How Warby Parker Disrupted the Eyewear Industry
How Warby Parker Disrupted the Eyewear Industry

Over beers at a local bar, four friends threw around an idea: What if they could provide higher-quality prescription eyewear at a fraction of the going price?

Every idea starts with a problem. For four MB candidates at the Wharton School of Business, theirs was simple: glasses are too expensive.

The four friends threw around an idea: what if they could provide higher-quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the going price? They sealed the deal the next night over Yuenglings at a local bar in Philadelphia. That’s the short story of how Warby Parker was born.

Their first Eureka moment came when investigating that very question. When they realized that the same company owned LensCrafters and Peale Vision, Ray-Ban and Oakley, and the licenses for Chanel and Prada prescription frames and sunglasses, all of a sudden, it made sense why glasses were so expensive. And with that epiphany, the idea began to take shape and the business model was born—they would create a vertically integrated company.

“It was really about bypassing retailers, bypassing the middlemen that would mark up lenses three to five times what they cost. So we could just transfer all of that cost directly to consumers and save them money,” Blumenthal told Forbes. “The technology behind a pair of glasses is 800 years old. And it’s kind of crazy you can buy a new iPhone for less than it costs to buy a pair of glasses.”

After incubating the idea for nearly a year and a half, their business finally hatched in 2010. The brand launched with an acclaimed at-home try-on program, in which the company allows customers to test five pairs of frames for five days via the mail, and then order their preferred pair while sending the test frames back. The affordable pricing also helped Warby Parker: customers can nab a new, classically designed pair of prescription eyewear for $95—escaping the 20-time markup of most glasses sold in the U.S. It was a recipe for success: The initial launch was so successful that the team hit their first year sales targets in the first three weeks.

“We wanted to make the process as simple and easy as possible. We could have 10 different price points, but when we launched, we only had one: $95, and that included prescription lenses, and free shipping and free returns. Some frames cost more than others to manufacture, some use more material—so we restrained ourselves from having a bazilliion different price points because we thought that simplicity was easier to understand for the customer and made for a better customer experience,” Blumenthal told Fast Company. “Ultimately, the goal was really to create a world in which everyone who needs glasses has access to them, and nobody feels ripped off after buying them.”

But Warby Parker’s innovation went beyond delivery—they also implemented a buy-one-give-one business model that helps increase eye care availability in developing countries. Warby Parker works with Vision Spring, which trains entrepreneurs in developing countries to give exams and sell affordable glasses in their communities. For every pair of glasses Warby Parker sells, the company covers Vision Spring’s cost of sourcing a pair. Blumenthal says there’s a really basic reason why startups can benefit from a social mission like this: It gives the founders a good reason to get out of bed.

“How do you live your life so that you don’t have to roll over and hit the snooze button in the morning? I think we all love eyewear. But I don’t know if we would have dedicated our lives to eyewear if there wasn’t some larger purpose,” Blumenthal told Quartz.

For Blumenthal, the larger purpose was to build a profitable company that does some good in the world, and could serve as a model for other entrepreneurs and executive. Blumenthal believes that that kind of motivation is essential when launching a startup—and beyond.

And that strategy is working. Today, annual revenues exceed $100 million, and Warby Parker sold its millionth pair of glasses just last year.