On a cool fall evening in 2008, four students set out to revolutionize an industry. Buried in loans, they had lost and broken eyeglasses and were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. One of them had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years: He was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for pricey new lenses.
Luxottica, the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, controlled more than 80 percent of the eyewear market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant. Having recently watched Zappos transform footwear by selling shoes online, they wondered if they could do the same with eyewear.
When they casually mentioned their idea to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No one would ever buy glasses over the internet, their friends insisted. People had to try them on first. Sure, Zappos had pulled the concept off with shoes, but there was a reason it hadn’t happened with eyewear. “If this were a good idea,” they heard repeatedly, “someone would have done it already.”
None of the students had a background in e-commerce and technology, let alone in retail, fashion, or apparel. Despite being told their idea was crazy, they walked away from lucrative job offers to start a company. They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase.
The business depended on a functioning website. Without one, it would be impossible for customers to view or buy their products. After scrambling to pull a website together, they finally managed to get it online at 4 A.M. on the day before the launch in February 2010. They called the company Warby Parker, combining the names of two characters created by the novelist Jack Kerouac, who inspired them to break free from the shackles of social pressure and embark on their adventure. They admired his rebellious spirit, infusing it into their culture. And it paid off.
The students expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear,” they hit their target for the entire first year in less than a month, selling out so fast that they had to put twenty thousand customers on a waiting list. It took them nine months to stock enough inventory to meet the demand.
Fast forward to 2015, when Fast Company released a list of the world’s most innovative companies. Warby Parker didn’t just make the list—they came in first. The three previous winners were creative giants Google, Nike, and Apple, all with over fifty thousand employees. Warby Parker’s scrappy startup, a new kid on the block, had a staff of just five hundred. In the span of five years, the four friends built one of the most fashionable brands on the planet and donated over a million pairs of glasses to people in need. The company cleared $100 million in annual revenues and was valued at over $1 billion.
Back in 2009, one of the founders pitched the company to me, offering me the chance to invest in Warby Parker. I declined.
It was the worst financial decision I’ve ever made, and I needed to understand where I went wrong.