“Culture, of course, does evolve, but culture is what enables good strategy. It’s what enables good performance, it’s what enables longevity.”
Katelin: Welcome back to Season 2 of All-Hands, brought to you by Lattice! I’m your host Katelin Holloway. If you were with us last season, you know we focused on sitting down with C-level execs to chat about how people strategy is good business strategy, but this season, we’re doubling down. We’re not only talking to CEO’s and founders, but a wide range of people leaders— from Heads of People to Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officers — to really get into some of their core practices, principals, and beliefs when it comes to putting your people first.
Today we’re joined by Neil Blumenthal — co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker. Yes, the very same Warby Parker that you know and love for bringing us designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.
Prior to launching Warby Parker, Neil served as director of VisionSpring, a nonprofit social enterprise that trained women in developing countries to start their own businesses selling affordable eyeglasses. Taking those skills he learned at VisionSpring, and his desire to do good in the world, in 2010 he launched Warby Parker with co-founder Dave Gilboa. In 2015, Fast Company named Warby Parker the most innovative company in the world.
Neil’s here to chat with us today about how they’ve opted to build this company and break the traditional business rules to truly transcend the ordinary.
Neil, welcome to All Hands.
Neil: Thanks for having me.
Katelin: Warby Parker is an incredibly iconic company. And it really has led the way on not only creating a people first culture, but really linking that culture with the brand. I am so excited to unpack some of this and really get in there. But before we do that, I would love it if you could please give our audience a little bit about your background. Can you talk about why you started Warby Parker?
Neil: I think the journey actually starts, I grew up in New York City. And my mom is a nurse, well, she’s now retired. But she taught me to give back. And when I applied to colleges, I ended up going to Tufts University, which is based in Boston, and they’re known for international relations. And I was particularly excited about foreign policy, and the way that states and countries interact under the basic premise that if we could get countries to stop fighting wars, for example, then we could focus on the big issues like health and education.
So, I thought that maybe I’d go and work for the state department. I ended up interning at a think tank that came up with policies to resolve deadly conflict, but quickly realized that that type of work wasn’t for me, right? I found it intellectually stimulating, but growing up, we probably don’t spend enough time thinking about what is the type of work that you enjoy doing day to day? in exploring what I wanted to do with my life, and I knew that I wanted to have impact, I would often say, “I want to change the world, I just don’t know exactly how,” I met a super dynamic eye doctor named Jordan Kassalow. And he, at the time, was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And this Council on Foreign Relations is one of the most prestigious institutions when it comes to foreign policy. So, I was excited to chat with him. And we get to talking, and he tells me about this nonprofit that he had just started that was designed to provide glasses to people around the world. And he told me that over a billion people didn’t have access to glasses. And that it’s just crazy that 700 years after glasses were invented, that so much of the human species didn’t have access to glasses. And he had this idea to train low income men and women to start their own businesses giving vision tests and selling glasses in their communities in places like rural El Salvador and rural India.
And I thought, wow, this is a really powerful idea. Because not only are you solving this massive issue where people don’t have the glasses they need to learn, to work, to live full lives, but you’re also doing it in a way that creates jobs, in particular, women. So, after this first lunch, I was just really excited by the idea. And he must have seen something in me, and he gave me the opportunity to work at his nonprofit, VisionSpring.
And I moved down to El Salvador and started, basically, this pilot program. And I started training women in these rural areas to give vision tests, sell glasses to people living on less than $4 a day. And I did that for about five years. And it was incredibly rewarding, but also, I just learned a ton about everything, how to lead, how to train, how to manage a business, how to think about inventory and after being at VisionSpring for five years, I then decided to go back to school, and I went to Wharton to get my MBA. And it was there that I met three dynamic guys, one of whom had just lost a pair of glasses in the seat pocket of an airplane. They cost him $700, and now as a graduate student, he wasn’t about to spend that type of money again. Another buddy had a pair of glasses that desperately needed to be replaced, let’s just put it that way. And our other friend was commenting, “Why are glasses so expensive? Why aren’t they sold online?” This was in winter of 2008, and Zappos was getting a lot of attention for selling shoes and sneakers online, Blue Nile for selling engagement rings, products and categories that people thought could never be sold online. So, we thought, well, why can’t we do the same for glasses? And I was like, “I know a little bit about the optical industry because I would often travel to Asia to visit the factories where glasses were manufactured. And here, I’d be producing glasses for people living on less than $4 a day, and then 10 feet away on the same production lines, some of the biggest names in fashion, like Lanvin, and Marc Jacobs, and other things.”
