I first met Dave Gilboa at a Peet’s Coffee on Sansome Street in San Francisco in the winter of 2010. He and three classmates—Neil Blumenthal, Jeff Raider, and Andy Hunt—were working on an idea for a company in connection with a business school project. Over a cup of coffee, Dave pitched me a whole story arc around the eyeglass industry; opaque, monopolistic, with drab incumbents, the industry was broken and, for customers, a source of dread instead of joy.
Dave and Neil were convinced they could create an optical company for the modern consumer. To reach more customers and make glasses accessible, it would need to be digital-first. To ensure consumers found a pair of frames that looked good on them, it would (initially) need to involve a groundbreaking home try-on program.
I’m not going to lie, at first I was overwhelmed by the business model. Dave and Neil were planning to design glasses in-house, produce and finance inventory, carry enough stock to satisfy a range of consumer desires, send out frames to customers for a week at a time to “try on,” usher those frames back to a warehouse, and work with different prescriptions. This seemed both logistically and financially challenging. But in conversations over the course of the next six months, I was consistently blown away by the founders at the center of the business.
I don’t recall the particular challenges they solved for, but rather the way Neil and Dave solved problems. They would run small tests, generate data, note feedback, and improve operations. Over and over, they demonstrated the rarefied ability to operate, learn, and improve plans in real time. They were such deliberate operators, and such good people—still best friends, with a symbiotic co-CEO relationship that’s almost unheard of among startup founders—I couldn’t help but want to be on their team, writing Warby Parker one of my earliest angel-investment checks.
Those first six months have come to define how Neil and Dave have led and operated for the last decade. They are incredible company builders: maniacally focused on consumer experience, thorough in their understanding of a complex market, deliberate in every move they make. I could elaborate on the team’s many milestones, or the business advantages they've unlocked that will propel continued success, but as I think of Neil and Dave, what’s perhaps most powerful is their unwavering commitment to building a world-class company culture and iconic brand.
Walking the line between practical and emotional, Warby Parker has struck a chord with its intentional brand of cool. Not cool in an irreverent or indifferent sort of way; cool in the way that it's cool to read a book, be thoughtful, or be kind. Instead of glasses culminating in a ‘drat, I have to wear glasses’ sentiment like they did when I was a kid, Warby Parker made it cool to wear glasses. In fact, they made people want to wear glasses, with the brand’s signature style residing smack dab in the center of their face.
This past week, as we were discussing Warby’s impending IPO as a team, a few things stood out. First, the brand has reimagined the way we buy glasses as effortless. Several Forerunner team members recalled their own magical experiences with the brand: trying on glasses virtually, and chatting with a customer service rep live; walking into a store and being inspired to, not just replace a pair of glasses, but buy two new pairs; even coveting those glasses enough to buy them without a prescription. Second, the company has blazed a trail for entrants across other traditional categories, with brands coming to be known as the “Warby Parker of X.” To us, this means turning a category on its head by upleveling all aspects of customer experience, business model, and company culture. Finally, with a solid foundation in place, the company is just getting started.
Despite the ubiquitousness of the brand, Warby estimates it has served less than two percent of the optical market with glasses and contact lenses. As the team implements a strong brick-and-mortar retail presence to match its original digital strategy, there is every reason to believe this company will continue to lead the way in its industry, both growing its market share and the size of the category at large.
IPOs are always exciting, uncharted territory for first-time founders, with increased scrutiny and higher stakes. But in this new challenge, if 10 years of consistent out-performance is any indicator, I have every confidence in continued success. It’s been incredible to witness Neil and Dave’s journey, transforming their idea into more than a company. Warby Parker has become an emblem of the modern, consumer-first brand, and Forerunner is grateful to have witnessed their success from the beginning.
Congratulations to Neil, Dave, and the whole Warby Parker team. The future is in focus, and it's very bright.