Brian Magida, the director of digital marketing at Warby Parker, started at the eyewear brand over 6 years ago as the startup’s fourth employee. He left a lucrative career in finance to work at the cofounder’s apartment. He also watched Warby Parker transform into one of the most respected consumer-facing brands in recent memory.
Last week, Magida sat down with Michael Tavani, co-founder of Scoutmob and Switchyards. As part of the startup hub’s conversation series, the two discussed how Warby Parker has become a disruptive B2C company to watch during the last decade. Enjoy this abridged version of their inspiring conversation.
Michael: Warby has a really interesting B2C story, that, frankly, we haven’t seen here in Atlanta. There’s 3 areas that I want to talk about. The history of Warby Parker, the brand of Warby Parker, which is clearly strong, and then traction — what’s worked.
Brian was employee 4 at Warby Parker, and started working at the founder’s apartment. Let’s start there. Let’s start with the history and just hear about the ride.
Brian: Yes. How many of you are familiar with this story? I guess, real briefly, in case [you don’t know], I’m Brian, Director of Digital Marketing. I’ve been with the company for 6 and a half years. I’ll just walk you through a couple phases of the business.
The idea came around 2008. Dave [Gilboa], one of our co-founders, lost a pair of glasses and just kind of improvised. Instead of paying $500 for a new pair, he started asking around: There’s got to be a cheaper option? There really wasn’t, especially one that was stylish and fashionable.
So, this idea was just really resonating with him and he started talking to Jeff Raider, the [now] co-CEO of Harry’s. (He launched that 3 years ago. It’s crushing it, as well.) If you ever meet Jeff, he’s literally the most passionate person you’ll ever meet. He sat on it for maybe a couple hours, got up and said, “Hey, look, ee have to explore this thing.”
Andrew Hunt was the other co-founder. He also got really excited about the idea and he ended up finding Neil [Blumenthal]. Neil wasn’t even in their rotation. They were in the library, learned that Neil worked at non-profit Vision Spring, a large non-profit partner. He said, yeah, we can design around glasses. I was doing it for less than $4 a day in the developing world and we can brand it on our own. We can build something that drives consumer, which really hadn’t been done before in this space. That was kind of the first semester.
Michael: Had any of these guys been involved with a startup before?
Brian: No. Never.
That was the first semester 2008. They basically built their course load around building this business, which is kind of interesting for anyone that is thinking about business school. If you can structure your classes to go to business, it is a pretty good use of your time.
That started September 2008. That summer of 2009, they all actually had jobs with the exception of Jeff Raider. Jeff worked on the business basically 24/7. He found the designers, developers, and built the website. Neil was actually doing a summer rotation for Kinsey. Dave was working for a CEO at a biotech company.
At night, they would call, talk about business, etc. Flash forward to November 2009, other classmates, they didn’t really think there was really a business yet. They weren’t really sure if these were four bad jokers in business school. They threw a party, and this party was about as extravagant as a party that you could possibly throw with little to no budget. They basically, checked out one of their apartments, hired waiters, waitresses, and built this ethos of their little brand, and people just instantly took that seriously. And, ultimately, the launch was in February 2010.
Michael: The story that I know of Warby is there was some early press right around that time? Was it like GQ or something like that?
Brian: Yeah. We didn’t have a website, so none of the guys that started it had any development background. We contracted out. For those of you building a website, definitely don’t recommend building it on NetSuite. There’s just no developers for it, at all. They actually used it because it was front-end website, ERP, and inventory management. It was really one of the most costly decisions that we ever made.
They didn’t have a developer, been working around the clock, and realized they didn’t know anything about press, either. Normally, press takes several months to be out there, but they didn’t understand that to be featured in the March issue, that means hitting newsstands in February. They got a call with 12 hours to go saying, “hey, we’re hitting newsstands tomorrow.”
They instantly got the website up and basically the way the story goes, they just thought that, “hey, some orders were just coming from friends and family.” [Co-founder] Dave set up his phone to receive an email for every single order that’s coming. He’s sitting in class. First order comes in. He’s super excited. 5 minutes later, second order comes in. Right out of class, he’s just getting constantly pinged for orders. These orders were a home trial. We’ll ship you 5 pairs of glasses for free.
Michael: That was part of the original model?
