The Warby start
It’s a story that starts with a few students on a backpacking trip and ends with a multi-million-dollar company that disrupted an industry. What story is it? Well, it’s Warby Parker’s, and while they disrupted their industry, we’re here to disrupt the praise and extolment of their start-up.
Before we get into their mistakes, however, we will discuss how they got their start in the optometry industry and how they handled all the nay-sayers, the negative Nancy’s, and the poo-poo’ers during their growth. Apparently, becoming one of the leading eyewear providers in the industry after completely redefining consumer ease of access takes a lot of work. Who would’ve thunk?
Let’s start backward. Warby Parker is now the ‘Kleenex’ of the eyewear industry. Their name has become shorthand for the other companies that disrupt their own industries with innovative, cost-effective products. Any Google search would reveal a horde of news stories beginning with, “This company is now the Warby Parker of…” towels, cell phone cases, etc.
Warby received this title from being successfully disruptive in their industry without many publicized speed bumps (we’ll get to those soon) along the way. They have been repeatedly applauded for their meticulous attention to detail and deliberate sprezzatura, which is an Italian concept describing the labored and deeply considered look of effortless elegance.
“Our brand can stand for much more than that.”
So, how is this company different from the rest? Well, the secret lies in their Pandora’s box of branding genius. While other startups can (and do) methodically copy every detail of Warby’s business model, they often come crashing back down as soon as they make any mistake.
“The knockoffs — all they do is try to sell eyeglasses,” says Joe Cutler, an investor in Warby.
“When we launched, a lot of people would bucket us as an e-commerce company, but we never thought of ourselves as such,” Dave Gilboa, Co-CEO of Warby, says.
“And I think it surprised a lot of people when we started opening these stores. The only products we sell now are glasses, but we think our brand can stand for much more than that over a long time period.”
The new brick and mortar
As Warby began to open both pop-up stores and permanent locations, they found themselves personifying their company even further from an online brand, to a brick and mortar persona. They describe the Warby Parker brand as the woman you would want to bring with you to a sophisticated dinner party.
During orientation, new hires are given a copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums from which the two CEO’s got the Warby Parker name. Sasha Tulchin, Director of Creative Services at Warby, was key in implementing the dinner guest metaphor that they’ve built their company around, and she is the one that trains new hires on how to take on both Kerouac’s voice, as well as the Warby voice.
The Warby Parker voice
When branding the company, their priority was to have a solid voice, persona, and style that employees would be able to follow effortlessly. Yet, this seemingly effortless adoption of a perfect womanly persona and voice has, again, fallen under the same Italian concept of sprezzatura.
“[This woman is] quick-witted but wears her intelligence lightly. Looks sharp without planning to. Takes a dare. Always offers to help with the dishes. The Warby Parker voice is witty, intelligent, informative, playful, delightful. We are not trite, pretentious, sarcastic, longwinded.” Every word they write, every project they create, every ad campaign they initiate, is completed under this filter.
Trite? Pretentious? Not us
What stands out to us about Warby Parker is how they not only defined what they are and what they stand for but also what they are not and what they stand against. Before Warby was even an idea, Neil Blumenthal, one of the CEO’s of Warby Parker, had a passion for making change.
But under the weight of the bureaucracy of public policy, his visions for change were unjustly stifled and smashed, so he sought work with a non-profit that made a visible change: VisionSpring. This company not only sold affordable eyewear, but they also took it upon themselves to focus on the more than 1-billion people in the world who need glasses, but don’t have access to get them.
Vision sparks vision
After working at VisionSpring, Neil sought out further education in order to dive deeper into his passion for invoking change in the world. During his first year at Wharton to receive his MBA, Neil ended up meeting Jeff Raider, Dave Gilboa, and Andy Hunt; all of whom partook in the vital first steps of creating this company.
With countless surveys, advice, and data pulled from their peers, Neil, Jeff, Dave, and Andy defined their top 3 priorities for building the company that would redefine eyewear: Fashion, value & service, and social missions. Of course, reasonably priced eyewear was still their main mission, but now they were faced with the most daunting question of, “How much?”
