Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa started their eyewear brand after discovering it was hard to find a pair of glasses that “weren’t the price of dinner at French Laundry.” We’ve got nothing but love for Thomas Keller, but when it comes to eyewear we’ve always been what one could call WP-addicts.
With the sun out this week, we couldn’t think of a better time to sit down with two of our favorite entrepreneurs, who continuously keep us in extremely cool shades. The two went through what it takes to build a brand, leverage social media and of course, eat through cities successfully.
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Dave: For breakfast I’d pick up an acai bowl on the way out of Equinox. Dos Toros for lunch (they make the closest thing to a California-approved burrito in NYC) and for dinner I’d walk to a neighborhood joint like Raoul’s in Soho or Malaparte in the West Village for authentic Italian.
Neil: I’d start with an egg-cheese-brussels-sprouts combo from Egg in Brooklyn. Always a salty breakfast, never a sweet breakfast – gotta have protein to power through the day. My son Griffin would order French Toast, which I would steal a bite of. (We’ve toured every French Toast joint in the city.)
Dinner would be the classic steak au poivre at Raoul’s unless I got there before 7 o’clock, in which case I’d sit at the bar and get a secret burger. They only make twelve burgers a day. You’ll notice that all of these meals are restaurant meals, because I’m a New Yorker and I don’t know how to prepare food for myself.
You’re a modern brand, but if someone asked what your heritage was in fifty years, what do you think your answer would be?
The ultimate criteria we use when designing glasses is: Would this frame embarrass me if I looked back on myself wearing it in ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years? The same rule applies to the company as a whole. In fifty years, the DNA of our company will remain as it was from the very beginning. We’re creating a lifestyle brand that approaches every product with a mindset of high-quality, style, and innovation, while doing good in the world.
How do you constantly leverage social media to scale WP?
The goal with social media is to make it as easy and fun as possible for our customers to converse with Warby Parker. There are customers who will always prefer to pick up the phone and call if they have a question, and we’ve got phone lines for that reason. But there are customers who prefer to interact over Twitter or Instagram (or whatever the next social media platform is), so we go where our customers want us to be.
What’s your main focus in the upcoming months?
We’re coming off a big month—we just celebrated Warby Parker’s fifth anniversary with the “smallest biggest parade ever” (it took place in an alleyway in downtown New York, complete with a baton twirler) and launched a Half-Decade Collection featuring some of our very first frames redone in our signature blue. With all of this happening now, our plan for the next few months is to get some sleep!
How does content play into what you do on a day to day basis?
The word “content” is funny, because it’s a generic word for something that should never be generic. We focus on building a culture of creativity for many reasons: Because we love delighting customers, because creativity galvanizes employees to think big, and because creativity begets creativity. Whether it’s launching an in-house publishing imprint or building a point-of-sale platform from scratch, the practice of ideating—and the content it produces—is integral to our work ethic.
What was the void you saw in eyewear when you first started?
We started Warby Parker because we had a difficult time finding stylish, durable glasses that didn’t cost the price of dinner at the French Laundry (including airfare). We saw the need for an alternative to the over-priced and underwhelming eyewear on the market.
There’s a lot of talk about retail stores becoming more and more technologically friendly. Is that something you plan to focus on?
We want to give customers a remarkable retail experience, and technology is something we leverage in service of that. To give just a few examples, our store advisors are armed with iPad minis and a POS app that we built in-house to provide the easiest, quickest check-out experience possible. Customers can also “bookmark” glasses they love and receive an email to keep those pairs on file. As a more granular example, many of our stores have photobooths that spit out a physical copy of a photo strip but also send a copy via email for sharing. We’ll continue to use technology as a means to give customers an exceptional experience.
Advice you’d give your younger self…
Dave: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Proactively push yourself out of your comfort zone at every opportunity.
Neil: 1) Sleep is important. 2) Learn to code.
Advice you’d give to startups…
Neil: Put customers first. And take baby steps rather than big leaps.
Dave: Focus. Say no to anything that is a distraction from your core vision.
X style glasses were made for Y celebrity…
For the past couple of years we’ve collaborated with Beck on a range of projects, including a limited edition of his Song Reader published by McSweeney’s, a concert produced with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (featuring everyone from Childish Gambino to Jenny Lewis), a full LP and—what else?—two capsule collections of eyewear designed alongside Beck. He’s a huge creative force and it is ultra-energizing to collaborate with him.
What does a person’s eyewear say about them?
Glasses are the most prominent thing a person wears—they’re the first thing your eye registers when you meet a new face. A pair of glasses says everything.
Where do you love to travel? What won’t you travel without?
Neil: Nothing beats skiing in Vermont with my family. I won’t travel without a phone charger.
Dave: I love to travel anywhere I can jump into an ocean, and never travel without a Speedo (you never know when it will come in handy).
Instagram accounts you can’t live without…
What are your favorite cities for food? What restaurants do you go to in each?
Dave: In San Francisco, I love eating at the bar at Zushi Puzzle and hitting Blue Barn for sandwiches. In San Diego (which is my hometown), I’ll eat Mexican for every meal: Pipes for breakfast burritos, Roberto’s for carne asada burritos, and Fidel’s for everything else.
Neil: Every type of cuisine is better in Tokyo. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was an omakase at Sushi Dai at the Tsukiji Fish Market at four in the morning. I’ve also been exploring the great food in Nashville, where we opened a second office last year. Hattie B’s is a new favorite.
In the same vein as ‘what is the new black’ in fashion, what’s ‘the new potato’ in eyewear right now?
Tortoiseshell may not be the new black, but it’s the new-old black. It’s a classic that goes with everything. (Side note: Our tortoiseshell is made from custom acetate, not from actual tortoises. We would never harm tortoises.)