Dave Gilboa is a UC Berkeley alumnus and the co-founder of Warby Parker, a pioneering eyewear company that designs and sells eyewear for a fraction of the prices charged by retail stores. The company also distributes a pair of glasses to someone in need for each pair sold. In conversation with the Weekender, Gilboa discussed the early stages of Warby Parker, what it felt like to start up a company and his experiences at UC Berkeley.
DC: Could you talk a little bit about the origins of Warby Parker?
DG: I had decided to go back to business school — got into Wharton. Before starting, I took a few months off to travel. When I was travelling, I lost my glasses in Thailand. They had cost me $700. So I showed up to the first day of school without owning a pair of glasses, even though I was a full-time student. I went my whole first semester without owning a pair of glasses and would complain to anyone who would listen about why glasses were so expensive.
So we started looking into the industry and realized that glasses were marked up 10 to 20 times what they cost to manufacture, with very little value added. And the main reason was that there are a couple companies that really control a large chunk of the industry. So when you walk into a LensCrafters and you see 50 different brands of glasses, you don’t realize that all those brands are owned by the same company that also owns the store that you’re standing in that also owns the vision insurance plan you’re using to pay for those glasses.
We thought we could do things differently by creating our own vertically integrated brand — doing the design in-house, cutting out the middlemen (and) all the retail markups and selling our glasses directly to consumers for a fraction of the price.
DC: Could you talk a little about the early months in which Warby Parker developed from an idea into a business?
DG: The nice thing is we were getting our MBAs at Wharton, and so what we were there to learn how to do was to run a business. There seemed like no better opportunity to learn how to run a business than actually start one. Basically, for every class project, we picked Warby Parker, and so all four of us took a class together on entrepreneurship where the output was putting together a fully fleshed-out business plan. In the course of a few months, we put together a 40-page business plan where we tried to be incredibly thoughtful about every part of the business.
DC: Was it nerveracking to go from a series of corporate jobs into a startup that came out of a classroom project?
DG: Have to say my parents were pretty surprised when I told them this is what I wanted to do, and I think a lot of people were. And, yeah, we got a lot of advice from friends and people that we think are really smart and generally got feedback that this probably isn’t gonna work, that starting a company is really hard, that building a brand is really hard, that building an e-commerce site is really hard. But, for us, we were really passionate about the idea. It was kind of a need that we had in our lives
And so, for us, we felt like the three biggest things that we were missing were (that) none of us had any formal design background and none of us were really technical and never built a website. On the technical side of things, we found a guy on Odesk, which is a website for freelance developers. He was in Canada, and he was able to build our site. We never met him. We still work with him.
DC: Wait, you’ve never met him? Where is he?
DG: He’s in British Columbia. We talk to him all the time. Now, we have a tech team of 60 people, but we still use his expertise sometimes.
I think it was one of those things where we got a lot of good advice, but the four of us had a lot of confidence in ourselves and each other. It’s all about trusting your gut and really believing that you’re solving a real problem.
When we bootstrapped the business, we only spent money on three things. One was building a website — so, hiring the external developer. The second was on the original set of inventory. And the third was hiring a fashion publicist who was able to get us meetings with the right people at GQ and Vogue. So we went in to pitch to them and got these great editorial features that we really wanted — and a stamp of approval. We didn’t think that being in those magazines would drive a lot of traffic in sales. We were just blown by the impact of getting these great features. GQ called us the “Netflix of eyewear.” And we just started getting orders pouring in.
DC: How’d that feel?
DG: It was kind of just an exhilarating feeling that things just took off immediately. Actually, our website wasn’t done yet. We got a call from our publicist saying, “GQ is going to hit newsstands tomorrow. You need to actually put up your site.”
We just had a “coming soon” page. So we waited until 4 a.m., I think, on a Wednesday and just put up the website. I had my phone set up to be notified anytime we got an order, and I was sitting in class a few hours later, and we got our first order. I had this feeling of elation, and so I emailed the other three co-founders, and we were all congratulating each other. Then, 10 minutes later, my phone is buzzing again and buzzing again and buzzing again. And after that one-and-a-half-hour class, we had dozens of orders.
All of a sudden, the feeling went from exhilaration to: “Oh crap — we don’t have enough inventory or any sold-out or waitlist functionality on the website.” At the end of the day, we called this emergency meeting. One of the founders, he wanted to just keep taking more orders and apologize later. At this point, there was also talk about taking our website down completely and figuring out how to build waitlist functionality. While we were having this debate, over the course of five minutes, we got 10 more orders. We needed to do something, so we called our developer who was in Canada, who was notoriously fickle and sometimes wouldn’t respond to us for a couple days. He was miraculously able to build in waitlist functionality within a few minutes, so we threw that up and had a 20,000-person waitlist that it took us nine months to work through while we were waiting for new inventory.
DC: So what kinds of things did you do on campus?
DG: I came in as a bioengineering major. I started off running track and cross country, which took up a lot of time, but I got three stress fractures in a row. I was just running too much, and so my legs would just break down. So my career running ended up being cut short. And I was in a fraternity that is no longer on campus: Beta. And, I don’t know, I would eat Top Dog and La Burrita as much as I could.
DC: Favorite spots in Berkeley?
DG: I always loved going up in Tilden — kind of running the firetrails. I spent a lot of time at Raleighs, which I think has now burned down. I think it’s just a beautiful campus.
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