So, we knew that the cost to manufacture wasn’t what was impacting these incredibly high prices in the US and elsewhere. So, we thought, what if we were to create a brand that we were excited about and sell glasses for a fraction of the price, $95 instead of 400 or $500. And that’s where Warby Parker came about. And we started working on it when we were in business school. And we launched in February 2010. And now we’re 11 years in, and it’s been a wild, wild ride.
Katelin: I can feel your passion for what you are doing. I can feel the mission of the company. I have so many questions involved with what you just shared with us. But before we dive further in, is there anything else that you think is important for our audience to hear about your identity? Is there anything else that makes you you?
Neil: I’m hopefully a loving son. My mom and dad had a big impact on me. I’m an only child. A loving husband. My wife, Rachel, is actually the original entrepreneur in our family.
We have two amazing children, a 10 year old boy and a six year old daughter. And actually, this is fun, I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but I guess I’m also a venture capitalist. It feels weird to say that because I always view myself as an operator and a founder. But alongside with two of my Warby co-founders, Dave, who’s my co-CEO at Warby, and Jeff, who runs Harry’s, along with our other close friend, Joey Zwillinger, who started Allbirds, we’ve created a venture fund called Good Friends, and tries to apply some of the same principles that we’ve approached our business with to investing in early stage businesses.
Katelin: I love this. I was not aware of that last tidbit, that fun fact, and it resonates deeply with me personally because that’s exactly what I did, partnering up with Alexis Ohanian and starting our new venture capital firm. And it’s funny, I feel like that suit also feels strange when I put it on, but what I appreciate about what you’re saying is exactly that, the opportunity to grow and expand impact by saying, “Hey, I have my organization, and I have my team that I care for and that I care about, and I can infuse with my values and our shared values.” But the opportunity to move a little bit upstream and double down on others who are also living their values and sharing their values in that way is actually really powerful. But it certainly is not the traditional venture capitalist approach.
Neil: Definitely, I think you and I are cut from the same cloth, where it’s all about impact, and how do you scale impact? You need to find leverage.
Katelin: Absolutely. So, you said that you founded Warby Parker back in 2010. How many people big are you today? Full time employees, how large are you?
Neil: So, we’re almost 3,000 people. We have more than 140 stores across the US and Canada. We have two headquarters, in New York and in Nashville. And we have an optical lab, which is a manufacturing facility about an hour outside of New York City, where we cut lenses and insert them into frames.
Katelin: That’s an incredible amount of people to look after and to lead. You are absolutely known out in the industry as being a people first leader, someone who cares deeply about how you are building the company, in addition to what you are building and what you’re putting out into the world. And I know that you have been very, very intentional about the culture that you and your co-founders wanted to create. But how did you know that this was something that was really important to you or something that you wanted to prioritize as a leadership team?
Neil: Part of it was very selfish. Hadn’t we looked at ourselves and said, “What would be the type of company that we’d be excited to come to work every day?” Because we knew that starting a business was really hard, and that work in general can, while it’s often rewarding, it’s just hard. And what’s going to get us up in the morning and not want to roll over and hit the snooze button? So, it started with what place do we want to create that we’ll be excited about? I think the second is, how do you actually use your time to have impact? And what type of organizations have impact? It’s usually the ones that are sustaining, so they’re durable, they’re long lasting. And what enables that? It’s typically culture, right? Because you can have a strategy, but that strategy always evolves.
And culture, of course, does evolve, but culture is what enables good strategy. It’s what enables good performance, it’s what enables longevity.
