How Warby Parker Is Turning Affordable Eyewear into a Long-Lasting Legacy

Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal envisions his hip eyewear maker becoming the world’s biggest optical company.

“We are not building Warby Parker and our brand to scale and flip it, but to last and be around for a hundred years—and hopefully have a big impact,” said Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO, at the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg speaker series.

After guiding the disruptive industry innovator to a $1.2 billion valuation through five rounds of funding, Blumenthal believes it’s vital to continue growing Warby Parker, but without abandoning the brand’s core values: great products, attainable prices, strong customer experiences and social entrepreneurship. The key to the company’s continuing success, he asserts, is keeping intact many of the company’s “traditions and rituals,” while also accepting change.

“Change is inevitable and happening faster than ever before,” Blumenthal told the audience in Bloomberg’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan. “We have to welcome and embrace it.”

Next year, Warby Parker will expand in a new direction, launching and scaling its first optical lab to cut and insert lenses into its frames. By supplying its own lenses, the company will be able to deliver glasses faster to its customers who, Blumenthal believes, have heightened expectations about speed thanks to the likes of Amazon and Uber. The new lab could also help the company gain ground on optical empire Luxottica, which boasts $9 billion in sales and owns such eyewear brands as Ray-Ban and Persol, in addition to numerous retailers, including LensCrafters and Pearle Vision.

“This is the next step in our vertical integration,” said Blumenthal.

In 2010, Blumenthal started Warby Parker with co-CEO David Gilboa and two other fellow MBA students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The company’s e-commerce model offered fashionable, affordable glasses with frames, made in-house, for as low as $95. Today, the New York City-based firm has raised a total of $215 million and employs more than 1,000 people. Amid ongoing speculation about an IPO, Blumenthal maintains Warby Parker is “on the path to profitability,” with healthy gross margins and an expanding and extremely loyal customer base.

A pillar of its expansion has been migrating from being solely online to selling in 49 brick-and-mortar retail stores—47 in the U.S. and two in Canada. That move has helped service more customers and drive greater brand awareness.

As a rule, however, Warby Parker is slow and deliberate about launching new products and services. Over the years, it has gradually introduced sunglasses, transitional lenses that shift from light to dark, and, most recently, progressive lenses — a segment which accounts for half of the eyewear market. “We believe in doing it right rather than fast,” said Blumenthal.

The company is also exploring new technologies to improve the customer experience, including the potential for developing an app that would allow vision screenings and other eye tests to be performed on a mobile device. The goal, Blumenthal said, is to eliminate the pain point of needing to visit an eye doctor to secure a valid lens prescription, which many customers could then get remotely on their own.

Even as Warby Parker expands into new areas, Blumenthal and Gilboa are maintaining their unique co-management structure. Blumenthal contends the two executives make it work by focusing on communication and regular interactions. For example, they sit next to each other in the company’s SoHo headquarters, which reduces friction and provides “release valves,” as he put it. What’s more, he explained, “It’s nice to have two people who are the face of the company.”

Blumenthal insists Warby Parker will remain committed to its social-impact mission as it grows. Since its founding, the company has helped finance the distribution of more than two million pairs of glasses to people in developing countries. As a certified B Corp, it also enforces rigorous standards concerning the environment and its supply chain, as well as employee hiring and welfare. For instance, to ensure a more diverse workforce, the company has adopted a policy of blindly reviewing resumes in an attempt to eliminate unconscious bias while selecting candidates.

“Too many companies try to separate the doing-good part from their day-to-day business,” said Blumenthal. “When that happens, the social mission gets isolated. It’s not engrained in the company, fewer resources are dedicated to it, and there’s less impact.”

You can view the entire interview here.