FOR BUILDING THE FIRST GREAT MADE-ON-THE-INTERNET BRAND.
By Max Chafkin
“We’re down to the wire here!” a young woman in flowing floral slacks and a crop top barks in the direction of a sound guy, her voice rising urgently. “The speakers aren’t working.”It’s a lovely early summer evening in Venice, California, the low sun casting long shadows and throwing warm golden light on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Tourists and locals amble lazily, taking spoonfuls of organic gelato and sipping iced coffee. Some stop to peer past a newly installed mural on a building that features the silhouette of a bespectacled man staring up at the clouds and into a small storefront filled with giant balloons. Inside, a half-dozen immaculately dressed young people are furiously polishing several hundred pairs of glasses.
The music clicks on, the polishers don blue work jackets—cotton with patch pockets like the kind made famous by New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham—and Warby Parker’s Los Angeles outpost is officially open for business. Although the New York City eyewear startup has done well with a small concession inside Hollywood’s Standard hotel and another in Alchemy Works, a hip boutique downtown, this is the company’s first stand-alone store on the West Coast. It’s Warby’s ninth store overall and its most significant, a 1,020-square-foot beachhead in what is arguably the most influential neighborhood tucked within the most important community of cultural tastemakers in the country. Warby Parker has done well courting fashion editors and media moguls in New York—just days before the opening, Oprah Winfrey walked into the company’s flagship store in SoHo and bought, as she put it on Twitter, “a bushel of cool glasses”—but this new location gives the company a chance to sell itself in Los Angeles’s booming tech, art, fashion, and entertainment scenes.
The space is decked out like a 1950s beach club, with midcentury furniture and a burnished concrete floor in sea blue. Servers offer martinis and champagne flutes and trays of crackers topped with avocado hummus to a crowd filled with beautiful people, including Will Arnett and Emmy Rossum. Guests gravitate to the full-length mirrors and the glasses, which are stacked invitingly on open wood shelves. They try on frame after frame—a -librarian-style number in aquamarine, a pair of titanium aviators, JFK–style shades in clear acetate. Most take a selfie and put the frames back, but a few put down their drinks to buy something: A salesperson discreetly sidles up, withdraws an iPad Mini from her jacket pocket, processes a credit card, and places a new pair of sunglasses into a limited-edition tote bag. It all looks so effortless, and, one might be tempted to say, so perfect.
But not if one were David Gilboa or Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker’s cofounders. The two men, both 34, share the same unorthodox title, co–CEO, and the same outfit—jeans, an untucked button-down shirt, and horn-rimmed glasses. They also seem to share the same eternally self-critical brain.
“It looks great,” Gilboa says, wrinkling his nose, indicating not great. “I mean,” he pauses and says, “there are some things we could have done better.”
A few hours earlier, upon walking into the finished store for the first time, Gilboa and Blumenthal had been slightly horrified. Their original design included a sign to block an unsightly ventilation duct, but it hadn’t been properly installed, and the duct was still visible. Meanwhile, a door in the back of the store still needed to be painted. With just a few hours left before the grand opening, photographs needed to be posted to Warby Parker’s Instagram account; Blumenthal and Gilboa scrambled, hanging a white curtain in front of the door and procuring a few dozen three-foot balloons in Warby Parker’s signature blue and white to line the ceiling and mask the ductwork. Some of the balloons had failed to stick. “The lesson we learned was that double-sided tape doesn’t work with balloons,” says Blumenthal.
He smiles, but he’s not joking. “We’re often asked why Warby has been successful. If we sum it up in one word, it’s deliberate.” Gilboa finishes the thought: “We just want to make sure we’re not making mistakes.”
There’s an element to this in any good party: What looks effortless is actually labored; what looks tossed off is deeply considered. Italians call this concept sprezzatura, and it’s the key to understanding what has made Blumenthal and Gilboa so successful. “Neil and Dave are more disciplined about brand than any other entrepreneurs I’ve ever invested in,” says Ben Lerer, a managing director of Lerer Hippeau Ventures, the New York venture-capital firm. Lerer, who also serves as CEO of Thrillist Media, the guy-focused online magazine and retailer, compares the two men to hospitality savants like Standard founder André Balazs. “They sweat every detail and every touch point.”