And what is culture? Culture is shared beliefs and shared rituals. And so, how do we build from day one what will be a strong culture that hopefully, people that subscribe to our values will self-select and want to come to Warby Parker. And hopefully, it’s also values that resonate with customers, so that way, enables us to create an authentic brand. In this day and age, in the age of the internet, you can’t hide. People know everything about everything. And sometimes these companies paint these highly polished brands and put it out there, but there’s a disconnect between how they’re operating internally, and with that outwardly facing images. And it doesn’t resonate with customers today because it’s viewed as inauthentic. Or even worse, it can be looked at as hypocritical because they’re saying one thing externally and operating another way internally.
Katelin: If those two things are not aligned, it will be viewed as an integrity breach. And there is nothing more harmful to your culture or to your business than having that integrity breach. And that’s not to say that we need to be perfect, right? That’s not to say that we won’t misstep. But it is about acknowledging when things are maybe off or not aligned or in alignment, and getting them back on track. Is there a way that Warby Parker, you internally, when things maybe do go a little bit off track, or something isn’t really resonating for you, is there a way that you kind of click that back into place or make that acknowledgement internally?
Neil: Yeah, I think one of the first things is, how do you avoid making catastrophic mistakes? And how do you identify where you might start going down a path that doesn’t make sense? One of my professors at Wharton who I’m very close with, his name, Adam Grant, and he talks a lot about this. But it’s how do you derisk almost everything that you do? But there’s this perception of founders that we stand at the precipice of a cliff and we just jump without a parachute or without a rope. And we’re these crazy risk takers, and we build amazing businesses because of that risk. And the data seems to show it’s actually the opposite. We tend to shy away from risk and find ways to derisk stuff. So, I know when I’m at the top of the mountain and I’m looking down the cliff, I turn around and see, is there another way to get down? There’s got to be a couple of steps here or something, something that’s maybe a little less steep.
So, whether it’s rolling out a new strategy, how do you test, experiment, pilot before scaling? Or even thinking about communication across the company and key messages. How do we work on it, get some feedback, roll it out a bit wider? If we make a mistake, how do we ensure that we’re transparent? How do we communicate clearly around that? How do we make sure that there are multiple touch points within the company that team members can talk to, and that we’re all speaking with one Voice? So, how do we deliberate? To be honest, if I’m making an all hands address, and we’re talking about something that’s really complicated, I’ll often speak to our department leaders about that issue first, and even give them talking points, so that way, after I announce that company wide, they’re in a position to reinforce that message and answer any questions that the team may have.
Katelin: I love that. Cascading communication is something that is… It takes a little bit of thought and intentionality, and it takes a beat. Just do it. Take that beat. Engage your leadership team. That’s, hopefully, why you have those folks around to help you. And by equipping them with the context and the clarity, you can avoid a ton of mistakes later down the road. It’s a measured twice, cut once approach in communication. And I appreciate that.
Neil: I couldn’t agree more. I have a good friend who’s a former commander of SEAL Team TWO, his name is Mike Hayes and he often talks about when he’s faced with a decision, the first thing that he figures out is how much time do I have to make this decision? And you can imagine he learned that being in multiple crises, right, and there’s nothing more intense than the battlefield, but how quickly does a decision need to be made? And if you have a little bit more time, right, you can sort of think through that. And to your point, not every decision needs to be rushed. And taking again, it’s just like you don’t want to jump off the cliff, taking a step back and planning something out, in particular, the communications around it, always pays for itself.
Katelin: Absolutely. And 99.9% of the time, we’re not talking about, within the business world, a life or death scenario. And so, I think that that really puts it into perspective. When you think about, “Hey, I can breathe. I can take a beat. I can take a pause here,” so that we can do it well. Maybe not perfectly, but we can do it better than haphazard.
Katelin: Let’s talk about something else that I know that you all approach a little bit more unconventionally when it comes to your leadership team structure. I know that you and Dave are modeling this co-CEO relationship. Can you talk to me a little bit about that and what that looks like?
Neil: Sure. So, I’m really fortunate that I get to work with one of my closest friends, and that I have somebody that can I bounce ideas off of that, that I can share responsibility with and divide and conquer as needed. And often, people wonder, well, isn’t that confusing? You have two leaders here. And there’s not a ton of research on co-leadership. But as long as we’re in lockstep, which we often are, I think at this point, we can finish each other’s sentences, right, we can serve in for one another. We can provide feedback to one another when we’re working on a strategy. I know that I can get to a much better outcome if I involve Dave and bounce ideas off of him than just on my own. And what we’ve done to simplify reporting, for example, is of our departments, we have each department roll up into one of us. And so what does that mean? Either he or I are responsible for those business metrics that those departments are accountable for, and that we’re doing weekly one-on-ones with that department leader. But then the other one, Dave will come in once a month and sit in on my weekly check in and vice versa. I’ll sit in with his one-on-one weekly check in with a department head.
