When TOMS announced the next chapter of their one-for-one company: eyewear, two words came to mind: Warby Parker.
Warby Parker is a one-for-one eyewear company that has distributed 50,000 pairs of glasses to people in need since their launch last year. This month, they launch a sun collection … on the heels of TOMS releasing a line on non-prescription sunglasses.
We spoke with Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal, who along with Andrew Hunt, Jeffrey Raider and David Gilboa founded the company while full-time graduate students at The Wharton School in Philadelphia. We featured an excerpt here. This is the full interview where we talked about TOMS, compassionate business models, the future of the eyewear industry and what it can learn from Napster.
Were you aware of the TOMS announcement before it happened this week?
Neil Blumenthal: No, it was pretty impressive they were able to keep it a secret. We had been introduced to Blake [Mycoskie] and TOMS’s [Chief of Staff] Candice [Wolfswinkel] a few times over the last couple of years but they never responded it so we figured that either they were really busy or they were launching a line of sunglasses and didn’t want to talk to us (laughs).
What did you think of the TOMS announcement?
We emailed Blake to congratulate him, welcome him to the eyewear community and offer to help. We have a bunch of mutual friends and we obviously know a lot about eyewear design and production and the eyecare nonprofit world given my five years at nonprofit VisionSpring.
Should people buy Warby Parker or TOMS sunglasses?
Obviously, I want people to buy as many Warby Parker glasses as possible. But, I don’t think it’s an either or. It’s not Warby Parker vs. TOMS, it’s Warby Parker and TOMS trying to encourage other companies to give back.
“It’s not Warby Parker vs. TOMS, it’s Warby Parker and TOMS trying to encourage other companies to give back.”
Would you agree that the announcement has heightened the awareness about your own line?
Neil Blumenthal: I think TOMS has been amazing at helping unleash,this compassionate consumerism that has been emerging over the last decade. They’ve given an outlet to people to purchase with their heart. I think the world needs more TOMs and more Warby Parkers. The problems that we face are too big for individuals or nonprofits or governments to tackle on their own. We need for-profit companies being active participants and problem-solving. And I think TOMS is a great example of this. I think Warby Parker is a great example of this. Earlier brands like Patagonia and others also have similar ethos. Ethos Water is a great example.
Are you guys changing anything about your timetable or what your original plan was roll out your sunglasses?
Neil Blumenthal: No, this has been something that we’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s really about, how can we create this beautiful, rich acetate, the primary material in our frames and it’s taken a long time to develop and then produce. We also faced really long lead times to manufacture top-of-the-line polarized lenses. We had hoped to actually launch in April, but development and manufacturing kept pushing back our launch, so right now it’s scheduled June 27 – 100 percent.
“We had hoped to actually launch [the sunglasses line] in April.”
Where and how are your glasses made?
Neil Blumenthal: Our glasses made from cellulose acetate, a non-petroleum based polymer made from organic materials like cotton and wood pulp. The reason why we use acetate is because it is just a much richer material than mold-injected plastic, which is oil-based, petroleum-based, so it’s better for the environment and you can create all of these intricate patterns and rich colors. We source our acetate from a 150 year-old, family-owned Italian company. Our frames are assembled in China and then the lenses are cut and inserted here in the New York area.
It’s funny. I often get questions about why we’re manufacturing in China if we say we’re trying to do good in the world, and as somebody’s who’s been designing and sourcing eyewear for close to 10 years now, we know the factories that share our values. As somebody who has been designing and sourcing eyewear for close to 10 years now, I know the factories that share our values. The manufacturers with which we work are very much run like Western organizations. For example, their management actually has equity in the company, which is very rare in China. They have basketball leagues for their employees. One factory has free yoga lessons and the other has weekly trips to the beach for their employees. And, we’ve personally visited and continue to visit our factories to ensure that those values remain aligned. There is a lot of attention given to work standards in China and we feel very comfortable with the manufacturers that we work with.
“I often get questions about why we’re manufacturing in China if we say we’re trying to do good in the world.”
It’s also impossible to make a pair of glasses without some manufacturing being done in China. If you talk to anybody within the optical industry, they’ll go on forever about how everything has moved there – from the hinge manufacturing to the screw manufacturing to the cutting of the acetate to the assembly to quality control. There’s a whole eco-system there and the optical industry for the most part has completely migrated from Europe. It actually went from Europe to Japan to Korea to Taiwan to China and now some of it is even moving to Vietnam, but the bulk of it really remains in China. We’ve even found that a lot of the eyewear that claims to be “Made in France” or “Made in Japan” is actually made in China – at least the bulk of it. We found that certain high-end brands have actually been blatantly misleading customers, and others are just doing the bare minimum in order to have that particular country’s name stamped on it.
