Dave Gilboa photo

Dave Gilboa

Co-Founder, Co-CEO Warby Parker

Dave Gilboa, 34, had always expected to become a physician, like both of his parents. But a change of heart in college led him to choose a business career: “I felt there was a massive opportunity to use business and management skills to positively impact the world.” Now here he was, three years in Bain’s San Francisco office under his belt, taking some time off to travel before starting business school. And he had left his $700 pair of prescription eyeglasses on an airplane.

But they say that adversity begets inspiration, and before long Gilboa found himself wondering: how come his near-magical smartphone cost only $200 while spectacles—a centuries-old technology—were so much more expensive? Starting school still without glasses, he found three classmates who shared his frustration. And why, they wondered, was no one selling eyeglasses online? After some research, the foursome came to the conclusion that eyeglass manufacturing and marketing was an industry just waiting for disruption. Thus was born Warby Parker, recently named by Fast Company as the "#1 Most Innovative Company for 2015" from a list that also included Apple and Google. 

There’s a lot you can say about Warby Parker. The five-year-old company's 12 retail stores record sales per square foot that rival those of Tiffany's, while selling eyeglasses for as little as $95. Warby Parker's well-known social mission—it distributes one pair of glasses for every pair sold—marks it as a successful social enterprise.

To Gilboa, though, the key to the company’s success is the careful, step-by-step creation of a brand. “We spent a year and a half architecting every piece of the brand and product we were going to deliver,” he says. Warby Parker did not follow the conventional startup wisdom of running lean, getting a minimum viable product out to customers, then iterating. Instead, its founders set out from the beginning to create a distinctive fashion brand, laboring over “every word and every pixel” of the website and every element of product and company design. They wanted Warby Parker to be known for leading-edge fashion, terrific value, and great customer service, as well as for its social mission.

That laserlike focus paid off, particularly when Gilboa and his cofounders hit a huge bump in the road right at the start. The commitment to a perfectly polished product landed a laudatory article in GQ, which dubbed the company a “radical new designer.” Trouble was, the article came out before Warby Parker’s website was fully functional and before the company had built up a healthy inventory of product. “We ended up hitting our first year sales target in three weeks,” Gilboa remembers. “We were out of our top 20 SKUs in the first four weeks, and we had a wait list of 20,000. We were overwhelmed by the attention we were getting.”

But the founders’ commitment to service saved the day: they contacted every would-be buyer personally, saying that they were “extremely disappointed” that they couldn’t fill the order immediately. “We explained exactly what was happening, gave them discounts, kept them notified as things developed and communicated timing. We found that customers were supportive and went on to become brand champions. They weren’t used to companies offering that kind of personalized service.”

The company’s social mission isn’t as important to most customers as factors such as design, quality and price, Gilboa says. But it’s very important to employees and helps the company attract the kind of “talented and passionate” people who are drawn to mission-driven organizations. To reinforce the importance of the mission, the company sends every employee who has been with Warby Parker three years “anywhere in the world” to meet one of the nonprofit partners that distribute free eyeglasses to needy individuals. “It’s incredibly powerful for people to make the connection between their work in the office” and the mission.

Gilboa’s experience as a senior associate consultant at Bain taught him several lessons that he is applying to Warby Parker today. “One thing I learned [at Bain] was how powerful an outside perspective can be in shining a light on certain issues that organizations or departments might be aware of, but might need an outsider to really bring a new way of looking at the problem.” This insight led to Warby Parker’s practice of rotating every employee through customer-service teams. Gilboa also learned the importance of data such as customer advocacy in measuring progress. (Warby Parker is a devoted practitioner of the Net Promoter System—check out his recent interview on Rob Markey's NPS podcast). In addition, the Bain network has also proved helpful. Co-founder Jeff Raider is himself a Bain alum; some of the company’s earliest investors were Bain partners; and Bain alumni such as John Donahoe of eBay gave useful advice on how to scale a fast-growing business. “The Bain network has been very inviting,” says Gilboa. “Any time we’ve had a question, looking for advice or candidates, or finding ways to work with other organizations, it has been something we’ve leveraged quite a bit.”

Given Warby Parker’s accomplishments, it’s safe to say that Gilboa and his colleagues are on their way. And he probably won’t have to go without glasses for long ever again—even if he leaves a pair on a plane.