Although this trait is found in most great brand builders, today’s tech cognoscenti tend to venerate swashbuckling rule flouters like Uber’s Travis Kalanick and prolific experimenters like Square’s Jack Dorsey—and with good reason. Innovation is often the product of mistakes made, of caution thrown to the wind. And yet, the ability to be disruptive and quietly meticulous might just be the difference between a bubble-fueled fad and a business built to last.
Over the past five years, a number of e-commerce startups have shown tremendous promise and then promptly crashed back to earth. Groupon added new markets around the world and even bought Super Bowl ads without, apparently, bothering to pay attention to whether customers were actually happy with the service. Fab’s founder Jason Goldberg seemed to think he could build a high-design Amazon in a matter of months rather than years, and then it all collapsed.
Blumenthal and Gilboa have so far managed to avoid this fate, thanks to a fanatical focus on execution and brand. By designing and manufacturing their own frames and selling directly to consumers over the Internet, they’re able to charge as little as $95 per frame, a fraction of what a similarly nice pair of glasses would cost at a typical optical shop. That price also includes prescription lenses, shipping, and a donation to a not-for-profit such as VisionSpring, where Blumenthal previously served as director.
On the surface, the business plan can be replicated, which is why entrepreneurs have applied the Warby model to everything from mattresses to men’s shoes. Then there are the out-and-out copycats such as EyeFly, Made Eyewear, and Jimmy Fairly. Yet none has caught on the way that Warby has. “The knockoffs—all they do is try to sell eyeglasses,” says Joel Cutler, a cofounder of the venture firm General Catalyst Partners and an investor in Warby. “Neil and Dave are inventing this idea of what a technology-based lifestyle brand is.”
Last July, just four years after their launch, Blumenthal and Gilboa announced that they had distributed their millionth pair of glasses, up from 500,000 just a year before. According to a person familiar with the company’s finances, annual revenue is “well over” $100 million. The fashion press has been impressed and so have investors, who have put in more than $115 million to date, which Blumenthal and Gilboa are investing in an expanded product line that includes progressive lenses and, of course, a fast-growing retail presence. “When we launched, a lot of people bucketed us as an e-commerce company, but we never thought of ourselves as an e-commerce company,” Gilboa says. “And I think it surprised a lot of people when we started opening these stores. The only products we sell now are glasses, but we think our brand can stand for much more than that over a long time period.”
I spent more than three months embedded within Warby Parker to try to understand the making of this made-on-the-Internet brand. Among other things, I watched employees decide on frames for their winter season, wrestle with the nuances of their burgeoning retail strategy, and obsessively plan an employee ping-pong tournament. How, I asked—in meetings and during presentations in New York and over martinis in Los Angeles—have they managed to make something so hard look so easy?
The video begins with a pretty Warby Parker employee staring into the camera through a pair of oversize, round-rimmed glasses. She smiles. “Hey, Kevin,” she says. “This is Liz from Warby Parker. We just spoke on the phone!”
Kevin is a real customer, who minutes earlier tweeted that he’d developed “a crush on the girl from Warby Parker . . . who has the same birthday as me.” In the video, which Warby tweeted in reply, Liz tells Kevin that she has called his eye doctor to get his prescription. Then she adds, with a flirtatious shimmy, “Go birthday twins! January 5th!” The 17-second segment, titled “Love Connection” and posted in May of 2013, quickly garnered several thousand views and dozens of fawning tweets.
