I wear glasses ... and have always been frustrated by the exorbitant cost of both frames and lenses. So I was happy when I had the chance to meet Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a lifestyle brand with a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a reasonable price while conducting business in a socially-conscious way.
Warby Parker retails frames and prescription lenses for $95, what is arguably a fraction of the cost of comparable glasses.
And for every pair sold, a pair of glasses is distributed to someone in need in the developing world. Working with an established non-profit, Warby Parker has distributed more than one million pairs of glasses to people in need.
As both a businessman and an eyeglass wearer, I've long been intrigued by the company's products, business strategy and, truth be told, its very cool location on Greene Street in downtown New York City.
Blumenthal received an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. Next month, he and Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Dave Gilboa — a fellow Wharton MBA alumni — will be the featured speakers at the School’s MBA graduation in Philadelphia.
Geoff Garrett, Dean of the Wharton School, said the duo "embody the spirit of Wharton – to do well and to do good."
Seeing It Clearly
Before the launch of Warby Parker, Blumenthal was a director at VisionSpring, a non-profit social enterprise that trains low-income women to start their own businesses selling eyeglasses to individuals living on less than $4 per day in developing countries.
He previously worked with the International Crisis Group and attended the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in The Hague, Netherlands.
The World Economic Forum named Blumenthal has been named a “Young Global Leader” and Fast Company called him one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business. He serves on the board of RxArt and on the United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council.
CMSWire sat down with him to discuss how he has parlayed a customer-centric vision to early career success.
Sobel: You claim, “To be a customer first, you need to be an employee first.” Can you elaborate?
Blumenthal: If you hire smart, friendly people and empower them to make decisions, they’ll always act in the interest of customers. When we think of our worst customer experiences as consumers — calling cable companies, airlines — there are two core problems.
- The customer-facing policies that these companies have established are subpar.
- The employee-facing policies they’ve established are subpar.
Miserable customer service is usually the result of miserable employees. Great customer service is the result of happy, talented, well-valued employees.
When we talk about placing a huge emphasis on customer service at Warby Parker, that means putting serious resources and energy into hiring the best customer experience associates possible, empowering them with the tools they need to make customers happy and seeing them as leaders within the company.
Research has shown that people grow unhappy and leave their jobs for two main reasons: because they’ve stopped learning and because they dislike their boss. To avert either scenario, we do twice-yearly 360-degree reviews and offer management workshops, speaker sessions, book clubs and more. Customers who engage with our customer experience associates can sense immediately that they are in good hands.
Sobel: You define your stakeholders as your customers, employees, the community and the environment. Can you elaborate?
Blumenthal: We made the decision early on to be stakeholder-centric rather than shareholder-centric. This means that we consider our stakeholders — customers, employees, the environment and the community at large — in every decision we make. One example: we’ve offered free shipping and free returns to customers from day one because it was what we (as consumers) would want from a company. We made it work financially. For employees, adopting a stakeholder-centric mindset means approaching every day at work as an opportunity to positively impact the brand.
Sobel: In a recent article on gender issues you wrote, “Empowering women is key to achieving sustainable development and tackling many of the problems that we face today." What do you mean?
Blumenthal: It’s all of our responsibility to fight gender inequality. It’s not only the right thing to do morally. It’s the smart thing to do financially.
Sobel: How have you gotten the Warby Parker story out to your potential customers?
Blumenthal: We are all assaulted with messages from companies, from friends, from family members. As a brand, the question is: how do you cut through the clutter?
Before launching Warby Parker, we spent a lot of time understanding what motivates people to buy glasses. For most customer segments, fashion comes first, followed by a price, followed by quality. When crafting our hierarchy of messages, we wanted to hit the points that would most likely compel people to buy glasses, hence our hierarchy of messaging: fashion first, value second, social mission third.
Crafting the hierarchy was one of many attempts to be as meticulous as possible about building Warby Parker’s identity — about understanding our reasons for being. It’s critical to have a deep understanding of your company’s identity. There are many ways to do this: defining a list of core values, codifying a company culture and setting long-term goals.