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How to Disrupt an Industry: A Look into Warby Parker

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Just like the guitar did for the word “distortion” and James Dean did for the word “rebellion,” the tech industry in the early days of Web 2.0 managed to pull a turnabout on a once-maligned term, making it not only cool, but a mode of being. “Disruption” debuted as a business term of art in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article, which itself built off the earlier work of McKinsey consultant Dick Foster in the 1980s. The term took off at a moment when a lot of genuine disruption (in the modern sense) had been going on. It pointed a brave way forward through the ruins of a world being driven by the Internet.

Now everyone wants to disrupt, and frankly, they should. If you can figure out a way to meet a market need in an innovative way — please, do it! Take, for example, fellow New York startup Pave. They responded to an inefficient market for student loans by creating a crowdfunding mechanism for obtaining them instead. This has the potential to be disruptive, and what it’s disrupting is a system that needs to be changed.

Your question, no doubt, is how you can go about doing it yourself. That’s where Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal comes in. He sat down with us to offer some insights on how to disrupt an industry, all of which can be found in Grovo’s learning track, decidedly non-disruptively titled “Disrupting an Industry.”

5 Tips to Disrupting an Industry

 

  1. Make cool friends. Or, at the very least, friends that represent the market you’re trying to reach. Blumenthal and his co-founders deliberated long and hard over what to call their new company, and found their inspiration in the names of two unpublished characters of their literary idol, Jack Kerouac. Instead of split-testing it or focus-grouping it, they sent out a questionnaire to their friends and got a positive response. By being able to leverage the softer aesthetic tastes of the people around them, they were able to get much richer market feedback than they would have gotten from a more scientific method.

  2. And after that, hire cool, talented people. Or, again, at least people who represent what the target demographic is, and therefore what your company should be trying to embody. “We spend a lot of time focusing on personality and fit,” reports Blumenthal of Warby’s hiring methods. “We’re looking for people that represent our values: that are friendly, fun, outgoing — people who personify Warby Parker.” In the absence of having your own brand identity defined, these peppy adjectives are a good place to start if you’re looking for people.

  3. Attack giants. Warby Parker began when the co-founders investigated the question about why their glasses cost so much, and dug in to find a massively cartelized industry. “There’s a few very large companies that control the market, one of which is a public company, Luxottica. They own eyewear-only brands… then own all of the retail chains upscale… and then the icing on the cake is that they own EyeMed, the second largest vision insurance plan in the country,” said Blumenthal. He recognized ample market space underneath this company, and sure enough, the company has done phenomenally well.

  4. Sustain growth by knowing when to pivot from “yes” to “no.” If you’ve landed on a truly disruptive idea, as Blumenthal did, you’ll find growth comes in different forms. It may be difficult at first and then get easy, or it may be easy at first and become difficult to sustain. In any event, keep focused by knowing when to go from “saying ‘yes’ to most things to saying ‘no,’” in Blumenthal’s words. The trick is to pick the right time to make that shift. We have a listicle that tells you exactly when, but it’s behind our paywall.

  5. Don’t get caught up in online versus offline. It’s much more important that you succeed at your founding mission than that you are a technology-driven company. Of course any disruptive idea in our present era is going to heavily built around technology, yet not every solution you find to problems will be digital. When faced with the problem of people’s reticence to buy glasses without trying them on, Warby’s executives first looked into the possibility of a “best-in-class facial recognition software,” which allowed customers to upload a picture and try on glasses virtually. In the end, they preferred a more expensive — and atavistic — option of mailing out five trial pairs and letting the customer try them on. They also extended into stores. These seem like technological regressions, but in reality, they solved the problem and made customers happy.

What is the purpose of technology if not that?

 

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