Tell Me More: Doing Well in Business by Doing Good

Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, A02, tells a Tufts podcast how he bakes social activism into his eyeglass business—and listens to his customers
A man gestures with his hands while talks, as another man look son in the background. Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, A02, tells a Tufts podcast how he bakes social activism into his eyeglass business—and listens to his customers
“When we launched, we were purely e-commerce, but a desktop browser experience,” said Neil Blumenthal. “Now e-commerce is dominated by mobile experiences—and we now have over ninety stores across the country.” Photo: Anna Miller
September 4, 2019

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play MusicSpotifyStitcher, and SoundCloud.

TRANSCRIPT

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

Anyone who wears eyeglasses knows the name Warby Parker. Its founding in 2010 as an online optics shop disrupted the eyewear industry by drastically lowering prices for cool frames. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal says the aim was to make shopping for glasses not only inexpensive and convenient, but also philanthropical—by giving a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold. Blumenthal, who graduated from Tufts in 2002, wasn’t the first in his family to start a company: his wife, Rachel, whom he met at Tufts, taught him a thing or two about entrepreneurship.

In this talk with Tisch College’s Alan Solomont, Blumenthal shares how he and his family balance business and home life, recounts Warby Parker’s unexpected evolution from strictly online to brick and mortar, too, and offers his best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. Let’s listen in.

ALAN SOLOMONT: Neil, welcome back to campus. It’s a pleasure to host you here, and I’m looking forward to awarding you the Corporate Citizen Award from Tisch College, but let me first deliver a message from my wife. She has two pairs of Warby Parker glasses. She loves them. I think my daughters do, too, so thank you.

NEIL BLUMENTHAL: Oh, no, thank you.

SOLOMONT: But let’s go back and ask you to bring us back to when the idea for Warby Parker’s business model was born, and how it took shape.

BLUMENTHAL: Sure. I think a magical thing happens on college campuses, and that is you’re constantly talking about problems, but solutions. I was in graduate school, getting my M.B.A., and we were in between classes, and one of my classmates was complaining that they lost a $700 pair of glasses in the seat pocket of an airplane, and thought that it was crazy that it would cost that much to replace them, and certainly as a full-time graduate student, he wasn’t going to be able to afford them.

And after Tufts, I went to work at a nonprofit that trained low-income women to start their own businesses giving vision tests and selling glasses in their communities, so I knew a little bit about glasses and the optical industry, so he was asking me about it, and I said, “You know, it doesn’t cost that much to make a pair of glasses. They shouldn’t cost $700,” and that’s sort of when the light bulb went off. I think the best businesses solve real problems, and this was a real consumer pain-point, that glasses were so expensive.

SOLOMONT: So that was a solution for consumers, but Warby Parker has donated five million pairs of glasses to those in need through its Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program. Tell us about how you decided to do that, why it’s important to the company, and how you make that sustainable.

BLUMENTHAL: Sure, so the idea for the business came from that glasses were too expensive, and through our business plan and strategizing, we knew we could bring down the cost of a pair of glasses from $500, $600, $700 down to $95. But we knew even at $95, there were still hundreds of millions of people around the world that wouldn’t have access to glasses, so we thought, “How can we best serve them?”

We started thinking about, “OK, should we give a percent of revenue or a percent of profits?” And we thought, “You know what? At the end of the day, what matters is glasses on faces, because if somebody has the ability to see, they can succeed in school, they can earn a livelihood for their family.” So, of course the dollars matter, but what we wanted the outcome to be was glasses on faces, so we really wanted to focus on that.

And our other thought is, if we were, at some point, not running Warby Parker—revenue or profits can sometimes be manipulated, so that percentage could be minimized. So we decided to make the commitment for every pair of glasses we sell, we distribute one to someone in need, and wanted that so tied to the brand that if, for some reason, we weren’t running the company, that it would be business suicide to get rid of the Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program.

SOLOMONT: So not only is it the result of a commitment to do good, but you also see it as key to the success of the business?

