The Warby You Don't Know
Inc.|June 2017

Why Warby Parker’s Founders Are Doubling Down On Deep Tech And Retail Stores—Really—To Vault Their Beloved Startup Into Its Next Phase.

Tom Foster

IF WES ANDERSON MADE A MOVIE ABOUT START UPS, WARBY PARKER’ S NEW YORK CITY HEADQUARTERS WOULD BE THE SET.

Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa, the bespectacled and boyishly handsome co-founders and co-CEOs of the eyeglasses purveyor, sit in wood-and-leather mid-century chairs around a long library table in a room lined to the ceiling with books shelved according to the color of their spines to create a rainbow effect. Everything at Warby’s offices in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan is as impeccably styled as this—a mashup of Mad Men–era ad agency and Ivy League reading room, with hidden doors to secret nooks and hand-drawn wallpaper depicting favorite moments in the company’s history. The pair, both 36, are here with several staffers to demo a product that, they say, starts a new chapter for Warby.

Lauralynn Drury, a former JPMorgan Chase VP on Warby’s strategy team, holds an iPhone in front of her and moves backward from a laptop facing her on a table. When she has stepped back a precise distance, the phone vibrates and a graphic tells her to stop. She’s ready to start taking a vision test—no optometrist appointment necessary, nothing needed but 20 minutes and two screens found in almost every household.

Her phone has already asked her questions to determine whether she’s eligible for the test. (When it launches, only unchanged prescriptions will go through, and patients with eye complications will be disqualified.) Now, the laptop starts showing a series of C’s— Landolt C’s, in medical parlance—in different sizes, and asks her to swipe her phone in the direction each faces. There are a few glitches when I see the demo in February, but it’s a revelation. Were Drury a customer, the results would be sent to an eye doctor for review, and within 24 hours she would have her new prescription.

Getting what Warby is calling Prescription Check as slick as this room, before a pilot version rolls out to users this summer, has been vital for the founders since they started working on it two years ago. “Somebody has to believe in it, be confident in it, feel like it’s better than going to the eye doctor,” Blumenthal says. Technically, he runs marketing and retail while Gilboa oversees technology and finance, but it’s hard to overstate how collaborative their style is. Their desks are adjacent, and they often speak in tandem, one of them beginning and the other jumping in to supplement. Right now, for instance. “It’s like when Jeff Bezos says you’d be irresponsible not to use Amazon Prime,” Gilboa offers. “We’re trying to change behavior around a medical product, so the value has to be that strong.”

The vision test is a window onto the future of one of the most imitated startups of this century—a pioneering direct-to-consumer online play when it launched in 2010, which has since inspired countless companies to apply its model to, among other things, mattresses, luggage, razors, and lingerie. Several years ago, Warby started to experiment with brick-and-mortar retail locations; that online-to-offline migration has been widely imitated too. While the company has grown tremendously—it will haul in more than $250 million this year, Inc. estimates—it has moved deliberately, even slowly, for a trendsetting, venture capital–backed startup.

Unlike Uber, perhaps the only inspiration for more copycats in recent years, Warby has not trampled regulations or burned through billions in funding. Blumenthal and Gilboa have resisted leaping into new product categories and instead diligently hew to the path on which they started. They’ve raised $215 million in venture capital—the last round, in early 2015, valued Warby at $1.2 billion. “The majority is still sitting on our balance sheet,” Gilboa says.

“There are so many opportunities where we could use that capital and grow faster in the near term, but we think that would result in distraction,” he adds. “We believe you have to be the best in the world at the product or services you’re offering. That’s how you win.” It’s a typical statement for him and Blumenthal, a business school bromide that, on second glance, reveals strikingly disciplined ambition: Warby wants to win by going deep, not wide.

That’s why, aside from the vision test, earlier this year Warby quietly opened an optical lab—where lenses are cut, inserted into frames, and shipped—in the Hudson Valley town of Sloatsburg, New York, a first step to taking over more of its manufacturing. It’s aggressively opening brick-and-mortar retail locations, and this year it will add 19 to its existing 50. In the past year, Gilboa says, such outlets brought in about half of Warby’s revenue; astoundingly, in 2017, Warby will be primarily a brick-and-mortar retailer.

What the founders won’t say, as they rile industry giants more than ever and prepare to wade into a fight with regulators over their vision-test tech, is that this next phase will probe the limits of their well-honed image as B-schooled Boy Scouts. This beloved—even cuddly—company’s path forward will require channeling Uber or Amazon as much as Wes Anderson.

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