The price isn’t right
At first, their goal was to achieve the spot of the best quality, unassailable eyewear in the market. However, with glasses originally priced at $45, they would soon be 6-feet under with no profits and no sustainable business models. Their professor, Jagmohan Raju of the Marketing Department at Wharton, advised them to further investigate.
After rigorous market research, they determined that most people think $100 for eyewear is not too expensive, but not cheap enough to skimp on quality.
Up until this company launched, only one eyewear company had been dominating this industry, and they sold their products for an average of $700 per item.
Setting a new standard
With a new price tag and a new industry standard set, eyeglasses were about to become truly affordable for the first time in, well, way too long. Since overcoming the staggering doubts concerning eyewear as an e-commerce product, they effectively launched booming pop-up stores, permanent stores, and strategic marketing techniques to bolster their brand.
In accordance with this company’s name’s origin in literature, they began to stylize their brick-and-mortar locations after famous libraries. Their launch show in New York exhibited exactly that aesthetic, as they rented the New York Public Library to showcase their brand, their priorities, and their products.
Not all that glitters is gold
Don’t get us wrong, we love their story and their ability to overcome these seemingly impossible setbacks and hardships — but the story you see is exactly the story they want you to see (a true testament to their genius marketing teams).
Their monthly donations to vision-based charities, their commitment to 100% carbon-neutral operations, and their clear authenticity leave little room for criticism. On the other hand, they have made a few mistakes along the way that are silently killing the brand. Though they trudge on and continue to innovate, their mistakes have been planted and their consequences have begun to bud.
April Fools,’ yourself
It was April 1, 2018, the date that Warby Parker announced a new partnership with the beloved (or not-so-beloved, depending on your taste buds) Arby’s restaurant. Their partnership came to the surprise of many loyal customers, both of Warby Parker and of Arby’s, as their lovechild was aptly named, WArby’s.
With a less-than-properly-advertised April Fools’ partnership, most people were either confounded or, well, less than impressed with their attempt at humor. Many were thrown off guard by their lack of advertising, lack of social media promotion, and complete abandonment of their usual cool-and-collected approach to business and branding. So what gives?
After their years of careful branding and business modeling, it seems that they would have put a little more care into this lackluster stunt. But, the way this dad-esque joke turned out had quite the opposite effect. Since Arby’s and Warby have nothing in common besides a 5-letter name, this left hordes of people more confused than committed to either brand.
Arby’s customers tend to be located in more rural areas, interested in hunting recreationally and typically vote ‘red.’ Their target audience is their natural audience, which is why they tend to run hunting-inspired ads and why they decided to add the new venison burger to their arsenal.
“Meat for eyes.”
The two brands clearly thrust money into this brief partnership by creating limited-edition shirts, totes, and hats that featured the new logo. In New York City, they had a food truck fully tricked out in their logo, brand, and color ready to serve Onion Ring Monocles and other branded food products.
Since “Arby’s has an eye for meat and Warby Parker has meat for eyes,” these two polar opposite brands came together to appeal to polar opposite audiences. But, now the question lies in whether this was a strategic audience-attracting plan, or if it was a ploy to reveal the lesser-known dad humor of the CEO’s who have branded themselves as professional, clean, thorough, and precise.
Meet or meat?
Although Warby’s CEO’s most likely meant for this to be a light-hearted April Fools’ joke, it came off more as a Freaky Friday-esque personality switch. Arby’s is most often branded as a jovial dad with even more jovial dad jokes, who barbeques special meats while wearing white tube socks and grass-stained athletic shoes.
Warby Parker took on this dad persona while passing along their own dinner guest persona to Arby’s. Seems… wrong, right?
That’s what most everyone else thought, as well. So, was this a misguided effort to appeal to a wider audience, or was it an attempt to leave their strict style guide by the wayside for a hot minute and try something new? Regardless, no one was impressed. This wasn’t their only mistake.
The customer is the priority
Imagine this: You’re waiting by the front door. The UPS man is walking back to his truck, and the only thing standing between you and your new gadget is a turn of the knob and a push to the door. You hear his truck drive turn on, stand idle for a moment, and trudge away from your home to his next destination.