BLUMENTHAL: Absolutely. And a lot of that even goes to our own experience. What motivates us every day? Yes, I love glasses. Yes, I sell glasses, but what really motivates me is leading a team—creating opportunities for our team—and providing glasses to people in need. So, we thought back to, “What would make us want to get up in the morning and not roll over and hit the snooze button?” And doing good in the world is what’s motivating, and we found that it’s the number one reason why people come and work for Warby Parker. So, in an age where there’s—I don’t like this term, but I’ll use it anyway—a war for talent, per se, and where it’s tough to attract the best and the brightest and retain them, having a strong social mission is really important to recruiting talent and retaining talent.

SOLOMONT: Well, we at Tufts are very proud of you. You co-founded the company in 2010. Today, nine years later, online shopping is huge for consumers buying all kinds of goods. How do you stay connected to consumers’ habits and expectations, as well as other emerging and active business, and try to stay as relevant and successful as possible when your transactions are mostly online?

BLUMENTHAL: It’s funny. Yes, it’s been nine years, and wow, that went in a blink of an eye, but so much has changed in the world, and I think it was Bill Gates who would say that people overestimate the change in two years’ time, but underestimate the change that occurs in ten years’ time, and if we think when we launched, we were purely e-commerce, but e-commerce was really a desktop browser experience. Now, fast-forward nine years, right, e-commerce is dominated by mobile experiences: both mobile browser, mobile apps, and we now have over ninety stores across the country, which we didn’t anticipate.

And part of that was customer-driven. We found that some people wanted to shop in stores, so we started opening up stores, so it started to do really well. It was actually very synergistic with our online business, because those stores are billboards, to some extent, and helped raise awareness.

But the focus on customers really comes from the DNA of the company, and we want to listen to our customers. We want to ask them tons of questions, we survey them, we have focus groups. One of the things that we measure religiously at Warby Parker is net promoter score, which is a measure of customer satisfaction. There was a bunch of research that showed that the best way to find out if you have satisfied customers is to ask them how likely they are to refer a particular product or service to a friend. And our net promoter score—it’s out of 100—has been in the eighties since we started, and that’s truly best-in-class.

Other best-in-class brands—like Apple, Tiffany’s—they tend to be in the 60s or 70s, and some of our competitors in the optical industry actually are in the 20s. So we’re doing something right. But when you ask customers how you’re doing, you get a lot of information, and we’re constantly trying to just improve the customer experience any which way we can.

SOLOMONT: How is it that you’re succeeding with your brick-and-mortar stores, and other companies—and huge companies—JC Penney and others, aren’t?

BLUMENTHAL: At the end of the day, it goes down to the value that you’re providing, and value is the ratio of quality to price. Right, we feel like we’re selling a really compelling product, especially prescription glasses starting at $95, with anti-reflective coatings, with anti-scratch coatings, all these details, but we’re also making it convenient and fun and easy to shop, and that’s super important as people increasingly put more and more premium on their time.

And these customer journeys are far more complex than we would anticipate. But 70 percent of our customers that actually buy within the four walls of our stores have been to our website, and they’re going to our website not to look up the address or hours of operation because that’s something they can see on Google. What they’re doing is they’re shopping, they’re browsing for frames, they’re coming in informed.

And then when they get into the store, there’s somebody that’s super friendly, that has technology in their hand to help them through the process really easy. We actually developed our own point of sale from scratch, so if you’re talking to any of our sales associates and you have a question, they can look up all of your order history and answer them. They’re well-informed and well-trained.

And those things are important, because time is precious, and when we’re going to shop and we want to figure it out, we want to get helped, we want to be greeted with a smile, and then we want to get the hell out and spend time with our family and have fun.

SOLOMONT: Yeah. Let me ask you some personal questions, if I may. You and your wife, Rachel—who’s also a successful entrepreneur and the founder of an online children’s clothing store, Rockets of Awesome—are both 2002 Tufts graduates. How’d you and your wife meet? And as successful, busy people, how do you manage your careers and your family life? And I think I know you have young children.

BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, we have a three-year-old and an eight-year-old. Our eight-year-old actually just turned eight this past week.

