Web-based eyeglasses maker Warby Parker has grown into a Silicon Alley darling in the two and a half years since it was started by four friends from Wharton Business School. To co-founders Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa, one of the biggest factors is the company's strong brand identity, which they constructed one "inspiration picture" at a time. As told to Tom Foster.
"Today, all the rage seems to be lean start-up methodology, where you launch as quickly as possible and see what works and iterate," Gilboa said. "We took a very deliberate approach instead. We spent about a year and a half from when we came up with the idea to when we launched, and a huge part of that was building a brand we could believe in."
"We started off just doing a bunch of whiteboard sessions, and we had heated debates. Are we preppy? No, we're not preppy! Are we retro, or are we vintage? Luxury or quality?" Blumenthal said. "We'd expect to spend an hour talking about the inspiration pictures we'd clipped out during the week, and we'd end up spending four or five hours. We'd debate one photo for an hour, whether it was exactly on brand."
"It's about classic design and radical reduction: Simplify, simplify, simplify," Blumenthal said. "We liked how it's symmetrical, and it's all about functionality. There's also this idea of environmentalism and doing good."
"The booby, an exotic bird from the Galápagos Islands, fully encompasses the brand. First of all, it's special, and not everybody knows about it. It's humorous, because it gives these quizzical looks. And the name itself is funny, like ours," Blumenthal said. "But there's also a style and sophistication to it: It looks like a penguin, with that tuxedo breast. And then there's the flash of color. Our core company colors, the gray and blue, came from this photo."
"We had a list of more than 2,000 names for the company—from Greek mythology as well as Chinese river dolphins. But we kept coming back to literature, and around this time I went to an exhibit on Jack Kerouac at the New York Public Library," Gilboa said. "He had written about all these characters in his private diaries, and they all had interesting names. There were two that all of us loved: Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker. We combined them and tested Warby Parker to make sure we weren't crazy. A lot of people thought it sounded familiar."
"People who know the camera market, this is what they get excited about," Gilboa said. "But it's not the product that has the most marketing dollars behind it. It's about having passionate users and followers who love the functionality and the cleanness of the design."
"We took aesthetic inspiration from our grandparents' generation, when people thought a lot about what they wore to work—this idea that there's a certain degree to which you put yourself together," Blumenthal said. "Glasses can be that kind of accessory. Our co-founder Andy Hunt's grandfather wore a monocle, so we decided to make one. If you're launching an eyeglasses company, why not sell a monocle?"
"Steve McQueen on a motorcycle is effortless cool. This is somebody who exudes self-confidence but isn't an asshole. It's timeless," Blumenthal said. "That's part of our design belief: You can look back in 20 years and still take pride in how you look in your glasses today. You weren't being a fashion victim."