You push the door open, grab your package, and run back inside to open it as you haphazardly slam the door closed behind you. You cut the tape, flip open the box flaps, and you see what you’ve been waiting to see for the last 4 weeks — but, it’s not what you ordered…
The customer is always right
Or, at least it looks like it might have been what you ordered at one point, yet no longer resembles anything like it. The wires are spilling out of the back, the plastic is cracked and warped, and the glass is so shattered that you’re afraid to touch it with your bare hands.
You look up the company’s phone number with a slight spark of anger in the pit of your stomach, but with a strong hope that the person who answers will be nice and helpful, so you don’t have to fuel the fire and unleash your inner consumer beast.
Consistency is key
Every consumer with at least half a brain knows how important good customer service is. It can be the difference between a lifelong partnership of consumer and producer, or the slow and steady downward spiral of a company. I’m sure, dear reader, that you can recall a time when the customer service of a company was so good that, regardless of the severity of their mistake or mishap, you continued to buy from them.
Warby Parker, though? Well, they may be good for some customers, but not to all — and with good customer service, consistency is key. Yes, of course, there are many accounts from loyal customers who have had nothing but positive encounters with them, but there are commonalities in how people respond to such reviews.
Luck isn’t all there is
“You must be pretty lucky.”
“Wow, that’s rare.”
“Are you being paid by Warby Parker?”
These are just a few of the comments from reviews we saw online for Warby Parker, and it seems bleaker than any of us want to admit. One customer named Adam wrote the review below.
“I’m on my second pair of Warbys and probably my last. They also started getting small scratches in the lenses within the first couple of months of wearing them. However, I wonder if the scratch resistant coating (if there ever really was any, I have my suspicions) just can’t hold up to the more frequent cleaning needed with Warby Parker glasses. It’s at the point now where I can read most things better with my glasses off than on.”
It’s actually the customer’s fault
Unfortunately, this isn’t a rarity. Other complaints include items not shipping, items being different than their try-on pairs of glasses, and unresponsive customer service employees who seem apathetic about keeping said customers. If this was a gadget or a household item, things are slightly more dismissible; but, these are eyeglasses that help those who otherwise can’t see, see. Sean, another Warby customer, complains about just that.
“What a waste of time ordering, I can’t get a straight answer. The glasses are delayed. [There is] no follow up regarding the order and lastly a supervisor just told me it was my fault for having such a complex prescription.”
Sophisticated Craigslist scam?
One of the many other complaints customers have is their lack of record-keeping abilities. Many have reported that after purchasing a pair of glasses at their brick and mortar locations, they never receive a receipt or a package in the mail but are still charged for it. Cynthia, an ex-Warby customer, explains further:
“Had a gentleman take all my info to process my order for progressive lenses (they were to be shipped to me). He took some measurements, brought me to another guy who redid the measurements. They swiped my credit card (all this done electronically on a tablet). Told me I would receive my receipt via email and my glasses would arrive in 7 -10 days. I never received my emailed receipt, called and emailed the company. They could not find any record of my purchase and offered no explanation.”
It’s only $100
Is this a company you would trust if you saw those reviews? For us, it would be a hard no, but many people continue to order from them despite those ‘warnings’ from other customers, which could be due to their social missions and the guilt of not supporting a company for a good cause, or because of how cheap they offer the eyewear.
Why make a big deal about a return or exchange if they only cost $100? Well, for most people, $100 is a lot, and it could mean the difference between a safe driver and an unsafe driver on the road. We don’t take these negative reviews lightly, especially since this is a prescription item that is necessary for human function.
So, why is their customer service so horrendous? Well, we think it’s because of how poorly they treat their employees.
No, this is not a sweatshop situation, but it is an underpaid and disrespected employee situation. Most employees report being forced to endure a probationary period of minimum wage and part-time work. They also report favoritism among those who actually make it through the probation periods.
Not only do they promote favoritism, but they have been reportedly asking employees to put the customer first in any and all situations regardless of how it is affecting the (often, underpaid) employee and their mental health. But wait, there’s more!
Is it the 1950’s again?
In one Glassdoor review on Warby Parker’s page, an employee has this advice to management:
“Actually promote management of people who possess leadership skills. Do not simply ask the same questions over again in surveys. Hire more diverse cultures and gender.”
