The Warby Parker story deserves to be told again, no matter how many times you may have heard it. How four MBA students launched an e-commerce eyeglass brand from their Philly apartments. The goals: to disrupt the anachronistic eyewear industry, to develop a vertically integrated brand that consumers love and to do good in a world where millions go without. In four short years, it’s blown up in the best figurative sense. What’s intended here, though, is less about what Warby Parker has done and more about what they’re doing—and how they will continue to change how business gets done in general.
Two co-founders remain on for day-to-day leadership and operations; two others remain involved on the board but otherwise have moved to other pursuits. One, Jeff Raider, tried his hand at private equity before dashing in 2013 into another overnight startup success, men’s care brand Harry’s, which has gone so far as to acquire a $100 million German razor manufacturer. Andy Hunt, after two and a half years with Warby Parker, entered into venture capital as partner at Highland Capital (and whose first big portfolio company investment was Harry’s; “everybody wanted to invest in Jeff,” Hunts says).
Do not feel sorry for the two “left behind.” Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa have gone on to become co-CEOs, overseeing Warby Parker’s growth into a 400-employee company with 10 brick-and-mortar stores, not to mention its own custom-built e-commerce platform. They’ve raised $115 million from top-tier investors. And by June 2014, they had distributed more than 1 million eyeglasses to people in developing countries—the proudest moment for Blumenthal and Gilboa of recent memory. (Like many for-purpose companies, Warby Parker gives away every time it takes in; a pair of glasses for every pair it sells, in this case.)
And Blumenthal and Gilboa have expanded Warby Parker beyond eyeglasses—most notably into publishing and music with the release of Warby Parker Presents Song Reader, an album of various artists performing songs written by altrocker Beck.
“One of our core values as a company is to inject quirkiness into everything we do,” says Gilboa, who explains the Beck partnership as evolving from a previous relationship they had with McSweeney’s, the book publisher that released the Song Reader sheet music.
Quirkiness does not preclude hard work; in fact, it’s what makes the hard work more effective.
“We deliberately are building a lifestyle brand because we think lifestyle brands and brands in general garner more influence than traditional retailers,” Blumenthal says.
And quirkiness does not in any way take away from their primary motivation: having an impact, not just for the millions of people around the world who need but don’t have prescription eyeglasses, but upon the business of business.
“At the end of the day, we launched Warby Parker to have an impact on the way that business is done—business to do good,” Blumenthal says. That motivates the founders still, perhaps more so. As Gilboa points out, opportunities have become “orders of magnitude bigger.”
Quirkiness has never interfered with the serious decisions of running a company—such as how to split equity and apportion salaries among co-founders. The four were committed from the start to fun and friendship, which continues to this day as a spirit of trust, a “healthy dynamic,” as Raider calls it, of “open, honest feedback with each other.”
“I feel like we are just as close as ever,” Raider says. “There’s not three people I would rather hang out with than those guys.”
“We all have strengths and weaknesses, but we’ve operated very much as a team,” Hunt says. Not just a team. “A friendship plus a business partnership, and that will probably carry through the rest of our lives.”
In fact, during the writing of this piece, all four co-founders were planning to meet for a Friday night of Halloween fun in New York, “dressing up like idiots,” Blumenthal promised.
Amazingly, it’s how they drew it up back in those Philly days in 2009 and 2010. Even then, as Hunt recalls, they knew Gilboa and Blumenthal would become co-CEOs, that Hunt and Raider would remain as board directors. Back at Wharton, the only thing they hadn’t planned on perhaps was their 2014 Halloween costumes.
The Wharton #40Under40