I remember meeting Rachel for the first time. I think her and some of her friends were painting the cannon. She was wearing a wool hat with a pompom on it. I grew up skiing, so I recognize details like that. Wool hats, in particular. We were really friends for the four years that we were here as undergrads. We actually dated a bunch of each other’s friends, and it wasn’t until post-college that we started dating ourselves.

But she was the original entrepreneur in our family, and after Tufts, she went into publishing, and then went into fashion PR, and on the side, started designing rings and jewelry—contemporary and costume jewelry, and she was on an appointment with a fashion editor, and the editor was like, “Oh my God, that ring’s incredible, who made it?” And she said, “Oh, well I designed it,” and the editor said, “Well, I’m doing a story on you as an up-and-coming designer,” and she literally launched Rachel Lee Jewelry at that point, threw up a website, ended up growing the business to sell in over 400 stores across the world. Ended up selling that business, and then has since started Rockets of Awesome, which designs and sells children’s apparel online, tries to make it as easy as possible for kids and parents to find the right clothes.

The two of us being entrepreneurs, I think, is nice, in that we sort of understand each other’s day-to-day, and the fact that it’s 24/7 and it never turns off. But it also requires a lot of coordination, so we obviously share Google Calendars and are constantly moving things around. I got in a little trouble because I forgot to give her a heads up that I was coming to Boston and Medford— [laughs]

SOLOMONT: Oh dear. Do you need a note from your sponsor?

BLUMENTHAL: I might. A get-out-of-jail-free card.

SOLOMONT: Gotcha. Let me ask you to give some advice to students who are going to hear this or read this. So tell us what advice you’d give to current students who dream of becoming successful entrepreneurs, and what advice do you wish somebody had given you when you graduated?

BLUMENTHAL: I think the most important attribute for any job, including, perhaps, starting your own business, is to be proactive. So much of the way we learn is often reactive, and in the workplace, to succeed, you have to be proactive.

And what I mean by that is yes, your manager is going to give you a job description, and hopefully you read that before you apply and get the job. Yes, they’re going to establish some goals for you, but you have to be constantly seeking out ways to add value to the organization. Whether it’s for profit, nonprofit, sort of in the public sector or the private sector. What can you do to make the organization better? And that might be keeping your eyes and ears open and noticing something’s not working that well, and then coming up with a few ideas to make it better—because it’s not just good enough to say, “Hey, I think there’s a problem here.” It’s, “Hey, here’s a problem. Here are three ways to solve it. I think this is the best way to solve it, and with your blessing as my manager, I’d love to pursue that.”

SOLOMONT: You’re hired.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks. And that’s how one is successful, and an entrepreneur, I think, just exemplifies those qualities probably to the max, in that they see a challenge in the world and view it as an opportunity, and they start a company or an organization to resolve it. It’s the ultimate form of proactivity.

SOLOMONT: Tell us about some of the highlights of your four years as a student at Tufts. Besides meeting Rachel.

BLUMENTHAL: Some of my friends would make fun of me because I would have lunch in Carmichael Hall, and would, you know, rather than maybe spend a reasonable thirty minutes or an hour having lunch, I’d be there for two hours, going from table to table, talking and hanging out with everybody. Spring Fling, I always remember, was quite fun, and now being back on campus and seeing some of the trees start to bud, and the smell of mulch always takes me back. I really enjoyed my time here, and some of my best friends were my classmates. Actually, just last week, a bunch of us were out to dinner, and—yeah. Great memories.

SOLOMONT: Well, we’ll have to keep you coming back. So one more question for you. Tell us one more thing about yourself or your work that most people don’t know.

BLUMENTHAL: I think one of the things that probably most people don’t know about me is that at times, I can be competitive, and I think that can be a really good thing, as a strong motivator. The trick is not to have it impact the way that one interacts with other people. But ambition and drive, regardless of where that’s coming from, is generally a good thing.

SOLOMONT: And good competitors usually know that a team approach is the best.

BLUMENTHAL: Always. Always. If you want to go fast for a short period, maybe go by yourself. If you want to go far, go with others.

SOLOMONT: Well, Neil Blumenthal, this has been a pleasure. Thank you very much. It’s a delight to welcome you back to Tufts, and I’m sure people are going to be really interested in what you have to say.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller. This episode was edited by Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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