For Warby, the “Love Connection” video was a teachable moment, as I learned during an early-morning employee orientation at Warby’s headquarters in New York. “It started this buzz around something that was just a simple phone call to begin with,” says Taylor Bennett. During the company’s early days, Bennett starred in many of the Warby videos herself; she has now moved behind the camera and is part of the company’s social media team, which has produced nearly 2,000 customer-response videos. These are generally a few seconds long and star a young, attractive member of the customer service team or, occasionally, a celebrity, as when supermodel Karlie Kloss posted a series of responses about a special collection that she’d helped design. “Hi Ashley, I’m Karlie, and a little birdie told me you wanted to see the frames on a model,” says Kloss in one clip, dramatically humming a trombone fanfare. “Here they are. I hope you like them.” (In addition to Warby Parker’s regular seasonal offerings, the company produces a steady stream of limited-edition collections, generally designed and marketed with some well-known artsy type or cool not-for-profit. The company has recently partnered with the musician Beck, the celebrity stylist Leith Clark, and David Eggers’s literary not-for-profit 826.)
The social media videos are used during company orientations partly to indoctrinate newcomers—a data analyst, a technology recruiter, a graphic designer, a creative consultant, and me—into how Warby Parker approaches marketing and customer service, and partly to convey that all employees, even data analysts, are expected to be stewards of the brand’s identity. All new hires are issued a copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (a nod to the fact that Warby Parker’s name is an amalgam of two early Kerouac characters) and, more important, a neatly bound “Style Guide” that includes suggestions about usage and grammar but also encourages everyone, when they communicate with customers, to “write like Warby Parker is the person you’d want to be next to you at a dinner party.”
A few minutes later, our orientation group is ushered into another conference room, where some of these ideas are expanded upon. “A lot of subtleties go into a brand,” says Sasha Tulchin, the company’s director of creative services, who came to Warby by way of Tory Burch and Cole Haan. Tulchin invokes the dinner-guest metaphor as well, imagining the Warby Parker brand as “quick-witted, but wears her intelligence lightly. Looks sharp without planning to. Takes a dare. Always offers to help with the dishes.” Tulchin goes on to cover Warby Parker’s preferences in graphic design, color palette, and serif and sans serif fonts (Utopia and Proxima Nova). “The Warby Parker voice is witty, intelligent, informative, playful, delightful. We are not trite, pretentious, sarcastic, long-winded,” she says. “Every time we create a piece of copy, every time we create something new for marketing—every time it’s either in our office or externally projected—we do it with these filters.”
This carefully cultivated persona is at least in part Blumenthal himself, who still reads (and rereads) every written word that his company puts out into the world. “This is five years in, a 500-person company, and the CEO is approving every marketing message the company puts out,” Lerer says with awe. “Every CEO does that in the early days. You do it with 10 people, and if you’re good you do it with 25 people. You don’t do that when you have 500 people. Neil still does it.”
Blumenthal has long been the company’s public face, but it was Gilboa who first landed upon the idea that became Warby Parker. Born in Sweden to a pair of doctors, Gilboa is even-tempered, quiet, and analytical, speaking with an uninflected precision that can seem at once removed and intense. As a teenager growing up in San Diego, Gilboa tells me, he’d often accompany his father to the hospital, hoping to learn as much as he could about various medical specialties. “I was 100% convinced I was going to be a doctor, and I was just trying to decide which kind of doctor,” he recalls.
While he was a premed student at the University of California, Berkeley, Gilboa learned about HMOs, which convinced him that he might want to look for other options. He wound up in business, first at the consultancy Bain & Company and then the boutique investment bank Allen & Co., before returning to school to enroll simultaneously at Wharton and in a biomedical engineering master’s degree program at the University of Pennsylvania’s engineering school. (“He’s the smart one,” Blumenthal says, chuckling, as Gilboa tells his story.)
A few weeks before starting school, Gilboa left a pair of $700 Prada frames in an airplane seat-back pocket. “I’d just bought the iPhone for $200 and it did all these magical things that people wouldn’t have believed even a few years earlier,” he recalls. “Meanwhile, a pair of glasses: The technology has been around for 800 years. It didn’t make sense that I was going to have to pay that much for a new pair of glasses.” He complained about this to Andy Hunt, his study-group partner, who was, like Gilboa, a former finance guy and a glasses wearer. “We started talking about why glasses were so expensive,” Gilboa continues. “Then we learned a little bit about Luxottica.”
