Note: This post is part one of a three post series on New York-based startup Warby Parker, driven by interviews with Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO. At it’s core, Warby Parker is a company attempting to deliver high quality, fashionable, prescription eyewear to consumers at a reasonable price.
I don’t wear glasses, I’m fashionable only in an, “Why is that girl always wearing weird dresses?” kind of way, and I don’t hang out at any of the cool hipster spots in New Orleans.
Thanks to my very fashionable and savvy roommate, Dustin Kingsmill, I first heard of Warby Parker in January of this year. Dustin is a Trumpeteer* and marketing fanatic, and he came home one day exclaiming, “You have got to see this company’s annual report!”
My knee jerk reaction was, “Yeah right, snooze fest.” But he forced me to sit down while he lovingly flipped virtual pages on the Warby Parker site and showed me an infographic-heavy report that included, “Most popular misspelled keyword searches,” and “Favorite beers at weekly evening happy hours.”
I was impressed and so was the rest of the world. A few months later, I sat in the crowd at GrowCo in New Orleans while Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker shared that the annual report brought in record breaking traffic to their website. The virality of the report generated more sales than features in Esquire and GQ.
Neil, a native New Yorker, is the former director of eyewear focused non-profit VisionSpring, where he spent several years distributing glasses to those in need all over the world. According to Neil’s bio on WarbyParker.com he’s, “a Leo, enjoys long walks in the park, and is a big Hall and Oates fan.” What’s not to love?
I had the privilege of sitting down with Neil one evening after GrowCo to discuss a variety of topics around Warby Parker including marketing & branding, raising startup capital, being a “social good” company, and of course the topic of this first post: company culture and innovation.
I’m publishing this first post in interview format with only minor cuts for length. I think you get a good sense of Neil’s style from the banter as is, and Neil was such a pleasure to interview that I couldn’t bring myself to cut it any shorter.
Neil on New York & New Orleans
M: You’re originally from New York, correct?
Neil: New Yorker, born and bred; mostly from downtown Manhattan and Greenwich Village. I feel like there’s lot of synergies between people who grew up in Greenwich Village and here in New Orleans just in terms of obviously, very prideful, but also I grew up where the majority of my friend’s parents were in the creative space… and I can certainly see that rich culture here.
M: So as a lifelong New Yorker what is your impression of New Orleans? Has it changed over the years?
Neil: I think so. New Orleans was a really proud city before [Katrina] but now there’s this sense of pride and excitement that is contagious. I hope that I love New York as much as New Orleanians love NOLA.
The other thing is that there’s been a little bit of NOLA infused in Warby Parker. One of our first employees, Kaki**, is from New Orleans. Her mom, Missy, always sends King Cake and so we always fight over who gets the baby, it gets very, very heated. Everybody gets jealous.
M: Here no one wants the baby because if you get the baby you have to buy the next one.
Neil: Oh really? We figure Missy is always going to just send us another one. And for Mardi Gras Missy sends up beads for everybody and we’ll actually dress actually up in the office.
The Founding of Warby Parker and Eyeglasses as Accessories and Perks
M: How old were you when Warby Parker started?
Neil: I guess I was 28 when we started working on it. There are four of us [co-founders], all close friends: Jeff, Andy, Dave, and me and we were all around the same age.
We were classmates in business school and we were close friends and then we were just talking about how glasses were so expensive and, talk about serendipity, it ended up starting this really organic process and journey that’s led us to create something that we love and that has a little bit of us in it.
I think when you create companies that solve real problems, it resonates with customers and that’s what’s happened here. With over 50% of our sales and traffic to our site being driven by referrals, driven by word of mouth, our customers have also been our marketers.
M: Do all four of the founders wear prescription glasses?
Neil: So the dirty secret is that when I actually grew up, I didn’t need glasses. My whole professional career has been dedicated to them, because I worked at VisionSpring the non-profit that distributes eyeglasses to people in need.
