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5 Minutes with Neil Blumenthal

Neil Blumenthal

Blumenthal in Warby Parker's NYC offices.

The co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker talks about his inspiration, brick-and-mortar retail and the world of the optical industry.

They were four men with a vision: to transform an optical industry dominated by global companies. Launched in 2010 by Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt and Jeff Raider, NYC-based Warby Parker sells high-quality, retro-hipster eyeglasses for less than half the price of most designer specs. For each pair it sells, the company donates money to cover production of another pair to VisionSpring, a nonprofit that trains people in developing countries to set up businesses selling glasses. In June, Warby Parker announced that it had distributed its 1 millionth pair.

SKY: What inspired you to start Warby Parker?

BLUMENTHAL: Our frustration with buying glasses. We’d walk into an optical shop and walk out having spent $400 or $500 and feeling like we’d been punched in the stomach. So we thought, ‘What if we designed the frames that we love and sell them direct to consumers for a fraction of the price—for $95 instead of $500? And could we create a business . . . that was profitable and did good in the world and didn’t charge a premium for it?’ We thought that was a powerful idea.

How can you afford free shipping and free try-ons?

If it’s important to you as a company, you find a way to make it work. We baked it into our initial business plan and financial model, and it worked. Also, it’s evidence of the [large] margins that traditional optical retailers have.

Since launching online, you’ve opened six brick-and-mortar stores. Why?

An interesting thing happened: We launched, and the company took off like a rocket ship. We had to suspend our home-trial program because we ran out of inventory. People started calling and asking: ‘Can I come to your office to try on some styles?’ At the time, we were working out of my apartment. So we started inviting people [over]. That was our first foray into [brick-and-mortar] retail. It showed us that we could create really special experiences with individuals when we meet them in person.

The optical industry is dominated by global companies. Have they come after you?

They’ve pretty much left us alone. There’s at least a belief within the eyewear community that the Internet is here to stay.

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