David Gilboa’s first stab at entrepreneurship ended in a cease-and-desist letter from Warner Brothers. He was 12 at the time and bootlegging CDs out of his parents’ house. “Ever since then, I imagined myself ending up doing something entrepreneurial,” the 32-year-old says. So, nearly a decade later, when he left his $700 Prada glasses in a seat-back pocket on a plane in Thailand, he didn’t race out to purchase another pair, but used his pain point as the beginning of a business plan.
Gilboa, still glasses-less, showed up at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School “blind as a bat.” He was commiserating about the high price of specs with fellow Wharton MBAs Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider in a computer lab, when an idea began to form. What if they could bypass the glasses industry monoliths, create their own frames, and sell them online? Blumenthal, who formerly directed a nonprofit that doles out low-cost eyewear in developing countries, knew firsthand that quality glasses could be produced for a fraction of the standard cost. But instead of simply shelling out affordable eyewear, what if they built a lifestyle brand around boutique-worthy frames?
The four nurtured their startup idea at Wharton and reached out to faculty for advice. David Bell, a marketing professor, signed on as one of their earliest investors and still helps out with customer analysis. They also tapped into their target market–“relentlessly” surveying their classmates on everything from 2,000 potential company names to how much to charge per pair. In the end, they settled on Warby Parker, a hybrid of Jack Kerouac characters, for the name and $95 for the price. “Business school is the best time to start a business,” Gilboa says. “You have plenty of time, plenty of flexibility. You don’t have to make the tough choice to leave a job and paycheck, and you are surrounded by business experts.”
For the Warby Parker crew, the gamble paid off. Retail heavyweights such as Millard Drexler, the chief executive of J. Crew, and American Express signed on as investors. In fact, more than a dozen investors have already poured some $55 million into the chic purveyor of prescription eyewear.
Gilboa’s advice to fellow MBAs with entrepreneurial ambitions? “If you have an idea that you’re passionate about, there’s no reason not to test it out while you’re still in school,” he says. “All the traditional options will still be there if the business fails, and most employers will respect the fact that you tried to start something.”