I also think I’m sort of like a lot of guys in that we don’t have many options to accessorize. You have your sneakers, in which I have my old school Nikes, might have a belt, in which I have a $1 belt from my time in El Salvador when I was working at VisionSpring that I love and it has like a little N in it for Neil, and I get a kick out of it. Then I just have my watch, so the glasses really sort of allow me to have fun. Being a New Yorker, I always wear navy or black clothing so the glasses add a nice touch. Dave actually has been wearing glasses since 6th grade.
M: How many of your employees have to wear glasses?
Neil: Oh, all of them. (laughter)
It’s actually funny, almost everybody that comes into our office for a meeting will say, “Does everybody have to wear glasses?” and we joke around “It’s highly encouraged.”
M: Is that part of the hiring process? You have to take a vision test?
Neil: Right, exactly. And if you don’t pretend to fail and you have good vision you’re in trouble.
Neil: Most of our team members wear glasses and we actually give them at least 4 pairs a year.
M: That’s a good perk.
Neil: Yeah, [along with] free eye exams, free gym reimbursements, lunch 3 days a week… and cell phone reimbursements.
Creating a Culture of Innovation
M: I was talking to Alex Oserwalder about Warby Parker because he was tweeting about your talk, and I asked him if he would buy some of your glasses. He said he probably wouldn’t because it wasn’t really his style, but he was talking about how it is a very innovative business model and a very innovative company in a lot of other ways.
Do you think innovation can be taught? Is it a way of thinking? What makes one innovative?
Neil: Yes, I think you can teach innovation but it’s one of those things where it’s a piece of everything, whether it’s like 30% natural skill or 70% learned behavior. I like to say PR is 70% the message, 30% the messenger.
For innovation I think where it starts is observation. We really try to teach our employees to observe and identify what’s not working right and to ask questions. We survey like crazy and we use the data from those surveys to drive innovation.
An example would be … watching the way people shop for glasses. If you look online all these … retailers are encouraging people to identify their face as round, oval, square or heart shaped. When I talk to real people I don’t know anybody that identifies their face that way. It’s like who the f*** wants to have a square face or a round shaped face?
What we’ve tried to do is look at and observe the way people are shopping, and mostly it’s trial and error. People have a tough time differentiating the shape of frames and colors, and I think part of that is because historically the purchase process has been driven by the person working in the optical shop. [Customers] have had no control over it, so they haven’t taught themselves. I think that’s going to change over time as we empower people to shop and browse for themselves.
In the meantime [we’re working on] how we can enable people to try on as many glasses as possible. Even doing so, [sometimes] glasses are going to look ridiculous on them which is completely fine, because its fun, you put it on, you laugh. What we’ve done is we’ve created a showroom within our office where we’re having over 100 people a day come in to try on glasses. It’s a forward functioning store that is a learning laboratory for us.
So going back to your question, teaching people to observe, teaching people to ask questions, teaching people to analyze using data, that’s really important.
Innovation never comes out of the blue, I think that’s where there’s this idea that you either have it or you don’t, because magic ideas don’t pop into peoples head. They are spurred on by observation; they are spurred on by discussion.
For us, it’s not only about teaching our team how to observe, how to ask, how to analyze, but demanding them to come up with ideas based on [their observations]. Every team member provides a weekly report to their superior, and it includes four areas: activities and accomplishments from the past week, a plan for the current week, an innovation idea (it doesn’t have to relate to their area of work), and then a check in on how happy they are.
By asking people to come up with an innovation idea, we are sending the message that it’s everybody’s job to innovate and start thinking innovatively. Over time those ideas are only going to improve.
Stay tuned for follow-up posts:
Warby Parker Part Two: Market Strategy and a Social Mission
Warby Parker Part Three: Raising Startup Capital
*Trumpeteer is a term I personally use to describe employees of Trumpet. This is not an officially sanctioned term according to Mr. Kingsmill.
**Neil asked that I give a special shout out to Kaki Read, Warby Parker’s resident New Orleanian who he described as one of the key people on the PR team and, “a cultural force within the office.”