Last year saw 500% growth for the online eyewear brand, Warby Parker. The company is disrupting prices in a business historically rife with mark-ups, all while advancing a social mission of bringing corrective eyewear to people who can’t afford it. Fast Company spoke with Warby Parker cofounder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal to discuss dentistry, data visualization, and friendship.
Give us a quick refresher on why Warby Parker is innovative.
We’re a new brand of designer eyewear, designed to let people express their personality while doing good in the world. We’ve made pricing simple–there’s one price, $95. And for every pair we sell, we distribute one to someone in need.
How have you kept prices so low?
Simply put, we bypass the middleman. We design our own frames under our own brand, and we work directly with suppliers. We avoid paying licensing fees, and we sell directly to consumers through WarbyParker.com. We started the company because we were sick and tired of radically overpaying for eyeglasses. It didn’t make sense to us that a pair of eyeglasses should cost as much or more as an iPhone. Eyeglasses were invented over 800 years ago and don’t contain rare minerals or state-of-the-art technology.
You founded Warby Parker with three friends from Wharton Business School. Was there a moment when you knew your were onto a good idea?
It was our first semester, the fall of 2008. We were in the computer lab between classes, having a conversation, and the light bulbs just went off. The next morning, we all quickly called each other. None of us could sleep the night before–we were all up thinking, “Is this a good idea?” Later that night, we ended up going to a bar, Roosevelt’s on 23rd and Walnut in Philadelphia, and we had that gut check where we all, over a beer, promised each other two things. One, that we were gonna work really hard on this. And the other thing we promised was that we were going to do everything possible to remain friends. We’d each read those horror stories about how founders quickly became enemies, and we didn’t want that to happen to us.
How did you implement the second promise?
We actually ended up putting in place a bunch of different mechanisms to help us remain friends. One was monthly 360 reviews between the four of us, where we’d come back to the same bar, and put each one in the hot seat. We would basically say, “You’re doing this great, this could be improved, and hey, when you email me a 10-page email at two in the morning, I want to punch you in the face.” I think that helped create a very productive and friendly working dynamic. We each made ourselves equal partners, and we created a vesting schedule, where equity would vest every month until we graduated.
And you guys are still talking to each other…?
Yes, the four of us make up the board. We’re still close friends, usually talk at least once a week, and go out pretty frequently together.
Warby Parker recently became a B Corporation. Can you explain what that is?
A B Corp is a stakeholder-driven business. For us, we consider our customers, employees, the environment, and the community in every decision we make. While we’re still trying to scale and be incredibly profitable, we won’t necessarily make a decision that will increase profits at the expense of our customers, employees, the environment, or the community.
Getting B Corp status can be a long, probing process; an executive once compared it to going to the dentist.
It’s a long process, but it’s something we took pride in. It’s something we were very happy to do. The dentist analogy I’m not sure I agree with. If you’ve built your company from Day One under this mantra, it’s very easy to answer the questions.
Do you think it’s important for companies who talk the talk about being ethical to apply for B Corp status?
If you’re claiming to be having a positive impact and not being transparent, you’ll be found out, and it will be company-destroying: it will hurt your ability to build relationships with customers, and impede your ability to recruit and retain talent. The idea that you can slap on a cause to a product or service–I think people are too smart and becoming too well informed for that to work. I think the status quo moving forward, in the next five years if not sooner, will be companies that do good, that are transparent, and that can withstand the scrutiny.
You have a staggering assertion on your site, that year-end reports don’t have to be boring. But it’s true: you transformed your year-end report into a series of fascinating interactive infographics.
The initial idea came because one of our designers, Jarrett Fuller, creates a personal annual report in the form of an infographic every year. We were just blown away by the response. We thought some people would find it interesting, but it was retweeted 2,000 times and led to our three highest consecutive day of sales–even more so then when we were in CBS Sunday Morning or the New York Times. For us it was incredibly exciting that people were that interested in taking a look under the hood, so to speak.