This post has been updated: Why not disrupt the glasses market?
After all glasses are, particularly when you’re looking at name-brand frames, pricier than a new smartphone — an observation Warby Parker co-founder David Gilboa made when he lost a $700 pair of glasses before going on to buy a roughly $200 iPhone.
Gilboa founded Warby Parker with three fellow Wharton Business School classmates Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider. The goal of the company is to make the process of purchasing glasses not only cheaper but as user-friendly and socially conscious as possible.
The company seeks to disrupt the traditional eyewear model by eliminating the cost of licensing name brands and maintaining storefronts. The company also keeps its frames selection small in comparison to other sellers.
“When we walked into an optical shop — we were often overwhelmed,”said Blumenthal during a phone interview on Oct. 5. “It’s too difficult to shop when you have that many options.”
Customers can use the site’s “virtual try-on tool” to select as many as five of the company’s antique-style frames (the style is only fitting since the company gets its name from two characters that appear in Jack Kerouac’s diaries). Those frames are delivered to the customer with a return box, giving them an opportunity to elect to purchase one, some or none of the glasses before the end of the trial period. Once a choice is made, the customer can send in a prescription and have the glasses returned to them with the lenses in.
When asked how the company chooses which designs are worthy of the Warby Parker brand, Blumenthal said, “We don’t want to sell anything that we would punch ourselves for wearing.”
And they don’t want to give away glasses to people in the developing world who need corrective lenses, but also want to choose their own style.
In that vein, Warby Parker operates its ”Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” program. The company partners with nonprofit Vision Spring, where Blumenthal once served as director. Unlike Toms Shoes “One for One” effort (although Toms runs a separate, socially conscious vision program that offers a pair of glasses, surgery or medical treatment for those in need), Warby Parker does not donate eyeglasses pair-for-pair. Instead the company tallies up the number of glasses sold every month and donates the amount in cash it would take to produce that number of glasses to Vision Spring. The money goes towards the purchase of supplies and the training of individuals to become licensed eyewear sellers.
“What we have found is that glasses are amazing advocacy tools,” said Blumenthal. And, aside from advocacy, Blumenthal is particularly concerned about sustainability.
“We never wanted to support an unsustainable initiative where Westerners would parachute into a village, distribute a bunch of glasses and leave. We don’t think that solves the problem.”
Towards that end, the company has teamed up with nonprofit Pencils of Promise, which builds schools in the developing world. For every $95 pair of limited-edition Warby Parker glasses purchased (the glasses come in pencil-themed gold and slate gray) the company will donate $30 to the nonprofit. The partnership was announced Monday.
Pencils of Promise has received a bevy of celebrity support, including from Justin Bieber. The organization was at the center of a charity concert in Nov. 2010 featuring bands Asher Roth, Cash Cash and Boys Like Girls. Actress Sophia Bush is featured on the Warby Parker Web page announcing the partnership alongside Pencils of Promise Founder Adam Braun.
Asked which organizations Warby Parker planned to partner with down the line, Blumenthal wrote in an e-mail Monday, “We'll continue to work with like-minded organizations that are thought-leaders in their domain.”
Read more news and ideas on Innovations: