When I purchased a new pair of brand name (Ray-Ban) eyeglasses this past August, they cost upwards of $300. This should not be the case. People should be able to purchase the prescription eyeglasses that they need, and look good, without breaking the bank. There must be another way, I thought.
And there is.
Frustrated with this same situation, four close friends and graduate students at The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania decided to do something about it. Last year, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, and Jeff Raider founded Warby Parker, providing an alternative to overpriced eyewear. As the company’s website states, Warby Parker “creates boutique quality-quality, classically crafted eyewear at a revolutionary price point.” Warby Parker’s 27 limited-run, vintage-inspired styles retail at only $95.00 per pair.
A testament to ability of college students to start transformative businesses, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, and Jeffrey Raider met at The Wharton School in Philadelphia and quickly became close friends. Together, they shared a collective affinity for quirky styles and a dedication to improve the world. The group decided to reflect their attitudes through eyewear, and thus Warby Parker was born.
Prior to his enrollment at The Wharton School and the founding of Warby Parker, Blumenthal spent five years working for VisionSpring, a non-profit organization that distributes glasses to low-income individuals in developing countries.
Hunt studied eyewear in more than forty different countries. Prior to Warby Parker, Hunt worked in both the finance and health-care industries.
Raider is the so-called “spiritual leader” of Warby Parker, as the company’s website states. The speculation among his co-founders is that Raider wanted to start Warby Parker because he could not find a pair of eyeglasses that suited his quirky style.
Balboa is the adventure seeker of the group. For him, co-founding Warby Parker was just another journey, not so different from his treks of Antarctica and other dangerous locations.
Despite the cheap cost, Warby Parker’s frames are still of the highest quality. The frames are made from a custom cellulose acetate that was made specifically for Warby Parker. The unique material is more durable and flexible than normal plastic, and can easily be crafted in a variety of colors. The lenses are high-end, anti-reflective polycarbonate lenses.
The 27 different frames were all designed specifically for Warby Parker and all are vintage-inspired frames. Styles range from a simple, Wayfarer type (the “Winston”) to a John Lennon look (the “Monroe) to a partially rimless frame (the “Wiloughby”). All frames come in a variety of colors, including black, amber, and tortoise. Warby Parker also offers frames for both men and women, and many of their styles are unisex. The product line also features the “Colonel” monocle for good measure.
This past summer, Warby Parker released a line of prescription sunglasses. Offering five different men’s styles and nine women’s, the Warby Parker sunglass line follows the same model as their eyeglasses line. All styles are vintage-inspired. Also like the eyeglasses, Warby Parker’s sunglasses are made from a custom cellulose acetate, while the lenses are polarized polycarbonate.
The Business Model
So how exactly does the company do it? Simply put, Warby Parker eliminates the middlemen. When I bought my stylish Ray Bans, most of the money went to the optical store where I shopped. Another decently sized portion went to the Ray Ban Company for licensing fees and more went to large production factories. Unlike most companies, Warby Parker is independent: they create their own designs and they sell their glasses directly to consumers via an online marketplace. No money is spent on licensing fees, and consumers need not deal with optical shops seeking high profits. The result is cheaper eyewear.
A Dedication to Customer Service
Warby Parker makes a concerted effort to facilitate the eyewear purchasing process as well. While some individuals may be wary of buying their glasses on line, they need not be. Customers can upload a photo of themselves to the company’s website and participate in a “virtual try on” of sorts. Warby Parker also offers an ingenious home try on service. Potential customers choose up to five style that they would like to test out, and Warby Parker will ship the styles to their home. After five days, the customers send back to samples and incur no cost. The customer service process of actually purchasing glasses is also incredible easy. Shipping is free anywhere within the continental United States and returns are accepted. The company pledges to do anything to solve customers’ problems.
Warby Parker also has a higher purpose. Following the “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” model first introduced by TOMS shoes in 2006, Warby Parker is dedicated to philanthropy. Not only do they offer average people the chance to buy affordable and stylish glasses, but they also provide glasses to individuals in need. Partnered with VisionSpring and other non-profit organizations, the company makes a small donation for each pair of glasses that it sells. VisionSpring then uses these funds to distribute eyeglasses to individuals in developing countries. VisionSpring also provides training to these same individuals, and in turn, these local entrepreneurs sell low cost eyeglasses to their communities. The end result: more people around the world receive the prescription eyewear that they badly need buy couldn’t previously afford. Warby Parker has also partnered with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Invisible Children, offering unique frame designs that help raise awareness and funds for the respective causes. Warby Parker is truly a force for good.
Warby Parker’s philanthropic cause stemmed from the background of one of its founders, Neil Blumenthal. Blumenthal previously served as the director of VisionSpring. In that position, Blumenthal helped to create the model through which VisionSpring helps to train low-income entrepreneurs, helping them to sell affordable eyewear in their own communities. When Warby Parker was founded in 2010, Blumenthal had no doubt in his mind that it must partner with VisionSpring.
Changing the Industry
Before February 2010, you would be hard pressed to find a stylish pair of prescription eyeglasses for less than $300. Today, you can find a pair—27 different pairs—for just $95.00. Warby Parker, which is based out of New York, New York, has begun to revolutionize the eyewear industry. Built around fashion, technology, customer service, and philanthropy, Warby Parker is definitely a game changer.
In fact, a few companies are already following Warby Parker’s model. Not long after Warby Parker was founded, Eyefly emerged on the scene. Dedicated to providing great looking eyeglasses to all at an affordable price, Eyefly sells prescription eyeglasses online for $99.00 per pair. Like Warby Parker, Eyefly’s also have somewhat of a vintage inspiration and range from “Cat Eyes” to “Geek Chic.” As the old adage goes, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” The founders of Eyefly and others in the eyeglass and fashion industries have been quick to recognize Warby Parker’s presence.
Warby Parker has already sold nearly 20,000 pairs of glasses, innovating the eyewear industry with each new pair sold.
Photo Credit: The New York Times, Warby Parker