Katelin: Nice. I hadn’t considered that approach or strategy. But to your point, there are not a ton of case studies out there saying, “Hey, this is what effective co-leadership looks like.” But that makes a lot of sense. I appreciate that.
Katelin: And so, for our audience, just out of curiosity, where does people and culture roll up?
Neil: So, it’s funny that you asked that. That’s the one department that rolls up into both of us. So, we have a standing weekly meeting with our head of people. And Dave and I are both in that. And that’s because people and culture is just so critical.
Katelin: I love that. Well, obviously, you’re preaching to the choir here…Talk to me about the head of people. So, the head of people role, do you remember or recall at what point you said, “Hey, this is something that we need, and this is an important thing that we should go out and hire for?”
Neil: There’s different, different phases of the business. And one of the ways that we describe it is usually by headcount. So, when we were zero to 25 people, we were pretty much all in one room. Informal communication ruled the day. And you didn’t really need all hands or full email announcements because everybody knew what everybody was working on because we were all right… You just turned around and talk to someone, or you just overhear it. From 25, I would say, to 125 was when we started to introduce some hierarchy and levels and a little more structured communication. Then from 125 to, let’s say, 500, that’s a real critical time in a business. And you do need to institute a little bit of bureaucracy. I know people hate that word, but bureaucracy does serve a function. And if done well, it really unleashes growth. We needed systems and processes and more formal communication.
And then I would say 500 to a couple thousand, you just keep building on that. Our current people and HR executive, Chelsea Kaden, is super dynamic. It’s a really hard role. And I know I’m speaking to the choir here, but there’s so many distinct skill sets that are needed. I think people think of people leaders as, number one, they’re just empathetic and great at employee relations. And that is a super big part of it, no doubt, but they also have to be super analytical. And that goes to managing performance, that goes to compensation. And compensation is super complex and only getting more complex by the day. And the other pieces like learning and development, diversity, equity and inclusion, those are only successful if you’re managing performance and using data. So, I know this sounds so obvious, but I’ve just come across a lot of misconceptions of what makes a great people executive.
Katelin: What I love so much about hearing the founder perspective on people teams is it’s not just people leaders saying, “I’m tired and I’m exhausted and I need more resources.” Or, “should I be considering a new career? Oh, I would love to just sit and maybe process payroll or administer benefits.” Because it is hard. It was challenging before, and we were moving more towards, hey, we aren’t your compliance partner, we’re your strategic partner. But this last year has just absolutely busted the door down. What I love about it from a silver lining perspective is that it is finally demonstrating that this needs to be a shared, and not just between the founder or the CEO and the head of people, but throughout the entire leadership organization. And therefore, throughout the entire organization.
This is a shared responsibility, when we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, that has to be owned and felt and accountability throughout the entire organization. Not just one human, not just one person who wears the title or the role for it to be effective, right? So, I love hearing you talk about that shared partnership. And I’m curious, over the course of the last decade plus of you all running Warby Parker, is there anything that you’ve come across or patterns that you’ve noticed to say this is what we’re really looking for when we are hiring another executive or a leader for our company? What are some of those people first traits or characteristics that you look for when you’re bringing on new folks to help lead in your organization?
Neil: I think one trait, and we look for this across the organization, but is around proactivity. And I think that’s also what separates a startup mentality versus a legacy business.
So, what is being proactive? It’s not only identifying problems, it’s not only reporting problems one identifies, right? It’s coming up with a solution.
And we talk a lot at Warby about taking the first step. Identify what can be better, and then start to implement how to make it better. And it’s just something that we’re not taught in school, and we don’t always value as we should.
