Neil Blumenthal, A02, graduated with a double major in History and– you guessed it– International Relations. After Tufts, Blumenthal juggled graduate coursework and working at a think tank in New York before joining VisionSpring, a nonprofit organization that helps train women in low-income situations to sell eyeglasses to those who would not otherwise be able to see. His knowledge of the eyewear industry would come in handy a few years later when he and three friends at the Wharton School of Business decided to do something about the fact that eyeglasses were more expensive than smartphones. In February of 2010, Warby Parker was born. By cutting out the middleman and designing their glasses themselves, founders Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, Jeffrey Raider, and Neil Blumenthal were able to bring high fashion eyewear to customers for just $95 per pair– and simultaneously donate a pair to someone in need for every pair bought. I called up Mr. Blumenthal for a chat to talk about looking smart, Cambodian temples, and Beat literature.
Orlando: You have perfect vision, right? Do you wear your glasses out of style or self-promotion?
Neil Blumenthal: [laughs] A little bit of both. And to look smart.
Your website says that Andrew Hunt, your co-founder, may or may not have thought up Warby Parker while “fasting in a temple in the jungle city of Angkor Wat.” How did the idea for Warby Parker come up?
So we were all first year MBA students at Wharton and we were literally in the computer lab chatting. Dave had lost a pair of glasses in the seat pocket of an airplane right before school started. Jeff, similarly, had just broken the temple on a pair of his glasses. Andy had this idea to sell glasses online because he had seen all these other categories move online, and I sort of knew how to design and manufacture glasses and knew that there was a disconnect between what glasses cost to manufacture and what they were being sold for. So the light bulb just went off, and of course, just as you get into a good conversation, you need to run to class. And then later that night, I sent an email, I think it was two or three in the morning, you know one of those moments when you can’t sleep because you are just thinking? And then immediately Dave responded, and then Jeff responded, and then Andy, and sure enough the four of us each had that feeling in our stomachs where we thought that we were really onto something and we really couldn’t sleep, and it was that next day that we all met back up at school and were committed to doing whatever it took to make it happen.
It looks like you guys have certainly succeeded in that.
Yeah, it’s been a wild ride. When we launched in February of 2010, we launched to features in Vogue and GQ, we hit our first year’s sales target in three weeks, we sold out of our top fifteen styles in four weeks, we accumulated a wait list of about 20,000 people, it was just madness. We just literally had to cut class in order to take customer service calls and to respond to customer emails and to process the orders.
Do you ever meet people you admire or respect and see them wearing your glasses? What’s that like?
I remember the first time that I saw somebody wearing our glasses in the wild. It was at the Union Square train station and I literally did a double take, and sort of followed the person down the platform, and in New York when someone does that, you usually turn around and give them a dirty look… but thankfully the person was nice to me.
What is the design process like? Have you had a hand in crafting any frames yourself?
Yeah, with the first collection it was all of us that designed it, and now I manage the design team, so it’s one of the most fun aspects of the work. A lot of it is taking a lot of inspiration from the forties and fifties, if you kind of think about what our grandparents wore to work everyday, and the social ethos of our parents who came of age in the sixties.
Which pair are you wearing today?
I’m wearing the Baxter.
Is that your favorite style, or do you switch it up every day?
I’d probably say that it’s my favorite optical for me, and my favorite sunglasses are the Griffin, but my son is named Griffin. But the sunglasses [were] actually named before him.
Warby Parker partners with VisionSpring, a non-profit you used to run, to distribute glasses to those in need– how has having been an instrumental part of VisionSpring affected how you run Warby Parker?
I mean there are tons of parallels, you know, regardless of how much money you have, fashion matters. You care how you look, and it’s a reflection of who you are and you want to wear stuff that reflects your identity. So at VisionSpring I designed glasses according to what people wanted to wear in places like rural India and Bangladesh and parts of Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, when we’re designing frames for places like New York, Boston, or LA, people want to wear glasses that reflect what they care about, and for us, I think Warby Parker as a brand stands for fun and creativity and doing good in the world.
Warby Parker is a conglomerate of two characters from Jack Kérouac’s unpublished journals. What were some other name options that you guys tossed around?
There were a bunch, some of them probably not worth mentioning. [laughs] But really for us, we were very much inspired by writers, in particular the Beat writers, who sort of spoke for an entire generation and charted their own path… and just as we were trying to revolutionize the eyewear industry, they were transforming American society.
Going off of that, Kérouac and Beat literature seems to have served as a point of inspiration for the founders of Warby Parker, given the origins of the company name. He once said “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” To what extent do you think you have been able to live up to that, considering how you’ve revolutionized the business model for eyewear?
I think for us we’re just trying to do what feels right. Thankfully there are a lot of people that feel the way that we do, that business has an ability to do good in the world, and when it does, it can have a massive impact. Likewise, great quality and beautiful designs shouldn’t be outrageously expensive. Those principles of doing good and accessibility of design, I think are pretty universal.
How did your time at Tufts influence your later work, both with VisionSpring and Warby Parker?
I think that Tufts in particular takes a global view and very much takes a view of action. So it’s one thing to be aware of challenges throughout the world, and it’s another thing to take steps to work to resolve those challenges and I think that’s a very Tufts thing, something that’s prevalent throughout the Tufts community. And I think about my classmates and it’s often a Tufts student that was the first to go out and not just pay lip service to changing the world but actually working to make it happen. I [studied] abroad, I went to Argentina and Spain, immediately after school, it was actually Sherman [Teichman] who helped me think about what, at the moment, I was most passionate about, and at the time it was international affairs and like many Tufts students I was an International Relations major, and a dual major with history. I wanted to, in the most basic terms, get people to stop killing each other so we could focus on the big issues like health and education, so I went over to the Netherlands, and did some graduate coursework on negotiation and conflict resolution, returned to New York to work at a think tank that came up with policies to resolve deadly conflict, before meeting Jordan Kassalow and starting at VisionSpring.
Did you have a favorite class or professor at Tufts?
I think there were two classes. One was EPIIC, through the Institute for Global Leadership with Sherman Teichman. And then the second, this was a class called The Nuclear Age, and it was taught by Martin Sherwin and was also co-taught actually with a physics professor, so it was both sort of a history and a physics credit.
Any words of advice for the young and naïve?
One is the obvious one, always follow your passion. But in order to do that you need to discover what that is and part of that is doing things that you may like or dislike, to really get at the heart of it. But you should be thinking that everything you do, hopefully, opens more doors and if you have that frame of reference, hopefully you’ll create more and more opportunities for yourself.
I think that the other big thing is that, starting a business, trying to take on one of the world’s most pressing challenges… it can be very scary at first, you don’t even know where to begin, it feels like you almost have to take this giant leap, and you always feel like you’re jumping off a cliff. When that happens, just take a step back and see how you can break down that problem or decision into a bunch of smaller pieces and take baby steps forward, but always just keep moving forward.