Starting a business is like any other beginning: The first task is survival. But even in those early days, what founder doesn't dream of doing something really huge--like building a business that rapidly remakes a fusty sector, as Warby Parker's Neil Blumenthal has, or seizing an early opportunity to dominate an industry, the way Whole Foods' John Mackey has? The entrepreneurs who fulfill such dreams are the ones we call icons, and we know them when we see them: Barbara Corcoran slyly grilling a supplicant on the hit show Shark Tank, for instance, or Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, as he succeeds on his mission to boldly transform American dining. How does one proceed from frantic founder to ultra-successful entrepreneur? We've taken a close look at four icons to find out.
Envisioning a Company
In February 2008, four MBA candidates at the Wharton School of business wondered: Why weren't glasses sold online? It wasn't a completely random thought. One of them, Neil Blumenthal, had run a nonprofit called VisionSpring that trains women in the developing world to give eye exams and sell glasses.
Blumenthal emailed three friends (Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt, and Jeff Raider) in the middle of the night proposing that the four of them start an online eyewear company. All responded yes immediately. "We couldn't sleep, because we thought it was such a good idea," Blumenthal says.
They sealed the deal the next night over Yuenglings at a local bar. But classmates were skeptical. "A lot of people told us, 'You'll never be able to convince people they should be buying this online,' " says Gilboa.
The feedback inspired the idea of letting customers try on five pairs of frames at home for free before buying any--and this was a hit with virtually everyone. "That's when we felt really confident that this idea was going to work," Gilboa says.
The Upside of Mistakes
Two years after Warby Parker was hatched, GQ contacted Blumenthal about a story. There was just one problem: Warby Parker wasn't a company yet. The website was weeks away from launching, and the co-founders were still finishing up their MBAs.
"Being the optimists that we are, we thought we'd have the website up and running way before the article came out," Blumenthal says. They also assumed GQ's March issue would come out in March. When they learned that it would hit newsstands on February 15, the co-founders realized they had a new launch date.
On February 15, 2010, WarbyParker.com went live. Within 48 hours of GQ's dubbing the company "the Netflix of eyewear," the site was so flooded with orders for $95 glasses that Blumenthal temporarily suspended the home try-on program.
Launching the website so quickly meant the company hadn't included a sold-out function--so customers were placing orders long after inventory had run out. The bad news: The waitlist was 20,000-people long. The good news: The company hit its first-year sales target in three weeks.
"It was this moment of panic, but also a great opportunity for us to provide awesome customer service and write personalized emails to apologize and explain," Blumenthal says. "That really set the tone for how we would run customer service."
A House Is Not A Store
Customers sent emails asking to come to the company's offices to try on glasses. Warby Parker didn't have offices--so Blumenthal invited customers to his apartment. The demand gave the co-founders the confidence to open shops within boutique retailers and launch the Warby Parker Class Trip, a store built into a school bus that visited 15 cities. "We were able to explore different neighborhoods in each one of those cities, so it gave us a blueprint and data for where to open up stores," Blumenthal says. In April 2013, Warby Parker opened its first, in New York City's SoHo.
The Mission and the Future
For every pair of glasses Warby Parker sells, it makes a donation to its nonprofit partners--including VisionSpring--so people in the developing world can get eye exams and glasses cheaply. Last year, Warby distributed its millionth pair of glasses through its "buy a pair, give a pair" program--another example of how far the company has come. Now Blumenthal wonders, "How do you scale a brand with integrity?" Like a lengthy waiting list, there are worse problems to have.