Brian: Yeah, but we sent that out to actually be fulfilled out of our first optical lab, which was not equipped to do that at all.
Just a little bit of fun facts. We had optical labs. Generally speaking, when you buy a pair of glasses, whether it’s from LensCrafters or whatever, they might have their own optical lab, but generally, they’ll be sent out to the third party. They tend not to ship direct to consumer. This was a very big departure for this lab that we’re working with; shipping direct consumer, let alone doing a home trial program. Needless to say, we got stocked out within the first 48 hours of our home trial programs. We didn’t have a sold-out functionality. [laughs]
Yeah, we basically hit our first year’s sales targets in 3 weeks, sold out of our top styles of the brand within 4 weeks.
Michael: I want to talk about product and brand in a second. What was the next phase? What did the next 12 months look like?
Brian: The next phase was literally selling out of all of our inventory, so we just didn’t have, actually, any inventory to sell. When you’re producing a product, especially glasses, there’s a pretty long lead time to actually just placing the PO, receiving the inventory, etc. That all happened in April 2010 from being just sold out of pretty much everything. It wasn’t until June that we started receiving additional shipments.
We couldn’t actually activate our home trial program to everyone until November of 2010. Basically, about 6 months had passed before we could actually flip the switch and anyone could go and place an order for home trial.
We’re just growing really, really fast so actual metrics, it was probably along the border of call it, 20% or 30% up every month, growing. We didn’t understand eyewear seasonality, so there is a lot of it, actually. It doesn’t necessarily happen going into Q4.
Basically, I’m sure a lot of your guys have vision insurance plans for flexible spending accounts or health savings accounts. They used to actually expire every year with [insurance] dollars. There’s almost like a run on the bank where you just have to spend through these funds. We didn’t even know that actually existed. Our business doubled literally, December over November.
We thought, okay, just like any traditional E-com company, January’s going to be terrible. We can all go on vacation, it will be great. That wasn’t the case. [laughs] There’s a few things that happened.
One, our team was really small, so we were probably 10 or 12 people going into the holidays. We measured ourselves based on the ability to get our inbox down to 0. [laughs] Just have nothing else in there that had to be responded by. That was the goal.
Keep in mind, that we were using Gmail, so we didn’t even have the Zen Desk or anything like that. Our phone system was run through Google Voice so it really rang our cell phones. We finally got off that, the cellphone thing, in November. We didn’t figure out the whole email thing until later on in 2011. Basically, going to 0 it’s like, okay, let’s get it to 10. Let’s get it to 20. Let’s get it to 50. Let’s get it to 100. Let’s get it to 400. Then the New York Times [article] hit.
The New York Times was this amazing piece that got us on the front page of the business section. It was January 16th.
Brian: 2011. Our business doubled overnight. We’d already double month over month and then we just doubled overnight. I actually, I was looking for some old slides the other day. We went from doing 100,000 visits a month. That was in November 2010, to 500,000 in January. We just weren’t equipped to handle that.Michael: What was the financing like before that New York Times article?
Brian: No. It was just their own capital to launch it. Each of [the four founders] put in $30,000, so $120,000. To get the company off the ground, into GQ, was $120,000.
Michael: $120 grand to GQ and then how much [onward to] The New York Time’s article?
Brian: They raised, I think it was … A really weird thing, a $250,000 small business loan that they had to put up $200,000 for it. [laughs] Bizarre. They raised it for a convert round, so $700,000. So, if anyone’s into financing world, Kirsten Green who started Forerunner. She was part of that convert ground, so that was pretty cool. She was one of the first in the Dollar Shave Club, which just exit for $1 billion. She was some of the first million Jet, which just got purchased for $3.3 billion. She’s doing pretty well. [laughs]
So, yeah, it’s only $700,000 convert model.
Michael: We talk a lot about kind of 10x product and what that looks like…No email systems, no inventory, but the idea of being able to try on glasses at a lower price point through a brand that was solid. This is all the result of a 10x product in the early days, right?
Brian: Yes. I’ll be honest. I’ve never heard this phrase, 10x product, before, but I will say, if you look at any of the material on what the Warby Parker Brand was, which they put together in 2009, it took us 6 months to even come up with the name Warby Parker. The guys were super deliberate. The brand hasn’t changed at all. Literally, a PowerPoint deck from 2009 has all the same imagery that we have today.