“It’s impossible to make a pair of glasses without some manufacturing being done in China.”
It’s funny – in some factories – not ours – that I’ve visited, I’ve literally seen a Japan stamp on the temple along with a sticker on the lens that says Made in China. And, as soon as those frames enter a market, you can bet that they’re pulling off that sticker and selling it as “Made in Japan.”
“We found that certain high-end brands have actually been blatantly misleading customers.”
I watched your TEDx Talk online and you mentioned that eyeglasses were the first product – does that mean there might be others?
Neil Blumenthal: Sure, I think that right now we’re definitely focused on serving people’s eye care needs and that primarily is providing $500 prescription glasses for $95 and doing good in the world. We consider ourselves a full service eyewear brand that provides prescription eyewear, sunglasses and prescription sunglasses. We do think that there is an opportunity to expand into other categories, but we’re not sure what those are just yet.
I’ve talked to some people who are getting a little bit of grief when they take the glasses they bought online to a retail store to get adjusted for their face. Is there any advice, you can give to consumers when they get their product about getting them adjusted or fitted?
Neil Blumenthal: Yeah, I think what we are finding is that the optical industry is just now figuring out how to react to the fact that some people are buying glasses online. We’ve found that our customers that need adjustments have very diverse experiences. Those who are in the New York area can certainly come into our office and we will adjust them on the spot. Providing adjustments has been a service that optical shops have historically provided. It would be strange to me if optical shops didn’t want to provide that service. I think they should absolutely feel free to charge people for it. What a great opportunity to have someone walk into your store and ask you for a service. It’s the ultimate opportunity to build a customer relationship. So it’s always struck me as strange that sometimes people working in optical shops are rude to those coming in.
There are some people in the optical industry that view us as a threat. But, when we look at the optical industry, prescription eyewear alone is $18 billion a year industry. It’s a huge market, so there is plenty of room for everybody to succeed. Customers have different wants and needs. Whether it is going to optical shops and getting that in-person experience or coming to our website or one of the boutiques that we work with, I think there’s room for everyone to succeed.
“There are some people in the optical industry that view us as a threat.”
If anything I think that what we’re doing is actually getting people more excited about eyewear and actually expanding the market. The parallel I draw is to the music industry’s reaction to Napster. Right when Napster was at its peak, music sales were the highest at anytime in the history of humanity. And, it was because, even though people were downloading a lot of free music, they were talking about music, they were listening to music more, and, ultimately, they were buying more. Well, the music industry and the recording industry completely overreacted and reacted based on emotion, not based on what the sales data was telling them. So what did they do? They zealously worked to shut down Napster only to later to give the entire industry to Steve Jobs and Apple. There’s a lot there to learn from; number one, there is desire from people to get top quality glasses at a reasonable price and at times purchase online. It’s consumer driven and it’s happening in every category. It would be futile to fight it.
“They zealously worked to shut down Napster only to later to give the entire industry to Steve Jobs and Apple.”
Do you plans to expand anymore in retail? I noticed you’re in five boutiques around the country.
Neil Blumenthal: We are, there’s no new official announcement yet though.
What do you think that is your biggest challenge is moving forward?
Neil Blumenthal: I think that our biggest challenge right now is having enough glasses to sell. (laughs) We launched Feb. 15 of last year. We were fortunate to launch in features in Vogue and in GQ. Two days later, we were in Daily Candy before we we had a chance to reach out to them. We hit our first year’s sales targets in three weeks. And, then within four weeks, we sold out of our top 15 styles. We ended up having a wait list of over 20,000 people. And, while there was a part of that that was super exciting, it was also really nerve-racking and it gave us a pit in our stomach because our business is all about creating great customer experiences and, here there were all these people that we were not able to serve effectively because we did not have enough inventory, and we did not have enough staff. In those first couple of months, it was basically the four of us staying up all night, answering emails – not going to class. The first person that we hired we asked to work 10 hours per week. She ended up working 90. Now, she is our operations manager and oversees a team of more than 20 people. So, for us, our biggest challenge has been keeping up with demand and having the inventory we need to sell. And, then, continuing to hire the most talented individuals out there who are nice and friendly and just want to make people happy.