Founded in 1961, the Milan-based company takes in about $9 billion a year, running the eyewear business for most major fashion houses, including Armani, Chanel, Prada, and Ralph Lauren. Luxottica markets its own frames too: Oakley, Oliver Peoples, Persol, and Ray-Ban are all Luxottica brands. Consumers find these frames for sale at LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, and Sunglass Hut, all of which are (you guessed it) Luxottica subsidiaries. Luxottica also happens to own one of the top vision-insurance companies, Eye-Med, which, if you have coverage from Aetna or Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, is your carrier.
Luxottica is in fact so powerful in the $65-billion-per-year eyewear industry that Gilboa and Hunt likely would have moved on to other ideas had they not heard about a kid in their MBA classes who knew more than pretty much anyone else in the world about how to work outside of the traditional eyeglass-supply chains. “There’s always a moment of serendipity in any startup,” Hunt says. “For us, it was meeting Neil. The company couldn’t have existed without him.” (The fourth cofounder, Jeffrey Raider, happened to be sitting in the computer lab next to Blumenthal when Gilboa and Hunt broached the idea. He worked at an private equity firm after Wharton and eventually cofounded Harry’s, the Warby Parker of men’s grooming.)
In person, Blumenthal cuts an unusual figure. He has a tendency to speak in the looping manner of Woody Allen dialogue, and he’s physically goofy with a geeky affect that is heightened by the (nonprescription) glasses he wears every day. Yet he is remarkably light-footed in social settings. The son of a tax consultant and a nurse, he grew up in Greenwich Village—a savvy New York City kid with an entrepreneurial streak. As an 8-year-old, Blumenthal persuaded his parents to order him an As-Seen-on-TV food dehydrator and attempted to start a dried-fruits stand on Mercer Street. By high school, he was taking advantage of the city’s lax attitude toward underage drinking and moonlighting as a club promoter. “You partied for free, you got paid—and you got to deliver this amazing service to your friends,” he says, flashing a sheepish smile. “So maybe that was my first triple-bottom-line business.” (Since 2011, Warby has been a certified B Corporation, considering its environmental and social impact in addition to its profitability.)
In college at Tufts, Blumenthal double-majored in international relations and history and dreamed of becoming secretary of state. He took the foreign-service exam and did well, but not well enough and, a few months after graduation, and wound up with a fellowship in El Salvador, where he helped shape VisionSpring’s now-famous market-based approach to philanthropy: Rather than simply give away free eyeglasses, the organization supplies frames to entrepreneurs to sell to their neighbors. (The strategy has won numerous accolades, including three Fast Company Social Capitalist awards, and has been adopted by organizations such as Toms Shoes and Matt Damon’s Water.org.) “That’s when the entrepreneurial thinking kicked in for me,” Blumenthal recalls. “I was trying to understand how we could get entrepreneurs to spend more time selling glasses, doing margin analysis, going over to China to try to source glasses at lower cost.” In other words, Blumenthal’s experience was a perfect match for Gilboa’s idea. When Warby Parker launched, it included a buy one, give one feature through a partnership with VisionSpring.
Although Blumenthal technically oversees Warby Parker’s stores and marketing while Gilboa tackles customer service and technology, the duo are, in fact, jointly responsible for all major decisions. The arrangement allows them to be more hands-on than might be possible in a typical high-growth startup, but it also means that both men must be constantly in sync, a feat that is particularly impressive given that they are, in some sense, polar opposites. “Dave and Neil are left brain, right brain,” says Hunt, who is now a venture capitalist with Highland Capital Partners.
Gilboa and Blumenthal say that their decision to run the company together as co–CEOs grew out of a desire to put their friendship before the business. “The thing about a co–CEO structure,” Blumenthal says, “is that with big strategic decisions you have two brains working on it.” Gilboa continues the thought: “Being a CEO can be a pretty lonely job, so it’s great to have someone to trust and bounce ideas off,” he says. “Plus, it makes it a lot more fun.”