Katelin: Now, let’s talk a little bit more about the impact of COVID on your culture. I know that this last year and change has been pretty impactful on many organizations and how they do work, in that we were forced to dynamically change how we operate, how we communicate more specifically together. And I know that that Warby Parker is extremely focused on honest and open communication, which sometimes is not the easiest to do through email and Zoom. But how have you all really dealt with that? Has that changed anything, or do you feel like it was business as usual?
Neil: COVID was certainly the most challenging period, and continues to be, I think, in all of our lives. And I remember vividly towards the end of 2019, us looking at… We weren’t calling it COVID-19 yet. We were calling it this novel Coronavirus. And we were viewing it as a supply chain risk because we produce some of our glasses in Asia and in Europe. And it quickly morphed into a people risk and a consumer risk. And we had to jump into action. I remember in March, we were on a call with a bunch of other CEOs. And we were sort of describing, “Hey, there is a tsunami, and we can’t see it. We don’t know how high it is, but it is about to crash on us, and we need to take swift action.” And I remember vividly, on Friday the 13th in March, we made a decision to close all of our stores. And we weren’t the first national retailers to do it, but it was 100% the right move to protect our teams and our customers.
We had the office start to work remotely. And we were preparing for it by equipping people with laptops and making sure that they were checking the network, and access to Docs, and the ability to collaborate remotely. We had always had the ability to do it, but on a small scale, not necessarily company wide. And then our manufacturing facility, we closed and then made changes to reopen safely. So, we looked at our production line and ensured that there was six feet distancing between different stations. We created a symptom checker, and were checking temperatures upon entry. We instituted a testing regimen. those were all steps that we could do to ensure people were safe within the four walls of a Warby Parker facility.
And I felt very comfortable in that because we had engaged with infectious disease experts and medical doctors and public health experts, who continue to consult for us to this day. But I was very concerned about the risk that our team faced outside of Warby Parker. That’s where they were most likely to get sick, was at home. So, we started doing fireside chats with the public health experts that we engaged with, and filling out FAQs and circulating those to try and educate our team as best we could to the best of the knowledge of experts.
Katelin: What an incredible benefit. And I mean that not in the term benefits like we offer benefits, but what an incredible benefit to offer to your team. I’m sure they greatly appreciated that. That’s so cool.
Neil: Yeah. And then we start to reassess also how we communicate with our team. We would typically do, for corporate team members, a weekly all hands. It was a half an hour meeting. It’s funny, it used to be an hour long when we were 100 people, and it used to be interactive. But as you scale, the way in which you communicate needs to evolve. And once we were all remote, and we were sort of in the midst of this crisis, and the situation was evolving daily, as it continues today, we shifted our all hands to two five minute video addresses from Dave and me. This is actually the advantage of having co-CEOs. Dave would do one, I would do the other. And it was just, we realized we need to increase the frequency of communication, and also make it very digestible, given that we were no longer going to be in person.
Katelin: Yeah. That’s a fantastic takeaway. We’re going to move now to the rapid fire section of our conversation here today. So, the premise is exactly what it sounds like. I’m going to ask you a series of quick questions. I want you to not think too hard about them. And we’ll just jam. Question number one. What is your favorite Warby Parker frame?
Neil: That’s like saying, “What’s your favorite child?” But I would say one of my favorites right now are the Harris frame, and they’re sunglasses. And they’re actually named after my great grandfather, whose name was Harris. And they fit everybody. It’s really a great shape.
Katelin: Ooh, that’s a good one. I like that one too. Okay, looking in front of you, what items sitting on your desk right now sparks joy and why?
Neil: My air pods, because I’m able to stand up from my desk and get a little bit exercise.
Katelin: I think that’s very fair. And I feel that deeply. What is your favorite productivity hack of the day? We all are finding new ways to be productive in this world. What is your current favorite productivity hack?
Neil: So, it’s actually trying to get a good night’s sleep. So, I leave my cell phone in the bathroom, and I sleep more soundly. And then I get up. I obviously quickly check it. But it’s helped me actually stay in bed and sleep longer and sounder. And that makes me more decisive during the day and more productive.
Katelin: I love that, that you’re going straight to the root cause there. I appreciate that. Okay, now, I’m going to ask you a few more. You don’t have to be as quick with these, but I think I appreciate the quick responses here on these as well. But when you’re thinking about company culture, family or sports team, and why?
