction of the price. But as important as launching a business to innovate in this massive industry, putting great glasses on people’s faces and dollars back in their wallets, we were equally excited to create an organisation that did good in the world. Through Neil’s work with Vision Spring we realised that there was this massive need throughout the globe for people who can’t afford glasses and don’t have access to them. We really wanted to build a strong social mission into everything we did. That’s where we developed our “buy a pair give a pair” programme – for every pair of glasses we sell we distribute a pair to someone in need. We also try to be really thoughtful about all stakeholders that we engage with, so we’ve been 100 per cent carbon neutral since we launched. We think a lot about how we create a dynamic environment for our employees and create products and experiences that our customers love, but also think about how we can use our company and our brand to have a positive impact. §