By Alanna Berman
It was less than three years ago that San Diego native David Gilboa and three business school friends started the eyeglass company Warby Parker. Each of the young men had had their own unsavory experiences buying new prescription glasses on a shoestring budget and sought an alternative that, until Warby Parker, didn’t exist.
“I’ve worn glasses since sixth grade, and in my travels before business school, lost my glasses,” Gilboa says. “They were going to cost me $700 [to replace] and I couldn’t justify paying that much as a full-time student, so I went my whole first semester of business school without a pair of glasses.
“We were all frustrated with how expensive glasses were. It didn’t make sense to me that you could buy an iPhone that did things that no one had ever imagined even five years earlier for less than a pair of glasses, [where] the technology was invented 800 years ago.”
Gilboa and his friends Neil Blumenthal, Jeff Raider and Andrew Hunt decided they’d put their business school educations to use and start their first company — one that would offer vintage-inspired eyewear (both optical and sunwear) of the same quality as the leading industry providers, but for a fraction of the cost. Through their research, they discovered that less than one percent of eyeglasses were being sold online, so that’s where they started.
“We’re using the same quality materials that go into a pair of [$500] glasses, but since we’re forgoing the licensing fees, the retail markups and the other middlemen, we’re able to offer the same quality product for a fraction of the price,” Gilboa says. (In fact, Warby Parker’s $95 frames are still a staple of the company’s marketing campaign.)
But beyond offering a quality product at a fraction of the leading industry price, Warby Parker goes one brings 20/20 vision to those in need. For every pair of glasses the company sells, it gives a pair to someone in need. To date, the company has donated 300,000 pairs of glasses by partnering with nonprofits on the ground in impoverished communities across the globe. Additionally, through their contacts in these communities, Warby has been able to recruit and train individuals to sell glasses there.
“[This program] creates jobs and a offers a market-based solution, which is much more sustainable than just charitable donations,” Gilboa says. “The other neat thing about glasses is that they are one of the most effective poverty-alleviation tools in the world. They’ve done studies where they showed that if you give someone a pair of glasses, their income increases anywhere from 25-30 percent, and they are able to spend that additional income on the health, education and wellness of their family.”
It all goes back to the genesis of the company, which Gilboa says was to “do good in the world; somewhere we would be excited to come to work every day.” As someone who was raised Jewish, Gilboa says the ideals of tikkun olam and gemilut chassidim have always been superior to simply making a profit.
“The ideals of doing something good in the world and making sure your profession isn’t just something to turn money, but that it’s incorporating a social mission and charitable component, was something that was instilled in me as a child,” he says. “Those ideals have been translated into how we are thinking about this business all the time.”
For consumers who wish to purchase their own glasses and gift a pair to someone in need, Warby Parker offers a few options. Through the company’s “virtual try-on” program, shoppers can upload a picture of themselves to the site and model frames before ordering, or select up to five pairs of frames to try on at home through the “home try-on” program. Up to five pairs at a time can be shipped straight to customers’ doors, with no shipping cost and even a free return address label included, as many times as they wish until they find their perfect pair of frames. But for people who still prefer to try on all available frames at once, Gilboa says the company has options.
“We’ve begun to set up showrooms around the country where we take over some space in an existing store,” he says, “where people can try on the glasses and then order them online. Another cool thing we’re doing now is a cross-country tour, called the Warby Parker Class Trip. We bought a yellow school bus, gutted it and created a mobile showroom inside, so that we can offer our glasses to those communities where a showroom doesn’t exist.”
Warby Parker’s Class Trip will make its final stop in San Diego through Feb. 10, though at press time, the exact times and locations of the mobile showroom were not finalized.
“In general we just think of our company as a vehicle to do good and have a positive impact,” Gilboa says of Warby Parker’s endeavors. “It’s been a part of the company since day one.”
• To learn more, visit www.warbyparker.com. To find out about open hours for the Warby Parker Class Trip, visit www.warbyparkerclasstrip.com.