Blumenthal was the only one who didn’t wear glasses, but through VisionSpring, he’d learned a few things about the optical industry. Most significant, that it was controlled by one giant company, Luxottica, which owns everything from Ray-Bans to Oliver Peoples and runs outfits like Pearle Vision and LensCrafters. Its near-monopoly status enables the company to charge high prices and enjoy high profit margins. VisionSpring had managed to circumvent this by manufacturing its own frames … and if they had done it for people in the developing world, why couldn’t four business students do the same thing for people like, well, them? “At that moment, the lightbulb went off,” says Blumenthal. “But then, of course, we all had to go to class.”
Later, they reconvened at a bar. “We looked at this huge industry that had no innovation, where there were no brands that evoked passion or that people were really proud to be associated with,” Gilboa says. “And we just thought there was a huge opportunity to disrupt an industry and create an iconic brand, a for-profit business that did good in the world and could inspire other companies.”
Over the next year and a half, Wharton became an incubator for Warby Parker. “We spent a lot of time crafting the brand architecture and arguing over ‘What do we stand for?’ ‘Who are we?’ ‘What is the aesthetic point of view of the brand?’ ” says Blumenthal.
At the time, the Great Recession was changing the landscape. Suddenly, the days of Paris Hilton and Sex and the City and conspicuous consumption looked dated, even obscene. “All this ‘How much you make,’ and the thing about the Joneses, and SUVs or Mercedes or whatever it is—those things no longer matter as much, especially to millennials,” says Blumenthal.
“Like, in the eighties,” he continues, “there was nothing cooler than a red Porsche. Now there’s nothing douchier than a guy with a polo shirt with a popped collar, driving a red Porsche. Because it’s flashy, it’s obnoxious.”
The Warby Parker brand would stand opposed to this kind of obnoxiousness. The design would resemble those of high-end manufacturers—no lion heads here—but the prices would be low, though not so low as to appear poor-quality, or conjure visions of sweatshops. Yes, to make a product under $100, they would have to manufacture in China. But they would soften this hard reality by having their factories vetted by Verité, an organization that, Blumenthal would later tell employees, “helps companies achieve the potential they have to make a positive change in the labor world.”
The overall concept was enlightened self-interest, with a product geared to appeal to the vanities of people like themselves: stylish yet practical, moneyed yet conscientious. The kind of people who think of themselves as more than a collection of data points connoting exceptional privilege (private schools, Ivy League colleges, Wharton, Bain & Company). Who carry feed bags to restaurants with $24 entrées.
“When we looked out at the world of brands, they tended to think of aspiration as wealth,” says Blumenthal. “But when we talked to our friends and looked at macro trends, particularly of the millennials, the No. 1 goal of everybody is not to live a life of just buying a bunch of very expensive objects. I think today people would rather go see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and have an amazing experience and tell their friends about it. That has more about social capital than, you know, taking a private plane to St.-Tropez.”
They figured that traditional advertising wouldn’t work with this market. “We tried to come up with creative ideas that were different and interesting enough that someone wants to share with their social network, or they’re going to a dinner party and they want to bring up this conversation, because it’s just different and unexpected,” says Gilboa. “Basically we were trying to find as many opportunities to tell our story.” Which Blumenthal launches into a few minutes later: “How we started this business to radically transform the optical industry, bring down prices, and transfer billions of dollars from these multinational companies to normal people. And, thinking more broadly, how we wanted to demonstrate that business can be profitable and can do good in the world, and it doesn’t have to charge a premium for it.”