A few weeks later I have a chance to watch this unconventional approach in action, as Blumenthal and Gilboa sit across a table from Colleen Tucker, who is in charge of retention and recruiting. It’s a vexing subject of late because Warby Parker has been adding employees at a rapid clip, opening a half-dozen stores in 2014 and a second call center in Nashville. The concern, as always, is diluting the Warby brand.
“The biggest thing we’ve identified is that we’re slow to part ways with people who aren’t thriving,” Blumenthal says, asking Tucker if she can try to find a metric to better track how long it takes for Warby to fire underperforming employees.
“It could be from the first time we identify a performance issue,” Tucker says. “How long before we part ways with them?”
“It should be less than four weeks,” Blumenthal says, definitively. “They should be immediately be put on a plan and show improvement. Or separate.”
Blumenthal catches me making what may have been a slightly horrified expression. Four weeks and then separate? It sounded rather harsh.
“One of the promises we make to our employees is that there are never any surprises,” he explains. “You should always know how you’re performing, good or bad.”
Blumenthal and Gilboa conjure a perfect portrait of millennial insouciance—among the interview questions they always ask prospective job candidates is, “When was the last time you wore a costume?”—but they’re surprisingly hardheaded as managers. Every week, every Warby Parker employee must complete a “15Five” report explaining what they accomplished in the past week and what they plan to achieve in the following one. They must also rate their happiness and proffer an “innovation idea,” no matter how small. Twice a year, in addition to the typical semiannual performance review, all Warby Parker employees must also rate the performance of his or her manager and of several coworkers on a 1-to-10 scale. During the meeting, Tucker reveals that in a recent survey of employees about these peer reviews some had complained that the review questions seemed rude. Both men shake their heads.
“That’s bullshit,” says Blumenthal, “Keep it.”
This rigor is evident in the company’s customer service department, its largest division and, arguably, its most important. High-touch customer service operations, like the much-praised one run by online shoe seller Zappos, typically cultivate a freewheeling atmosphere that encourages employees to express themselves individually with the hope that they’ll have long happy careers answering phones. At Warby, the model isn’t Zappos but rather the intense, success-driven culture of Bain & Company’s associate program. Call-center employees are recruited straight out of college with the expectation that they’ll answer phones for a couple of years and quickly rise within the organization.
On a summer afternoon, on the fifth floor of Manhattan’s Puck Building, a grand Romanesque-revival landmark that was once home to Spy magazine (as well as the venue for Neil Blumenthal’s bar mitzvah), I observe Eamon Wall, a recent Middlebury College graduate and one of 100 or so customer service reps. Wall is answering a customer’s email about pupillary distance—a measurement of the length between one’s pupils that is necessary to properly cut a pair of prescription lenses—by scrolling through a list of prewritten responses. “The copy team puts this stuff together,” Wall says, reading over the text quickly and making a couple of modest adjustments before hitting send. “Hang on, I got a call. Hi, Warby Parker!”
On the other end of the line, a woman named Michelle explains that after purchasing frames online, she’d received an email from the company offering her thinner, high-index lenses for an additional $30. (Although it could probably be handled on Warby Parker’s website, Gilboa and Blumenthal prefer that these add-ons happen over the phone to avoid undercutting their image of dead-simple pricing.) Wall explains the situation coolly; Warby Parker’s default tone is savvy rather than bubbly. “Yeah,” he says, “in my experience when the prescription is over minus-four, the standard polycarbonate starts to look thicker.” Michelle agrees, hands over her credit-card info, and signs off gratefully. Not long after I watch Wall in action, he’s promoted to be a marketing coordinator.
The same day, I meet Olivia Tresham, another young world-beater. She’s Princeton ’13, Andover ’09, a stylish 23-year-old who’d flirted with the idea of going to work for a private equity firm, but chose instead to answer phones for Warby Parker. “Everyone pays their dues in some way,” says Tresham, when I ask if she feels overqualified. “I could be an analyst but I’d just be doing spreadsheets all day.” (She too was promoted out of the call center three months later.)
