GENERATIONS

Entrepreneurial Spirits: What Drives Innovation Today?

01.23.2018

Every great company was once a start-up—an idea sparked in a college student’s dorm room, an inspiration that struck a commuter during the train ride home, or even an accident that revealed an opportunity. In fact, Fiduciary Trust was also a start-up 86 years ago, created by individuals who recognized the need for unbiased trust and investment advice for families and their foundations.

As part of our Generation Series, Fiduciary Trust recently invited two entrepreneurs to share the lessons they have learned about starting a business at an event hosted in New York City. Neil Blumenthal is co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a company that is revolutionizing the eyewear industry, and Rachel Blumenthal is the creator of two successful websites for style-savvy parents—Cricket’s Circle and Rockets of Awesome—along with her own line of costume jewelry. Neil and Rachel married in 2008, live in Greenwich Village and are the proud parents of two young children, Griffin and Gemma.

Below are some of the insights they shared with Fiduciary Trust. 

Getting Started: Where do Business Ideas Come from?
Q. Neil, what was the inspiration behind Warby Parker?

NEIL: I worked at a non-profit social enterprise for five years, teaching low-income women how to provide vision tests and sell affordable eyewear to people in developing countries. I quickly learned that there are more than a billion people on this planet who need eyeglasses but don’t have access to them or can’t afford them. Even in the US, among a relatively affluent population, the high cost of eyeglasses can be prohibitive.

For example, when I was a graduate student at Wharton, a classmate mentioned that he had lost his $700 pair of eyeglasses on an airplane and couldn’t afford to replace them for an entire semester. Another friend told me about a similar experience. So we started asking questions like: Why are eyeglasses so expensive? How can the cost be reduced? Why aren’t more eyewear companies selling glasses online?

Q. Rachel, how did you get your first company off the ground?

RACHEL: Well, with a little bit of luck and a lot of creative energy. I was working as a publicist at Yves Saint Laurent here in Manhattan in 2004 when a friend who happened to be a photographer for Lucky magazine asked if she could take a picture of the ring I was wearing. A few hours later I received a call from her editor asking where readers could purchase this particular ring.

Since the ring was my original creation and I was wearing the only one in existence, I had to do some quick thinking. I ran over to Amsterdam Avenue, convinced one reluctant shop owner to take the ring on consignment and sent the shop’s website address to the editor at Lucky magazine, which ended up featuring the ring in a full-page article. A few hours after that article was published, another publication asked for my web address.

So I quickly put together a website and my line of jewelry, Rachel Leigh Jewelry, was officially up and running. By sheer luck, my timing was also perfect. Costume jewelry was enjoying a resurgence in popularity at the time, my jewelry was on Oprah’s list of “favorite things” and we ultimately ended up distributing it through 500 stores across the globe. I licensed the brand to GlamHouse in 2011. 

Q. Where did the idea for Rockets of Awesome come from?

RACHEL: Rockets of Awesome really sprouted from my first website, Cricket’s Circle, which takes the guesswork out of buying baby products for new moms and dads. It is a subscription service that delivers a personalized selection of children’s clothing items four times a year. Our goal is to help parents dress their kids in style without spending all day shopping. It uses computer algorithms to match a buyer’s preferences with the latest fashions in clothing and baby products.

But we discovered early on that the value of our service is not only in the fashion expertise we provide and the convenience of the service but also the practicality of the products we select. Does it weigh 20 pounds, or you can you easily carry it up three flights of stairs with a baby in it? Does it fit in the trunk of your car? Our customers are style-savvy parents, but they also want products that are useful and match their lifestyles.

Building a Brand: Connecting with Customers
Q: How important is brand image and corporate culture?

NEIL: The eyewear industry is controlled by a handful of companies, each selling lenses and frames under a number of different brand names and price points. So when we started building a business plan for Warby Parker, we decided right away that affordability was important, but we didn’t want to be perceived as “low cost.”

And technology was important, but we didn’t want to be seen as an e-commerce company. Instead, our brand identity was built around fashion and design, which we thought would be the top consideration among our target audience, followed by our $95 price point, the quality of our products, customer service and our social mission—distributing a free pair of glasses to those in need for every pair sold.

We also allowed customers to try on frames at home. But we positioned Warby Parker primarily as a lifestyle brand. That early brand work was well worth the effort. Within three weeks of launching, we sold out of our top 15 frame styles and soon had 20,000 names on our waiting list.

RACHEL: I believe that a strong brand is the greatest asset a business can have. It represents your core values and mission—and determines how the customer relates to your products. For Rockets of Awesome, our mission is making make life with children a celebration. We take some of the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting off your shoulders and help clean up the clutter. Our name says it all. Kids have magical and unpredictable confidence—they are rockets of awesome.

This vision is also reflected in our corporate culture. If our goal is to make life easier for parents, we believe our corporate governance structure should also make life easier for our employees. One way we do that is by providing each new employee with a handbook that tells them where to find the best restaurants, doctors and gyms in the neighborhood. It is a simple gesture, but it is just one way we bring our corporate culture into alignment with our brand. We believe that brands live and breathe, and they need to evolve over time in order to stay fresh.

Lessons Learned: Delegate Responsibility, Take Small Steps
Q. What lessons have you learned about running a successful business?

RACHEL: I’ve learned how important it is not to micro-manage people and instead understand what they need from you and give them the tools they need to be successful. An environment that encourages open dialogue and transparency is critical. I’ve also learned a few lessons about fundraising the hard way. 

Many outside investors find it difficult to relate personally to a business that is built around the needs of children and busy moms. So you have to be deeply passionate about what you do and continue pressing ahead if you want to find an investor or business partner who truly understands your vision.

NEIL: One thing comes to mind: We like to move fast, but we’ve learned to take small steps so that when we do make a mistake it’s not catastrophic. We call that de-risking failure.

Q. What’s next for Warby Parker?

NEIL: We keep looking for new ways to solve problems. For many people who are shopping for eyewear, the first challenge is finding a frame that fits their face and the second challenge is finding an easy way to get a vision prescription.

One of the projects I’m most excited about is that we are using technology to address both of these issues, developing an iPhone app that tests your vision, transfers the data to an ophthalmologist and provides you with an eyeglass prescription. The iPhone X is equipped with an infrared camera that can map key facial measurements and help you find a frame that is perfect for your face.I've been waiting seven years for iPhone X to be released and I am excited that it’s finally here.

Preparing the Next Generation

One thing that is clear for the Blumenthals is passion and drive have propelled these companies forward in an exciting and innovative way. So whether your company is a start-up, 10 years in the making, or an 86-year old-company like Fiduciary Trust Company International, it’s a great reminder to bring that Opening Day excitement of purpose and passion to your clients and employees every day.

To learn more about our Generation Series and our programs for educating future generations, please speak to your Fiduciary Trust contact.



 

This communication is intended solely to provide general information. The information and opinions stated are as of January 23, 2018, unless otherwise noted, and may change without notice. The information and opinions do not represent a complete analysis of every material fact. Statements of fact have been obtained from sources deemed reliable, but no representation is made as to their completeness or accuracy. The opinions expressed are not intended as individual investment, tax or estate planning advice or as a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Please consult your personal advisor to determine whether this information may be appropriate for you. This information is provided solely for insight into our general management philosophy and process. Historical performance does not guarantee future results and results may differ over future time periods.

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