I don’t think a lot of consumer-facing brands that emerged until 2010, or even earlier in 2007 [have not changed]. Their brand has evolved and changed a number of different times. I think [the founders] have the foresight to understand what the brand is, what it means, what’s it stand for, and were able to articulate it very well up front, which meant that we do know how to change it later on.
I think of products, part of it was just being in the right place at the right time. Eyewear tends to be fairly cyclical. I’m sure in 10 years from now it might not be as popular as it is today. I think it struck a nerve there, but I think also, the product itself is so much better overall then what was available.
Michael: …For you guys, it was, obviously, some perfect combination of product and brand. You bring up an interesting concept, which is just timing and kind of luck. I read a quote recently around the idea that luck is more important in startups. That’s nothing that none of us can control, but it’s a bigger part of startups than we all wish it was.
Brian: I think the timing was definitely super important. I think the other thing, though, is that, because these guys hadn’t started this type of business before, to have any experience, we weren’t afraid to ask for help. I think often times, founders think they have the greatest idea and they don’t want to tell anyone about it.
We’re basically the complete polar opposite. We talk to a lot of people. We have to learn somewhere and we ask for a lot of help.
Michael: You said the brand hasn’t changed much from the original deck, so someone on that founding team must be really strong in brand. Even if that wasn’t their background, they must just have a great gut sense of brand. Is that the case? Are they all like that?
Brian: I think they all are pretty balanced. I’d say, Neil kind of has that. He’s sort of like the brand guy. Jeff Raider’s really good at brand…It’s a lot of gut.
Michael: I mean, it has to be if they put something up, which hadn’t changed it much in 6 years.
Now, you guys do a really good job of keeping a library theme, which goes back to the early days of a launch event?
Brian: Yeah. That event, I’m not sure if you guys saw this but just Google it later. Just Warby Parker New York Public Library. It’s a really cool stunt that we did.
Michael: When was that?
Brian: It was Fashion Week, so it was actually roughly around this time but back in 2011. For brands during Fashion Week, it’s literally impossible, unless you have millions of dollars, to separate yourself from everyone else. We thought, What if we do something the day before Fashion Week?
Fashion Week, I think, started September 7th. Then we did something on September 6th, where we basically took over…I forget the name of the reading room but there’s the reading room in New York Public Library, where we, basically, had friends of the brand, employees, literally just wait there for people to get up out of the seat and just sit down.
People just sat there for 6, 7 hours that day, just commandeering all those spaces. We sent invitations to all the major fashion editors and had them, in a very non-descript way, go to this certain hotel room, and then ushered them to the New York Public Library, where at 3:00 in unison, everyone lifted a book that had the name of the frame that they were wearing.
It was just very silent, but there were about 50 different editors there. We basically took over Fashion Week for this moment in time that cost us nothing. We ended up giving a donation to New York Public Library after that [laughs], but yeah, it was a really cool experience. You should definitely just check out.
Michael: What does brand do for you guys? What does brand mean to you guys?
Brian: I’m trying to do the best job articulating this but it’s sort of like a feeling. You want to kind of, as you said, walk into this space and feel something. Maybe it’s a little bit hard to describe, but for us with Warby, it feels like you’ve kind of heard of it before. It feels familiar. You kind of want to get to know it a little bit, for whatever that means. It’s going to mean certain things to different people. I think the reason why we’ve been so successful is because it means fashion to a lot of people. Eyewear, it’s sitting on your face, it’s literally the most prominent thing you could possibly be wearing. It’s a way for you to express yourself. I think that’s been immensely powerful for us and that we took a view which is we’re going to create a fashion product. We’re not creating the cheapest product out there but it’s certainly a lot more affordable.
Really, when it comes to the hierarchy, it’s fashions first and foremost, price is the second thing. Just being $95 inclusive of prescription lenses, make it really easy to buy, and then just make the experience way better. Before it was trying 5 at home for free and send them back with no obligation to buy.
Today it’s beyond that. People walk into a physical store, try on any number of brands. We’re never going to push them into buying anything. It’s just a really pleasant experience versus the traditional retailer where you have someone who’s likely commission based who’s trying to push you all sorts of different products. Who’s trying to up-sell you. It’s not really pleasurable.
