Everyone’s got their eyes on what Warby Parker will do next. While massive growth and success are nice-to-have problems, their next phase of growth will be critical.
By Lydia Dishman (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
It’s what every startup aspires to achieve: having a business model so disruptive, so singular, it becomes an explainer for all the others that follow in its path.
Warby Parker is one such company. Singlehandedly disrupting the way people shop for eyewear -- online and off price -- the New York City-based startup also built in a social mission right from its launch. Before he attended business school, co-founder Neil Blumenthal had worked at social enterprise eyeglasses retailer Vision Spring. When Warby Parker launched, he and the entire founding team were committed to two goals: Distributing eyeglasses to those in need, and disrupting the industry with their new business model.
Four years later, Anjali Kumar spends a lot of time thinking about how to get Warby Parker to the next level. Though she’s an attorney, Kumar spent five years working at the Robin Hood Foundation and Acumen Fund before heading to Warby Parker to be head of social innovation and general counsel.
“Those experiences helped me develop and advance my approach to social innovation initiatives and strategies at Warby Parker,” she tells Women 2.0.
Right now, Kumar is focusing on how best to tackle the challenges of partnering with nonprofits to provide eyeglasses and optometric care to an estimated billion people worldwide in need of better vision.
It’s an ongoing process that she recently said is something she doesn’t have an answer for -- yet.
“We are conscious of the fact that our growth, which has been tremendous and really exciting over the past couple of years, is something that might outpace our nonprofit partners’ ability to scale with us,” she said in an interview with Yale School of Management.
Though growth and success falls into the column of “nice problems to have,” plenty of people are watching the company closely as it moves through this next phase of growth. Aspiring social entrepreneurs who’d like to become the next “Warby Parker of XYZ” need to keep one thing in mind, says Kumar.
“Social initiatives are living, breathing things -- not policies that are put in place and left to grow dust,” Kumar says.
As Warby Parker grows at an incredible pace, she says it becomes even more important to scale its social initiatives responsibly and thoughtfully.
“We don’t want to put pressure on our partners to grow at a pace that doesn't work for their infrastructure,” she explains. “We don’t want to start distributing eyeglasses in a way that doesn't create long-term change.”
Kumar admits the scope of the problem Warby Parker hopes to address — providing affordable eyeglasses to people in need in a sustainable way — “is massive.”
To start, Kumar says, “We take great care in identifying partners who approach this challenge intelligently and sustainably.”
Follow Your Heart, But Take Advice from the Experts
For those contemplating how to start and grow a social initiative responsibly, Kumar recommends an idea that’s authentic to your brand and ideally part of your business model from the start.
Beyond the desire to bake in a social component, Kumar reminds us that every business is different.
“While your heart might be in the right place,” she says, “It is critically important that you talk with experts in the field you are working with.”
Kumar points out that even Warby Parker was preceded by companies such as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, each of which shifted corporate focus beyond just profits to care for people and the planet.
“There are lots of very smart people who have tried to solve a lot of these problems before you. Learn from them and partner with the best,” she advises.
Speaking of learning and partnering, we couldn’t help but wonder if Kumar had any legal advice for founders who are crossing Ts and dotting Is as a brand-new startup. Indeed, one of the last things entrepreneurs think about are the legal affairs of their new businesses. In keeping with her advice to team up with experts, Kumar encourages startup entrepreneurs to, “Make a friend who is a great lawyer! (I'm only kind of kidding.)”
Kumar understands how it could be tempting to not engage legal counsel because when you’re in the early stages of building a startup, every dollar counts. You’re probably hesitant to spend those precious resources -- but she says that’s a mistake. Kumar suggests spending a bit of money at the start on things like having partnership agreements drawn up between co-founders, which can save you a lot of headaches down the line.
Doing Well, Doing Good, Staying Smart
When basing a business on a truly unique product or service, does it make sense to seek a patent or trademark?
“The short and non-helpful answer: It depends,” she contends. “The slightly-more-helpful answer: Protecting your ideas is important, but not to the point where you are stifling your ability to launch and innovate on your ideas. Keep it nimble.”
Though there are no legal requirements for properly incorporating a “do good” element in a new business, Kumar says it’s important to remember that building solid partnerships with nonprofits takes time and due diligence.
“Meet them. Get to know them and their approach. Really understand what they are about and ensure that their philosophy and approach lines up with your core values,” she says. “And once you partner with them, let them do what they do best while you continue to focus on what you do best.”
It would be great if every new venture had an Anjali Kumar overseeing its legal issues, as well as taking care of social innovation. Since most don’t, it’s important to be mindful of the potential pitfalls that can arise even with the best intentions.
What do you do to ensure your company is growing responsibly?
About the author: Lydia Dishman (@LydiaBreakfast) is a veteran business journalist writing about the intersection of technology, leadership, commerce, and innovation. Her work appears in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Popular Science and the New York Times, among others.