“It sucks that at one point I was able to count 8 people of color total between 2 or 3 floors.”
Unfortunately, diversity and undeserved promotions aren’t new issues for Warby, but neither is the dismissal of employee complaints so, at least within the company, there is consistency. Many other reviews express the same concerns on diversity, which is probably why Warby has (finally) taken it upon themselves to hire people from diverse backgrounds, diverse genders, and diverse ethnicities.
Reviews (and warnings) from employees
“Stop the bias, stop the witch hunts on those who have constructive criticism on you. For those of you who are wanting to apply here at this company, this is a warning. Severe abuse of power from management mostly due to lack of experience. Advocating for yourself does nothing but put you on the ‘no-fly list.’”
“You will be targeted, micromanaged, bullied, and tactically pushed out. Just understand what you’re getting into (especially if you’re a minority). There will be malicious behavior demonstrated by said management that will never be addressed. It’s all pageantry and politics, not based on merit.”
Warby Parker is not special
“There is a multitude of issues that have come to light as a Warby Parker employee. First off the company will endlessly tell you that they are unlike any other retail experience. This may have some truth but just because there is Jenga and hummus in the break room doesn’t mean squat.”
“Warby Parker prides itself on the idea of being an ethical company. A company that takes the customer experience seriously and strives to provide an experience that is unparalleled. The issue that arises is how can you ask sales advisors that struggle to get hours and are compensated at minimum wage to strive for such customer experience perfection?”
“There is such an emphasis placed on outward appearances that the company is forgetting that a good customer experience naturally occurs from employees that are treated fairly. I work hard for the company and even tried to internalize a lot of the philosophy that is indoctrinated during training.”
“Now that we have started to accept insurance for purchases, Warby has yet again forgotten exactly what they ask of their employees. I need full-time benefits and I have asked repeatedly whether this is an opportunity. I am currently working 40 hours almost every week without benefits and getting compensated minimum wage. Here is my question, ‘why should I care about providing the best assistance for customers based on their insurance when I can’t even get health insurance through this company?’”
Don’t stay long-term
“Working at Warby Parker is a good starting place for many. There were several fresh out of college employees who found their first job here. If you can stand working here longer than a year, more power to you. However, false promises and unhealthy expectations are what drove me away. I watched the mental health of many of my coworkers slide away after talking to sometimes hundreds of angry customers a day. Warby’s way of easing the pain?”
“Free food and booze. Gain weight so you can’t really get up from your desk and you can answer more phone calls. Again, this is a great starting position. Many other companies love seeing Warby Parker on a resume, but if you are looking to settle into a career, you’ll probably be disappointed.”
So, is it all bad?
No, at least not according to us (although a few others might disagree). We love Warby Parker in all its glory and goodness, and we want you to, as well. But, don’t go around worshipping Warby like the rest of America because no one likes to be disappointed and we want to present the reality of the Warby Parker company.
Now that we’ve covered the mistakes, let us end this on a positive note with some of the incredibly generous and life-giving donations Warby Parker has made, and how they have begun to change people’s worlds, one piece of eyewear at a time.
VisionSpring never left
Before Neil’s MBA program at Wharton College, he worked at VisionSpring, a non-profit organization that seeks to bring eyewear to the millions of underserved or impoverished individuals that cannot afford the basic human right of seeing their world. This non-profit stayed loyal to Neil as he stayed loyal to them.
To this day, Warby Parker donates a portion of every single eyewear sale to VisionSpring in order to continue giving sight to those who never thought they would have access to it. With Warby’s help, children all over the world can now see the leaves on trees, the specs of dirt on their knees when they play, and the beautiful smiles of their loved ones.
Funding sight breakthroughs
Along with funding their mission of giving eyewear to everyone who needs it, Warby also took advantage of the opportunity to help revolutionize the speed in which glasses can be made. According to this notice below, VisionSpring has developed a way to lessen the cost and time of creating these glasses.
Warby Parker definitely has its ups and downs, but their devotion to serving the world and making small differences like this are the reason people stay loyal to this company. These incredible feats in making eyecare more accessible have set an incredibly high standard for all startups, from now until forever. I think we can all agree that this is a massive step in the right direction.