Warby Parker's recipe for coolJune 20, 2012: 3:12 PM ET
The New York startup has generated an innovative fashion brand in practically no time. It's getting a lot of ideas from an unexpected place.
Updated: 6/20/2012 5:41 p.m.
By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE -- Warby Parker has built a buzzy brand in no time. The New York City-based e-tailer sells inexpensive-yet-chic eyewear, which costs about $100 a pair compared to $500 for a typical set of designer specs. Co-founder Neil Blumenthal situates the brand with the likes of labels Apolis, Band of Outsiders, and Maison Kitsuné. But the company is taking branding cues from a very different set of firms: non-profits. This "rock-star group" of do-gooders includes Charity:Water, Invisible Children, Movember, and Pencils of Promise.
At first blush, that seems counter-intuitive for a company with a sleek showroom in its SoHo headquarters and summer pop-up kiosks at swanky Standard Hotel locations in Los Angeles and New York's East Village. But Warby Parker's own story is closely tied to non-profits. Blumenthal got his start at VisionSpring, a non-profit that trains local entrepreneurs in the developing world to sell inexpensive glasses. Blumenthal described it as a win-win for the fledgling businesses and the communities that receive access to better eye care with the added "dignity" of making their own purchases.
The group of non-profits Blumenthal admires is part of a loose-fitting, informal network of entrepreneurial friends, he says. The founders bond at Summit Series events—Blumenthal notes last year's April "Summit at Sea" -- and talk with each other about best practices. According to Blumenthal, there's a bit of a crew of founders with similar charitable missions, including Charity:Water's Scott Harrison, Movember's Adam Garone, and the Pencils of Promise and Invisible Children founders.
While Warby Parker is a for-profit company, its service component is common to most of Blumenthal's group of favored non-profits. Instead of eyewear, Charity:Water works to bring clean water to communities in the developing world; Pencils of Promise works to provide schools and education programs.
Movember and Invisible Children have both recently mastered viral marketing campaigns, with Movember leading the new popular practice of growing a mustache through November to raise awareness and funds about prostate cancer, and Invisible Children spearheading the viral 'Kony 2012' campaign to stop Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. (Blumenthal counts 'Kony 2012' creator Jason Russell, who brought extra scrutiny to the embattled campaign in March following a public breakdown in San Diego in March, as a friend; he did not mention 'Kony' when discussing Invisible Children's best practices.)
Of course, Warby Parker has more traditionally capitalist expansion on its mind, including opening a new flagship retail store in SoHo. Blumenthal says the company could be profitable if it slows down its expansion. The company also now offers a try-at-home service that allows customers to putter around with five, non-prescription trial pairs before considering a purchase.
As it grows, Warby Parker will have the chance to pump more money into its branding. But Blumenthal says the company won't change from its "extra thoughtful" approach to spending common among the charitable groups. "These are all guys that have master story-telling and are developing content and websites and materials that are some of the best out there, that rival Apple (AAPL) and Nike (NKE)," Blumenthal says. As long as the eyeglass company keeps it up, it's tough to argue.