This may seem like overkill for a typical e-commerce company, but eyeglasses are a medical product, requiring a level of sophistication to sell effectively. Many retailers are, after all, optometrists—doctors, basically, who have spent years getting comfortable with concepts like high-index lenses and pupillary distance measurements. Moreover, eyeglasses are high-gross-margin products—most big glasses companies generate more than 60%—meaning that Blumenthal and Gilboa can afford to hire people like Wall. When I suggest to Joel Cutler, who sits on the Warby board, that the Puck Building call center, with its Manhattan views and highly educated staff, might well be the most expensive one in the world, he agrees. But, he adds, “if you look at it another way, it’s probably cheap. If you’re building this lifestyle brand, you need wonderful people to develop a relationship with your customers.”
“How’s everybody doing?”
It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday in late August, two weeks before the Los Angeles store opening, and Blumenthal is telling his staff about the 70th birthday party he attended in the Hamptons for J.Crew CEO Millard Drexler, who recently joined the Warby Parker board of directors.
The festivities, which Blumenthal is recounting as a sort of icebreaker during a regular breakfast he hosts for employees, had been held at a Bridgehampton SoulCycle that Drexler frequents and featured a spin class led by an instructor wearing a cheerleader uniform with Drexler’s nickname, “Mickey,” written across the front. “It’s pretty impressive how active Mickey is,” Blumenthal says, letting out a loud chuckle. “He got up on the pedestal and started yelling at everybody.”
This budding friendship with arguably the greatest living merchandiser—in the past three decades, Drexler orchestrated the rise of Gap and the resurgence of J.Crew, and he played a role in the launch of the wildly successful Apple Store, which now takes in roughly twice as much revenue per square foot as any major chain in America—is telling for a company where, according to Blumenthal, web and mobile purchases account for the “vast, vast majority” of total sales. Drexler tells me that he decided to invest in Warby Parker the moment he laid eyes on a makeshift shop Blumenthal and Gilboa had been operating out of their offices in 2012. Despite the fact that the store was on the fifth floor of a commercial office building, the place was packed. “I couldn’t believe how many customers were coming in there,” Drexler recalls. “I’d seen showroom sales, but this was not a showroom sale. It was a store. It was very, very crowded.”
Drexler says he didn’t bother trying to calculate the effect of this density, but Blumenthal and Gilboa did: $3,785 in sales per square foot, a figure that would put Warby Parker behind only Apple in terms of retail efficiency. Though those numbers have dipped somewhat as Warby Parker has grown, the company is still averaging about $3,000 per square foot of retail space, a figure that’s in the same breath as Tiffany’s estimated $3,043.
What makes this particularly remarkable is that the stores themselves don’t seem designed with efficiency in mind. The company’s flagship, on Greene Street, in New York’s SoHo, is broken up by two 80-foot-long tables, supported by white, fluted columns and topped with gold-tone banker’s lamps that illuminate a timeline covering a carefully crafted creation narrative. Twenty-eight panels mark, among other events, the four pints of Yuengling over which the four founders hashed out the initial ideal; the creation of the company’s home try-on program, whereby anyone can have five frames shipped to his or her home or office for free; Gilboa’s 2010 honey badger Halloween costume; and the opening of the SoHo store in early 2013. (If you think this is overkill, check out the company’s 2013 annual report, which includes a page detailing an accomplishment for each of the 365 days of 2013.)
Shameless self-promotion aside, the timeline also represents a decidedly counterintuitive use of space. Not only do the tables prevent movement across the store, but they also represent valuable real estate that could otherwise be given over to stuff that’s actually for sale. And yet, the timeline makes sense as retail spending goes digital.For Blumenthal, stores are not profit centers as much as marketing collateral, giant advertisements for Warby Parker’s website. “They’re synergistic,” he says, noting that 85% of Warby retail buyers have already browsed online.