Michael: Do you guys consider yourself fashion company or tech company, first?
We say, we’re a technology-enabled lifestyle brand. [laughs]
Michael: …What is the single more iconic thing on social media around Warby Parker?
Brian: There’s been a couple things that’s been shared about the history of Warby, but I would say people sharing that first experience of just receiving the home try on and asking their friends and family which pair of glasses should I buy. That wasn’t something that we launched with, so I guess relaying us to how to simulate to an earlier stage company. For us, and keep in mind when we launched, I don’t think Instagram was actually around.
It definitely wasn’t in our program because I was the social media guy and had an Android. One of the things we noticed was consumers, if we asked them to share a picture of them wearing the glasses, they would do it. The reason, the motivation wasn’t for them to share content for the purpose of virility. It was literally, if you share a picture of you wearing the glasses, I can tell whether or not the glasses actually fit you.
Again, I was answering phones and emails, but also handling all social. People actually just started doing it and I said, Hey, I’m the Twitter guy. I’m the Facebook guy. Just go ahead. When people started doing it, their friends started seeing them do it and then they just started doing it organically. Overtime, we started actually enforcing the action. If you’ll get your own try on box today, there’s a ton of branding around it saying #warbyhometryon.
If you use that hashtag, you’ll get customer support, which [helps you choose which] pair of glasses you should buy… Who’s going to take a picture of their face and share it with everyone? People actually started doing it…Michael: Who’s your biggest competitor?
They own, basically, wherever you would go to buy glasses. You’d buy them in Pearl Vision, LensCrafters, Target Optical. They own all those. All the brands that are in there are also owned by them, so whether it’s RayBan, Oakley… They also have the licenses to manufacture for the upward end like Chanel. Pretty much whatever you name it’s probably produced by them.
Michael: How much do you guys like playing this under dog rule?
Brian: We don’t seat it but it’s a pretty good story. I think it was 2012 or 2013, through a 60 Minutes piece. It’s a really good piece. If you haven’t seen it just check it out. There was a small blip of a mention of Warby, kind of longer than half a second, that was one of those big step function changes for the business, but in our marketing we don’t do any comparative marketing. They’re who we look to and say, We need to beat them.
Michael: One last question. You were there, literally, from the very beginning. You made a comment earlier, which I think is an interesting thing for a lot of startup people. When you’re on a rocket ship like what Warby has been, an early job function changes your whole career. So you made the comment that you had to bring your own computers and your computer wasn’t powerful to run some software. As a result, you weren’t doing like supply chain, right? You became the marketing guy and you’re the person still doing it?
Brian: Yeah. People just don’t really understand how much of a startup Warby Parker really was. Business was started literally in business school. The guys put all their money into it. We were making very, very little. I was getting paid $12 an hour. I worked in finance in New York. I was making way more than that.
We had to bring our own computers. Literally, emails all done through Gmail, phone system was Google Voice. We worked out of Neil’s apartment 2 days a week. The rest of the time we worked from our own apartments. I worked at a friend’s kitchen table for the first 3 months.
Literally, my computer, couldn’t run this software called, DVI. It’s this jenky software that communicates with Optical Lab…Because I couldn’t run it, I couldn’t do anything as it pertained to just processing those types of orders. I didn’t do supply chain because of that.
It wasn’t really because of that, but I had this interest in web analytics, so it became, Hey, here’s Google Analytics. You’re going to start doing that. I saw a really big opportunity in social media because no one was running social. They just gave me the log in and passwords to Facebook and Twitter and I just started playing around.
That became my function, and, because of that, I got promoted to online media manager in November 2010, which literally meant next to nothing. That just forced me down this path, which eventually led to digital marketing and performance marketing.
Michael: Wow. That’s crazy. $12 bucks an hour.
Brian: It was just as much was needed. I don’t know. I saw it as this really awesome opportunity. The way that I looked at it is, It’s going to go 1 of 2 ways: Either, it’s going to be really big and I’m going to get on ground with it, I’m going to learn a lot, and it’s going to be awesome, or this thing is just going to crash and burn. That’s going to take 6 months to happen and I was living at home at the time. It just kind of made sense.
Images and video provided by the amazingly talented studio, Chil Creative. Additional imagery by Kiki Roeder and Vogue.