What I Learned at…Wharton: Part 1

In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business schools provided as they launched their careers.

mbaMission connected with Dave Gilboa, co-founder of online glasses retailer Warby Parker, who reflects on Wharton’s role in the firm’s success in changing the prescription eyewear industry. In Part 1 of this four-part series, Dave discusses how he and three of his Wharton classmates came up with the idea behind Warby Parker, and how one marketing professor and 200 classmates helped shape the foundation of the company.

Neil, Jeff, Andy and I were good buddies at The Wharton School when we first came up with the idea behind Warby Parker ( We all loved our eyeglasses but hated paying $500 or more a pair for them, and each of us had had frustrating experiences with how expensive glasses were. As for me, I had done some traveling before starting business school and had lost my $700 glasses somewhere along the way. I couldn’t justify paying that much to replace them, so I went my entire first semester without any glasses. The four of us decided to do something about the situation—we would start our own prescription eyewear provider with all the traits we wanted to see in such a business. We put together a business plan, bootstrapped the company and launched the new venture out of our apartments while we were still full-time Wharton MBA students.

Our hope was to do nothing short of transforming the optical industry. Our initial goals were to launch the first real fashion brand online, offer a $500 product for just $95 and provide customers with a better shopping experience than the bricks and mortar stores could. Yet we also wanted our organization to be intensely considerate of all our stakeholders—our customers, our employees, the environment and the roughly one billion people around the world who don’t have access to proper eye care. Our approach was fourfold: (1)  offer our customers beautifully designed, high-quality glasses at a revolutionary price point; (2) create an open organization that allows talented and ambitious employees to thrive and grow; (3) be 100% carbon neutral and (4) distribute a free pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair sold. We realized that our goals were ambitious but truly felt that we needed to achieve all of them to execute on our vision.

One of the biggest issues we faced before launch, however, was how we should communicate what we were doing to our customers. Would our customers be confused if we appeared to have too many messages? If so, should our primary message be about the design and style of the glasses? About their quality? Price? The convenience of ordering online?  The company’s greater social mission? We weren’t sure what would resonate the most with our future customers. Fortunately, being at Wharton, we were surrounded not only by some of the world’s leading marketing thinkers, but also by about 850 classmates who were in our target demographic. We had just been introduced to conjoint analysis (a statistically based market research technique that reveals how people value different features within an individual product or service) in Professor David Bell’s “Marketing Management: Program Design” class and surveyed more than 200 of our classmates.

The results were very clear: although all the messages inherent in our budding venture were positive, the one that seemed to elicit the best response was the combination of style and value in the products we would offer. Having hard data in front of us was incredibly helpful and allowed us to make a much more informed decision than just using our intuition alone. Since graduating, we have maintained a relationship with our Wharton marketing professor, and he continues to help us with customer analysis to this day.

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