According to Warby Parker, every idea starts with a problem. For NYC based startup Warby Parker, that problem was simple: eye-glasses were too expensive. So in 2010, four University of Pennsylvania students (Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt, and Jeff Raider) setout to find a solution. What they found revolutionizes a $100 billion industry.
In 2008, the four students were surprised to learn that one company, Luxottica of Milan Italy, monopolized the global eyewear market. According to reports, Luxottica owed a reported 80% of all global eyewear brands. This meant Luxottica was a ‘price maker’ – a monopolistic company able to dictate the price of their goods due to a lack of substitute. The four students recognized the industry was ripe for disrupting.
Their initial idea was to allow customers to buy eyeglasses online from the internet. This was a totally revolutionary idea at the time. The major source of criticism however, was that customers wouldn’t be able to ensure the frames would fit. As a solution, the team decided to allow their customers to try five different frames at home before purchasing. Shortly thereafter, the team received $2,500 of seed funding from the Wharton School of Business’ Venture Initiative Program. They were off-and-running.
Two years later, after pooling their resources, and kicking in $30,000 a piece to make inventory, the company was still not open for business. But the groundwork had been laid. Around this same time, both GQ and Vogue magazine learned of the company and agreed to write articles on the new and budding fashion eyeglass brand. Upon learning that the GQ article would be published on February 15, 2010, the team knew they had their deadline. So on February 15, 2010, WarbyParker.com went live.
The GQ article dubbed Warby Parker, ‘The Netflix of eyewear’. Within 48 hours the website was inundated with orders. Due to the unexpected demand, the team immediately had to do away with their in-home trial process. In short order, over 20,000 orders had been placed. It seemed many people were interested in such inexpensive glasses. The only problem was the team had nowhere near the inventory to fill the orders.
Before launch, the company had partnered with a 150-year old Italian eyeglass company. After discussing the problem, both the team and the manufacturer realized this was the opportunity of a lifetime. They soon struck a deal and production got underway.
In the meantime, the team also had a customer service problem. They followed-up with all of their customers via email and explained the situation. Also, as a result of having to suspend their in-home trial option, many customers were still not sure if the glasses would fit them. As a solution the team began to invite people to their apartments to try on the glasses. As an added solution the team also developed the Warby Parker Class Trip, which was a school bus converted into a store that would travel to different cities to expose people to the glasses. After a bit of a rough start, the company had hit its stride.
All along Warby Parker knew they wanted to positively impact people’s lives. While it was certainly an advantage for the customer to pay $95 instead of $400-500, the team also realizes that $95 in many places in the world was still too high of price. So, the team soon started the ‘Buy a Pair, Give a Pair’ program. To date, this program has donated over 3 million pairs of eyeglasses to people who would otherwise not have been able to afford them.
By designing their products in-house, selling directly to the customer, concentrating on service, and having a philanthropic intention, Warby Parker was able to disrupted a $100 billion industry and is now one the most successful eyeglasses companies worldwide. To date, Warby Parker has closed $215.5 million in funding, and is valued at a reported $1.2 billion. All of this leaves many to speculate that the company is now ripe for IPO, but regardless of what the future holds, Warby Parker has already accomplished enough to be considered one of the most successful startups in history.