You mentioned classes. You guys hadn’t graduated yet before you started the company?
Neil Blumenthal: No, we hadn’t. The four of us launched it while we were at school. So we were full-time students. And, that’s actually why we initially hired Mara. So that way she would work while we had overlapping classes.
Did you guys eventually graduate?
Neil Blumenthal: We did. The joke is that I might not have. The nice thing is that our school has a grade non-disclosure policy, so we do not have to tell anybody our GPAs. But we ended up making it, just barely.
That is hilarious. But you had some experience with a nonprofit that you guys work with now, VisionSpring. When did you work with them?
Neil Blumenthal: I went to Tufts undergrad and majored in International Relations and History. I was one of those “I want to change the world” guys but I did not know exactly how. I was particularly passionate about foreign policy and trying to end wars – figuring that if people could stop killing each other we could focus on other big issues, like health and education.
So immediately after school, I did some graduate work in The Hague on conflict resolution and international mediation and negotiation. I then worked at a think tank here in New York that developed policies to resolve deadly conflict. From there I realized that the policy world was not for me. I wanted to do something where the fruits of my labor [were having a direct] impact on beneficiaries, instead of having to advocate policies to power brokers and politicians who have the ability to implement, or not implement, these policies that could help people.
“I was one of those ‘I want to change the world’ guys but I did not know exactly how.”
I eventually met a really dynamic eye doctor, Jordan Kassalow, who had this idea to train low-income women to start their own businesses selling affordable glasses. I thought it was brilliant. You are creating jobs for women, and when women have access to capital, they tend to use it on the health and education of their children. You are providing people with the tools – with glasses – that they need to learn and to work. And, you are doing it in a way that gives those beneficiaries the dignity to choose whether they want it or not. If they like it, and they value it, they can pay a couple dollars for it. Even though we were serving the bottom of the pyramid, people who live on $4 a day, they had a couple of dollars to spend, especially on a product that, we found, increases someone’s income 20 percent. That makes it one of the most effective poverty alleviation tools on Earth. That is the equivalent of an extra day’s work per week. But it’s just … I think one of the challenges with foreign aid is that it doesn’t always work. Good intentions sometimes have unintended consequences. Giving away stuff for free often creates a culture of dependency and often doesn’t foster economic development. At VisionSpring the non-profit, that was pioneering this model, we were trying to foster economic development and lift people from poverty.
“Giving away stuff for free often creates a culture of dependency.”
I was the second salaried employee and was basically the point man on the ground in places like El Salvador and India and Bangladesh and Guatemala and Ghana [and] lead the effort to find a way to train low-income women to start their own businesses selling affordable glasses to people in their communities. I ended up launching programs in 10 different countries over five years. I went to China, developed the first line of reading glasses for people living on less than $4 a day. One of the things that I discovered is that you can be in the poorest village on Earth, like in northern Bangladesh, and people still care about fashion and style, and how important that is to them. We used to have a saying at VisionSpring: “Vanity is not monopolized by the rich.” Literally, people would rather go blind then wear a used pair of 1970s cat-eye glasses because they will get ridiculed by neighbors. Just because they’re a different socioeconomic status does not mean that their community doesn’t have the same values and social hierarchies – that there isn’t style and fashion. There are basic human interactions that happen between all humans across all cultures regardless of income.
“Just because they’re a different socioeconomic status does not mean that their community doesn’t have the same values and social hierarchies – that there isn’t style and fashion.”
What glasses are you wearing?
Neil Blumenthal: I’m wearing the Winstons in Lunar Fade.
And how do you go about picking the names of your frames?
Neil Blumenthal: It is actually one of the hardest things that we do. We look to literary heroes and then also we actually look at former Medal of Honor winners. We just think that it is a nice way to honor people.
And that’s where your name came from as well.
Neil Blumenthal: Exactly. Warby Parker comes from Jack Kerouac. My partner, Dave, actually had wandered into a New York Public Library exhibit and there were all these unpublished journals from Kerouac. And, two of the characters were Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker. We thought it was perfect because at school we had spent a lot of time talking about Jack Kerouac and the whole Beat Generation and how they were the voice of a generation that really helped to shape American culture into what it is today. They were revolutionary – they helped to catalyze a generation with a revolutionary spirit and a desire to chart your own path. And, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to revolutionize the eyewear industry and change the way for-profit companies behave. So, it just fit perfectly.