In 2010 when Warby Parker opened their e-commerce eyewear store, few would have predicted the major disruption it would cause to this highly monopolistic industry with its $16 million annual turnover. An inspiration for startups everywhere, the company was featured in GQ and Vogue magazines at the time of launch. Within three months, Warby Parker had run out of its initial inventory. As with all success stories, hard work, planning and innovation have been key factors. Warby Parker’s clear focus on brand and execution sets an example for all new startups.
In the Public Eye
From the start, Warby Parker never saw itself as merely an e-commerce company. The four co-founders set out to create a brand rather than an eyewear store. David Gilboa, one of the co-founders says that although the company currently sells eyeglasses, the brand could actually expand over time. This carefully-crafted brand has three main pillars.
Warby Parker wanted glasses that were affordable, but also fashionable. One of the company’s first hires was an experienced eyewear designer. Over a year was spent collaborating with manufacturers and testing prototypes for the initial collection, as well as investing in hiring a fashion editorial PR firm. It was no accident that the company launch coincided with articles in major fashion magazines.
Warby Parker deliberately set out to reimagine the eyewear shopping experience. Initially, facial recognition technology was incorporated into the website allowing customers to virtually test frames. Some customers still requested a personalized experience. At first, they came to the co-founders’ homes to try styles. Later, the try-on system, where five sets of frames are sent postage-free, was adopted.
Millennials and Generation Z shoppers are particularly conscious of a brand’s social awareness. From the start, Warby Parker introduced the “buy one, donate one” concept in which a pair of glasses is given to a non-profit partner for every pair sold. A recent collaboration to provide glasses to needy students in New York reinforces this commitment.
Keeping an Eye on the Ball
Warby Parker’s brand is built on an exceptional narrative which never strays from its closely-protected image. From its initial story about one of the founders being unable to afford glasses for the first semester of his MBA to the current retail stores which resemble libraries rather than eyewear shops, the company remains true to its values.
Warby Parker has shown unwavering commitment to executing its underpinning pillars. The co-founders spent eighteen months developing their brand and product prior to launch. Everything from price point to in-house design was researched and debated. As MBA students, they were skilled in business development and planning. One of them, Neil Blumenthal, had previously been director of a non-profit that distributed glasses to the needy. Having visited eyewear factories around the world, he knew the business well. Warby Parker continues to execute its narrative and remain true to its core values in four key areas.
The company hires employees who exhibit empathy, thus ensuring a better customer experience. One customer, for example, confided that her car had been stolen. Within days, Warby Parker had sent her a gift card for her local bar. Warby Parker’s personalized emails and video replies to customers have become a social media sensation. Such innovations have resulted in over 50% of Warby Parker’s sales coming from word of mouth.
Warby Parker’s annual reports are colorful, visual and full of anecdotes that reveal the people behind the company, as well as important developments and financial details. This creative approach extends the brand image and social consciousness that underpins the company.
Warby Parker’s blog contains everything from recommended books to restaurants. It is designed to expand the brand beyond glasses and into a lifestyle. This content resonates strongly with social media and the customers who want to be part of the on-trend image that the company promotes.
The success of Warby Parker was used as an example of the death of retail stores. In a turnaround, the company has opened a limited number of spaces. True to its core values, however, these stores eschew the sterile, pseudo-medical atmosphere of traditional eyewear retailers.
Here are the important lessons startups can learn from Warby Parker’s success.
- Build a brand around core values and remain true to them.
- Do not launch your company until you have planned and researched thoroughly.
- Make sure you have the skills, background knowledge and contacts to execute your plans.
- Cause marketing works only if you remain committed.
- Be innovative and experiment.
Other eyewear companies have tried the e-commerce concept and failed. The Warby Parker story teaches us that a company must market a brand along with its product to attain success.