This puts Blumenthal and Gilboa in a position that is both enviable and fraught. The only rational response is to build more stores, but how many? Gilboa and Blumenthal ended 2014 with 10 stores and say that they’ll add at least another 10 in 2015, but beyond that they aren’t sure. “We believe in sustainable growth,” Blumenthal says. Meanwhile, they’re still trying to figure out what implications their expanding portfolio of stores will have on other parts of the business. During a meeting to narrow down possible frames and colors for several collections to be released this winter, I watched Blumenthal seemingly struggle to balance the demands of marketing glasses in stores and on the web, at times telling employees to “see these on a shelf,” and at other times reminding them that Warby is dependent on online sales. “We’re still early days in terms of trying to understand how retail and e-commerce interact,” he admits. “I think we’re head and shoulders above everyone else, but these journeys between stores and the web aren’t exactly clear yet.”
These questions seem increasingly pressing now that Luxottica—which had plodded along happily for the past decade with enormous profits and unquestioned market dominance—is acting with a sense of urgency. In January, the Italian company acquired Glasses.com, which apes many of Warby Parker’s features and offers a few additional ones, including a slick 3-D virtual try-on app that is much better than the clunky one on Warby Parker’s website. In the weeks that followed, Luxottica unveiled a Warby-like rebranding of the retail chain Pearle Vision.
Gilboa and Blumenthal say that they are mindful of the Italian conglomerate but aren’t worried. “Luxottica has such an entrenched cost structure to support their current business that if they responded to us directly they’d be cannibalizing their own sales much more than ours,” Blumenthal asserts. Luxottica could also try to buy Warby Parker, as it has done with a slew of hot, smaller eyewear brands in the past. (As of late September, the Italian company was sitting on nearly $1.6 billion in cash, more than triple Warby Parker’s most recent reported valuation of $500 million.)
Blumenthal and Gilboa smile when I bring this up. “We have our own brand and our own distribution,” Gilboa says. “We control our own destiny.”
The morning after the Venice store opening, I meet up with the co–CEOs for breakfast at Gjelina, a farm-to-table restaurant nearby. I’d suggested a worthy coffee shop down the block, but they’d insisted on this place. “It’s an institution,” Gilboa says. More important, Gjelina, like Warby Parker, takes a fundamentalist view of its brand. “No exceptions, no special requests,” says Gilboa, after trying to order a latte and being told that if he wants an espresso with milk, he’d better ask for a cortado.
Blumenthal and Gilboa look slightly groggy—the entire team has been staying in a rented beach house, four to a room, and were up late partying—but they perk up when I ask about the future. There will be many more stores, for sure, and a product mix that slowly encompasses pretty much anything you could buy at your local optical shop—thinner lenses for those with extreme prescriptions, frames that mix acetate and metal, and even clip-on sunglasses, which are apparently set to have a moment for the first time in 30 years. (Blumenthal and Gilboa don’t plan on releasing contact lenses anytime soon because lens prescriptions tend to be brand-specific, and because that market is already dominated by 1-800 Contacts.)
In the coming years, the plan is to diversify their glasses selection further, for example expanding into children’s frames. They’re also exploring futuristic technologies to conduct eye exams online that, if regulators comply, might make optical shops, in Blumenthal’s words, “irrelevant.” When the two men are really dreaming, they see Warby Parker as a sort of next-generation Ralph Lauren, expanding into new categories in the same way that Lauren far transcended its origins in neckties.
On the other hand, they know that they must resist the temptation to move too fast. “We want to create a brand that creates a lot of possibilities, but we don’t want to be acting on those possibilities,” Gilboa says. “Apple could be selling TVs or hundreds of different products, but they decided to focus on a few products and make sure they got those right. For us, we want to make sure that we’re not jumping at whatever shiny objects appear.”
There’s a paradox here, of course—and a lesson for any brand builder. To thrive, and to avoid the fate of Fab or Groupon, Blumenthal and Gilboa must have the imagination to see Warby Parker as more than a glasses seller and also the discipline to focus on the opportunity in front of them.