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How David Gilboa Lost His Eyeglasses, Made $1 Billion, and Changed the World (With the Help of Some Friends)

For the month of February, we’re talking all about college student entrepreneurs. Our 4-part series looks at four very different businesses started by studentpreneurs and the key takeaways that can help you in your business. Questions? Suggestions? Want us to feature your business? Drop us a line! anna [at] atxwebdesigns [dot] com.

Who: David Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal

What: Warby Parker

Where: The Wharton School

The Problem: Eyeglasses are incredibly expensive, especially to people with limited income.

The Solution: Sell glasses online directly to the consumer, and donate a pair for each pair sold.

When David Gilboa lost his eyeglasses, he had a problem.

They were his only pair, and they cost $700. As a full-time student, he couldn’t afford to replace them so he spent an entire semester squinting in lecture halls and, as he put it, complaining to anyone who would listen about the exorbitant cost of glasses. Why were they so expensive?

He asked this of everyone, but it was Neil Blumenthal, with some experience in optometry, who took it seriously. Blumenthal and Gilboa got with two other friends and spent 18 months brainstorming and refining the idea for the company that would become Warby Parker.

From the beginning, they wanted the company to make a positive impact. In addition to drastically reducing the price of eyeglasses and making it easy for customers to try on various styles, they also implemented a social mission into their business model. Like Tom’s, for every pair purchased, they donate a pair.

It sounds like another do-good company started by Millennials, but in fact, Warby Parker is a unicorn.

Prior to its founding, customers had few choices about eyewear. One single company owns and produces all the eyewear you have to choose from. And what they don’t own, they have exclusive licensing agreements with (glasses with fashion labels, for instance). They set the price, and the consumer has no other option but to pay.

It was a crazy idea, that a couple of college students could disrupt an enormous, powerful, deeply-established monopoly like Luxottica, and many people told them so. People with far more experience told them there was no way their idea could work.

The company was founded in 2010. By 2015 they were valued at over $1 billion.

Top 3 Lessons and Takeaways:

1. Choose Mentors Wisely. Everyone told them why it Warby Parker could never work. The mentors they trusted asked tough questions, but were also encouraging and positive. That’s what a great mentor is for: to help you clear the challenges and remind you of your own potential.

2. Think Long-Term, Then Bottom-Line. Building a company with a legacy requires thinking about the big picture. There will always be the bottom line to consider, but what about the purpose of your company? What impact are you making 5, 10, 50 years down the road?

3. Focus. The four founders didn’t rush to start their business. They carefully considered it, talked, sought advice, tested and planned for a year and half before their launch. As their company has grown, they’ve continued to focus on what they do best. Should they ever go public, go international, or roll out other products, it will be when it’s best for the company–and its customers. In Gilboa’s words, I can’t think of many businesses that have failed because they were too focused.

Anna Ray