Neil: I think more of a sports team, because you have to manage performance. And people aren’t always on the same team for their entire lives. This might be a little cold, but you don’t choose your family, and you’re with them for your whole life. But we’re always on these journeys, both professionally and personally. But also companies are on journeys. And people are going to get on the train at different stations and get off at different stations. And that’s completely okay and expected. But when you’re on that train, we’re going to be managing performance, we’re going to work as a team, we’re going to, at times, lose a game or two, but we’re gonna strive to make the playoffs and win the championship.
Katelin: I love that. I love that. Okay, I know that you all talk a lot about vulnerability and authenticity within your organization. What is one tactical thing that leaders or HR teams can do today to increase vulnerability in the workplace?
Neil: I think it’s just model the behavior, right? So, how can leaders make themselves vulnerable? And, say, when they make a mistake or when they need to change courses, and explain why, but do it in a way that expresses some vulnerability and demonstrates that it is okay to do that.
Katelin: Awesome. I love that. Now, this one, I’m going to ask you for a little bit of vulnerability for a moment. But when was the last time you were deeply proud of something you had accomplished?
Neil: It actually was this morning. I was sharing our impact report. We’re one of the few private companies that publishes a pretty robust impact report that covers the social change that we’re trying to foster, but also the environmental impacts, both positive and negative. And we’ve now provided over 8 million pairs of glasses to people around the world that otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. And that brings me a lot of satisfaction to see the work that the team at Warby Parker is able to do, and then also to be able to communicate it clearly.
Katelin: And I’m sure your team appreciates it very much, too. That’s why they subscribe. That’s why they joined ranks with you all. So, well done and congratulations.
Katelin: Alright, Neil, one last and final question before we wrap things up here. This one, of course, does not have to be rapid fire. But as we’re reflecting on this moment in history, what advice would you give to founders and people leaders out there trying to kind of make sense of this, and how can they use this is as an opportunity to build a better organization in this next chapter?
Neil: So, like anything, if you’re going to be strategic, you have to think about the long term. And you have to think about what’s motivating certain actions, and what’s going to be the impact of the actions that you’re about to undertake. And it’s not just first order effects, but second and third orders. I think if there was anything that became clear in the last 18 months was really the complexity of the world that we live in. And we saw businesses really fumble. They fumbled managing a pandemic. Granted, it was the first pandemic that many businesses and human beings lived through. But they also fumbled the response to George Floyd’s murder. And it would have behooved businesses to take a step back and really look in the mirror first, and say, “Hey, what can we be doing internally that can be improved?” This goes back to our discussion about being authentic. And then once you have your own house in the water, then you start to look around the neighborhood and see how you can help and effect change externally. So, I hope that a lot of business leaders take that away from the past 18 months.
But these were hard times for everybody. And I just think about the different phases of it, public health crisis. And a leader’s number one job is to protect the health and safety of their team. And most business leaders in America, that’s often taken as a given, so you don’t have to dedicate a ton of mindspace to that. But that changed with COVID-19.
And businesses are part of society, and need to be responding to what’s going on in society. In fact, we play a unique role in being able to effect positive change. So, I think what is great is, at least in the last decade, and certainly in the last 18 months, the excuse that some businesses would use to say, “Hey, we’re a business, we don’t get involved in this sort of thing,” is no longer accepted.
Katelin: That is exactly the note that I will like to wrap this up on, because that advice is so sound. This is not a moment to sit idle and bury your head in your metrics and your charts and graphs. This is a moment and an opportunity to really be an impactful leader, be an impactful organization, and not just for show. Neil, I am so grateful for the time that you’ve shared with us here today. Your story is as profound as I knew it would be. Thank you so much. And please, please keep leading authentically. This world needs more of that. So, thank you.
Neil: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Thanks so much for joining me on this week’s episode of All Hands, brought to you by Lattice. I’m your host, Katelin Holloway.
All Hands is produced by Lattice in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christine Swor, Annette Cardwell, Rachael King, Samantha Gattsek, Madison Lusby(Luz-bee), & Erica Huang(hwong) Learn more about how Lattice can help your business stay people focused at Lattice DOT com or find us on Twitter @LatticeHQ.
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