In fact, Warby Parker wasn’t the first to bite at the ankles of the giant Luxottica by offering a lower-priced product online. “I wouldn’t say that they disrupted the category or they discovered it,” says Roger Hardy, the founder of Coastal, a Canadian company that stuck its flag in that particular sand back in 2000. “There are lots of disrupters,” he says, among them companies like Geek Eyewear, Brooklyn’s Classic Specs, and a company called Salt Optics, which sued Warby Parker for trade-dress infringement. “They are a participant.”
But in the current atmosphere, Warby’s Samson-and-Goliath story and pared-down aesthetic have stood out. “It’s cool, but it’s not too cool,” says Ben Lerer, 31, the Thrillist co-founder and scion of Lerer Investments, who became an early investor in the brand. “It’s premium, it’s sexy, but it’s not too sexy. It’s aspirational but not douchey or showy or snotty.” GQ and Vogue wrote glowingly of their launch, and a few days after the website went live, the company found itself so inundated with orders it ran out of inventory. It ended up hitting first-year sales targets in three weeks, the founding employees shipping boxes madly from Blumenthal’s apartment in Philadelphia.
Not long after, Raider and Hunt splintered off, Hunt to join a VC firm and Raider to found Harry’s—the Warby Parker of shaving, in that its online razor business intends to disrupt another industry that’s virtually monopolized. (They remain on Warby Parker’s board.) Gilboa and Blumenthal moved to New York, first to a small office near Union Square, then to the Puck Building, the site of Neil Blumenthal’s bar mitzvah and the offices of 28-year-old Josh Kushner, whose VC firm also became an investor.
At 9 a.m., 23-year-old Mikayla Markrich presses a manicured finger to her blinking desktop phone. It’s a guy in Portland, saying he never received his package of home-trial glasses. Markrich looks up the UPS tracking number, which says the package—the five pairs of $95 glasses—was left on the porch, a frequent occurrence with UPS. “They don’t care at all,” she says, frowning.
Markrich (fun fact: She was a Segway tour guide in her native Hawaii) went to Parsons, intending to work in the fashion industry, but the atmosphere was a little too Devil Wears Prada for her gentle soul, and when Warby Parker offered to promote her from her part-time job in the company showroom to a full-time one in customer experience, she ditched her career plans. “I know that technically it’s like a call-center job?” she says between phone calls. “But it doesn’t feel that way. You think of the stereotype: The people are old; they’re miserable; it’s kind of a dead-end job. Here, everyone is so young and so smart. And we aren’t treated as though we’re just the customer-service representatives. We’re viewed as part of the team,” Markrich says. “Coming from fashion, where people were so mean, the atmosphere here was just so much better,” she says, gesturing to the rows of cheerful colleagues. “People are happy.”
Keeping employees happy isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s good business. Which is part of what makes Warby Parker so attractive to investors like Amex, which got burned in the last dot-com boom. “It’s not, like, Elon Musk sending whatever the fuck he is doing to the moon, that’s next-level shit,” says Lerer. “It’s just good old-fashioned amazing execution.” Earlier this year, the company conducted an internal survey asking employees why they were attracted to Warby Parker and why they’ve stayed. “And to both of those questions, compensation was dead last,” says Blumenthal. “It was culture and opportunity to learn and have an impact.” Every new employee gets a gift certificate to a Thai restaurant (the cuisine of choice during the company’s founding days); a copy of The Dharma Bums; a short history of the Puck Building; and a free pair of glasses, whether or not they need them. In the vein of start-ups, employees who stick around more than a year are offered equity.
In a few years, Markrich thinks she’ll maybe go back to school for an M.B.A., inspired by her work here. “I really believe in what we do and what the company stands for,” she says, hand hovering over the ringing phone. “I do think they are going to change the way business is done.”