Warby Parker: The tech startup that isn't a tech company at all

By Michael Carney , written on August 29, 2013

From The News Desk

The media likes to categorize Warby Parker as an ecommerce company, but co-CEO and co-founder Neil Blumenthal, who spoke to a New York audience during tonight’s PandoMonthly fireside chat, says that’s a very narrow characterization. Warby Parker is more of a lifestyle fashion brand-slash-social commerce company.

Ecommerce is a part of its business, sure, but the company is moving toward an omni-channel future that includes experiential brick-and-mortar storefronts and pop-up shops, as well as online bits and bites. What doesn’t change regardless of where the consumer encounters the company, is what the brand stands for. The company also has a decidedly offline component through which it donates a pair of glasses in the developing world for each pair purchased by its first world customers.

Nowhere was this distinction between brand and retailer more evident than in the decisions the company made in its earliest days. Blumenthal and his three co-founders were all business school classmates at Wharton, and as they laid out their plans for what was then an unnamed company, their priorities were all about brand development. The team interviewed 40 PR firms before they launched the website. Many companies wait until much later in their lifecycle to hire their first outside branding or marketing consultant, but Blumenthal and his team viewed things differently.

“We just felt that we had one shot at launching a consumer brand properly,” Blumenthal said.

The company interviewed just a handful of Web developers and hired the cheapest one. It was a decision that would come back to haunt them six months later, when they had to fire the contractor and scrap all his work.

Even before their experience with the cut-rate Web designer, the founders spent weeks mocking up every page of its website in PowerPoint and soliciting feedback from friends. “How does it make you feel?” they would ask. “What button would you press?” Sarah Lacy refers to this as “AB-testing by PowerPoint,” and bets that Warby may be one of the only successful venture-backed startups to employ this decidedly analog approach.

Blumenthal recalls thinking that brand architecture was the most important thing to establish early on and that everything else would be easier with this foundation in place.

“We would never be the lowest cost product, but we believed we would always offer the greatest value,” the co-CEO said. “We define that as the price to quality ratio, plus some intangibles -- which are what does it stand for and how does it make you feel.”

As Sarah Lacy notes, brand-first company building is a very anti-Silicon Valley trend that is becoming increasingly common in New York and Los Angeles, among other places. It’s very much a reaction to the engineering-led and utility-focused ecommerce 1.0 companies like Amazon and the business model gimmickry of the ecommerce 2.0 era that gave us flash sales, daily deals, and subscription commerce.

“We’ve always felt that a brand is a lot more defensible,” Blumenthal said.

Next was the challenge of choosing the company’s name. The company quickly realized that “Blumenthal, Hunt, Gilboa, and Raider” – the law firm-like mashup of its founders’ names – didn’t “roll off the tongue,” Blumenthal recalls. But the name Warby Parker, he says, is an embodiment of all the things the founders hoped the brand would eventually stand for.

Blumenthal remembers feeling it would be hollow to build a brand solely around creating an aspirational feeling rooted in wealth and privilege. Instead, the group of four co-founders chose to focus on fun, purpose, and a utopian view of the world. With this macro vision set, the company then drilled down into its messaging, debating such minutiae as the difference in connotation between collegiate and preppy.

Lacy was quick to question whether all this effort paid off, given that many consumers, and a New Yorker magazine profile, describe Warby Parker as insufferably hipster millennials.

I don’t think we’re insufferably hipster. But millennial is a place I don’t mind being because I think that’s the future for at least 20 years. I think that what millennials care about, and are most vocal about and take most action around is ‘care about the environment,’ ‘care about social issues,’ ‘health,’ ‘education,’ ‘income inequality.’
These days, Blumenthal's commitment to brand and value hasn’t changed. The goal is to always be stakeholder-centric, the co-CEO says, and to think about creating impact in the community, both locally and globally.

Blumenthal referenced a recent conversation with Atom Factory founder and Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter, in which he was reminded that brand building has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and especially in the last decade with the advent of social media. Today, consumers and the public shape brands in ways that have never been the case before, he says.

“It’s not your brand,” Blumenthal recalls Carter saying. “It’s our brand.”

View a segment from tonight's conversation below:

[Image via Public Notice]