Warby Parker shows that donating eyeglasses is a successful business model

Just when you thought a particular business sector was incapable of change, along comes a company that turns the sector on its head….introducing Warby Parker.

Todd Heisler/The New York TimesNeil Blumenthal, left, and David Gilboa, founders of Warby Parker, and online eyeglasses distributor, oversee a photo shoot featuring their products in New York, Nov. 5, 2010.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times Neil Blumenthal, left, and David Gilboa, founders of Warby Parker, and online eyeglasses distributor, oversee a photo shoot featuring their products in New York, Nov. 5, 2010.

More than 700 million people are without access to eyewear, and 90% of those people live in the developing world. That means approximately 15% of the world’s population cannot effectively learn or work because of poor eyesight. It is estimated that a pair of glasses increases a person’s productivity by 35% and has the potential to increase their income 20%.

That’s a problem Warby Parker aims to change by distributing a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold. To date, the company has donated more than one million pairs in 35 countries, estimating the economic impact to those people and local economies to be US$200,000,000.

Founded in 2009 by four Wharton Business School buddies, the goal was to solve a simple problem: to lower the price of glasses. In other words, offer “designer eyewear at a revolutionary price while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.”

The founders say the industry has been dominated by a single player that has been able to dictate prices and as a result keep them artificially high.

Warby Parker (named after two characters in Jack Kerouac novels) set out to create an alternative by circumventing traditional channels, designing and producing glasses in-house and engaging with customers directly online (until recently there were only virtual stores). Consumers can try on glasses virtually and receive up to five pairs in the mail, then decide which one they want to purchase (or send back). Shipping is free. This essentially cuts out the middle-man, providing a considerable cost saving for the consumer and a significant revenue generator for the company. Their growth is undeniable.

I recently interviewed Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-chief executive, to explore the success of Warby Parker’s model and was impressed by the company’s strategic, focused and authentic approach to integrating profit and purpose. There are three things that stood out as being instructive for entrepreneurs looking to play in the “profitable good” space:

They lead with a great product 

Gilboa was clear that what drives the growth of the business is eyewear that is fashionable and affordable. And that includes making glasses accessible through an innovative digitally led business model. The product must stand on its own if the company wants to be a sustainable business. He said it is bad business for a company to rely on a social mission to sell products because the product has to be something consumers want regardless of the social impact it may create. In other words, social purpose is not a substitute for quality, but it can definitely enhance.

They believe deeply in social impact

Despite the fact Warby Parker leads with fashionable affordable eyewear, social impact is deeply embedded in its business model and is a big part of their story. Gilboa is adamant the company would not have grown as quickly without the social impact component. “The business would absolutely have stood on its own, but our social purpose has helped us attract top talent and young consumers who believe very strongly in what we are doing and offering,” he said.

What’s refreshing is that Warby Parker’s social impact approach is not traditional philanthropy. The founders believe “glasses are a transformative tool that can help combat poverty” and have designed an approach where for every pair of glasses sold the company contributes money to a non-profit partner (VisionSpring is the leading one) that trains people to conduct eye exams and sell glasses at affordable prices. This social entrepreneurial approach generates income for people in communities and ensures those without corrective eyewear have access.

They are thoughtful about how product and purpose come together 

From their social enterprise impact model to their carbon neutral approach and company culture (think big, have fun, do good) there’s no doubt Warby Parkers founders are in business as a force for good. And they are vocal in trying to influence other businesses to do the same, even if many still don’t see or believe in the return on inve

stment a profitable good approach can yield.

However, they are adamant there needs to be a tight alignment and authenticity between the product and the social cause. “The tighter the link the better because without clear alignment it leads to [consumer] confusion,” Gilboa said, citing Coca Cola and its support of polar bears as one where the connection isn’t obvious. But when asked whether he could imagine Warby Parker engaging its customers as advocates in reducing global poverty to further their social impact Gilboa said he doesn’t believe Warby Parker should be too prescriptive, preferring customers to vote with their wallets.

As our business landscape continues to evolve to a more integrated approach to profit and purpose, Warby Parker is another proof point that companies with great products and strategic social impact are destined for success.

Do you know a company that’s effectively pursuing profit and purpose? Send me your ideas.

This artilce was originally published in the National Post
Phillip Haid is co-founder and chief executive of PUBLIC, a social purpose marketing agency and innovation lab that designs social impact campaigns and businesses through the merger of profit and purpose.