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Fashion, entrepreneurship and doing good are the corner-stones of the Warby Parker philosophy, which co-founder Neil Blumenthal explained during his time at the 2013 PSFK conference. A collaboration started by four friends, who were tired of paying a small fortune for new glasses, is now a study in how little or no marketing can go a long way in building a successful start-up.
Launched in 2010 by four MBA students at the Wharton School of Business, Warby Parker was conceived as an alternative to the overpriced eyewear that existed at the time. Blumthenal, who had worked with the non-profit organization Vision Spring, which helps disadvantaged woman start businesses selling affordable eyewear in Asia and Africa, says it seemed to him and his fellow co-founders that the eyewear industry was controlled by one company.
So Warby Parker went straight to the source, going around traditional channels and engaging with customers directly through the website they created – to provide eyewear at a lower price, starting from US$95 (around R860). The company began with a collection of 27 limited-run styles in a fashion show that took place on the sly, at the New York Public Library, a place of inspiration for the start-up, as well as home to its namesake Jack Kerouac characters of Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker.
And in just a few short years, the company has revolutionized the eye-wear industry, capturing support from celebs and ordinary bespectacled folk alike. Write-ups from Vogue and GQ on day one helped the start-up reach its first-year sales targets in just 3 weeks. But the company has also done a lot of social good too, distributing one pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold. “We wanted to show that you can build a profitable, scalable company that does good in the world, and not charge a premium for it,” says Blumenthal.
“In the tech world, we forget that human beings connect over story-telling,” says Blumenthal. “If there’s no story to tell, it’s worthless.” Blumenthal believes that as the company shares the story of Warby Parker, so the community it has created shares back and trusts the brand. “It becomes a marketing tool too,” says Blumenthal, helping the company achieve a Net Promoter score of 91, which he attributes to word of mouth first, marketing later.
His advice for others looking to follow suit is to spend time thinking about the narrative, he says. “Be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Treat your customer like your soulmate or a person you love. You’d want them to have the best.” Ultimately though, it is the fact that Warby Parker operates from one particular principle that has most served them well up until now: create more value in the world than you take from it.
With its rebellious spirit and lofty objectives in tact, Warby Parker has just opened its first store in Soho, New York.