Jeff Raider on Founding Warby Parker and Harry’s
First, eyeglasses. Now, shaving. Mr. Raider, a co-founder of two powerful direct-to-consumer brands, says change happens faster than we think.
Credit Jeff Raider, the co-founder of Warby Parker, and Harry’s.
Mike Cohen for The New York Times
Credit David Gelles
By David Gelles
Nov. 2, 2018
It’s hard enough to start one billion-dollar company. Jeff Raider has co-founded two.
While at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, he helped launch Warby Parker, the direct-to-consumer eyeglasses company with a social mission. Warby Parker is now worth some $1.75 billion, and has given away four million pairs of glasses to date.
After graduating from Wharton, Mr. Raider opted not to stay with Warby Parker. Instead, he went to work at a private equity firm, Charles
bank. But after a short stint on Wall Street, Mr. Raider got the entrepreneurial bug again.
In 2013, he co-founded Harry’s, a direct-to-consumer men’s shaving business, with Andy Katz-Mayfield. This time, he had the advantage of
experience: He raised ample capital, staffed up and bought a factory early on. Recently, Harry’s expanded with a line of women’s products.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York City.
What did your parents do for a living?
My mom was an entrepreneur. She started a company when I was 11, and they were one of the pioneers in the loyalty-card space. I saw how hard it was and how much she worked. I saw how high the highs could be when they’d get a new account, and how difficult the lows could be. And I thought, “I don’t want to do that when I get older.” It’s ironic that I’ve come full circle and ended up starting companies.
What was your first job?
I worked in buildings and grounds in high school, with people who were living paycheck to paycheck. We got paid on Fridays, and on Thursday we’d go out to lunch together, and sometimes I would have to loan my co-workers, who were 40 years old, enough money to buy a slice of pizza. They clearly hadn’t had the opportunities that I was having. It gave me a ton of respect for both hard work, and also was really motivating to me to try to go build additional skills so that I could have more career opportunities beyond just buildings and grounds.
And what was your first real experience with business?
The first job I got out of college was at Bain & Company, which has this philosophy that everyone was going to have impact on the projects. I was 22 years old, I didn’t know anything about business, and immediately they started giving me a lot of responsibility, which was really motivating. I was sort of out over my skis for a long, long time, but I loved that feeling. Where I think I’ve been most excited professionally is where I felt really highly challenged, and where the work has felt like it’s had outsized impact.
You went to Wharton, but it wasn’t the usual B-school experience.
People ask me what I learned at business school and I’m like, “I learned Warby Parker.” We had the idea early on at school, and there’s this incredible community of people at Wharton who understood how to launch a business. We went to our professors and said, “Hey, we don’t want to talk about the Coke versus Pepsi case that you just taught in class. We need to have you help us understand how to price eyeglasses.”
“Disruption happens at a geometric pace as opposed to a linear pace.” — Jeff Raider
How did the company get started?
When I first heard about the idea for Warby Parker, I was sitting around after class with one of my good friends, and another one of our friends came up and said, “What do you think about the idea of selling glasses online?” At the time, I had on a $500 pair of designer glasses that were being held together by a piece of duct tape. I was, like, “Oh man, there’s this huge pain point here. I would love a new pair of glasses.”
I went home that night and I couldn’t sleep. I emailed my friends at 1 a.m. and I was, like, “I can’t stop thinking about this. This is a good idea. We should do this.” And then they emailed right back and said, “Yeah, I can’t sleep either.”
Was the school supportive?
Yeah. They had a venture award in which they essentially just granted money to people starting businesses, which we got. They had this program called the Venture Initiation Program, where we had space where we could kind of congregate and work, which became the early Warby Parker addresses. And we’d take a marketing class with an amazing professor, and we’d say, “We’re going to make our class project about Warby Parker.”
Were you convinced it would be successful?
No. We did the Wharton business plan competition and we lost. And at that point, I was like, “Oh, man, is this going to work?” I went to my co-founders and was like, “Guys, I don’t know. I’m not sure this is a good idea.” And Neil, one of my co-founders, said, “I believe in this idea. I believe in us. We are going to make this happen and we are going to prove to these naysayers that they were wrong.” There’s going to be ups and downs in the journey, and the ability of your co-founders to pick you up when you’re a little bit down is super important.
What had changed from your childhood that you now wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I’ve thought a bunch about this over time. The thing that I misunderstood about my mom’s experience as an entrepreneur, because I was young and not really talking to her in a grown-up way about it, is that, while there were ups and downs, she loved it.
After school you left Warby Parker and went to private equity. How did Harry’s start?
I went back to Charlesbank, but it started to feel a little bit more like work, rather than fun. It was at that moment I realized that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial again. I had to take a step back. What do I want to do with my life, at least professionally? Right around that time, Andy called me with the idea for Harry’s, and it felt like the first conversations we had at Warby Parker. I remember being like, “This is what I’ve got to go do. Here we go again.”
What was different between starting Warby Parker and Harry’s?
When we launched Warby Parker, we were still graduating from business school. It was just four of us, and we were working part time. When we turned the site on, we thought we’d get 20 or 30 orders, but we were getting hundreds and thousands of orders. We’d get as many glasses in as we could, sell them all, go out of stock, take the money and buy a bunch more, sell them, and go out of stock again. We didn’t presume a lot of success, and had to play catch-up. It was frenetic.
At Harry’s we presumed more success. We raised a bunch of capital ahead of our launch. We built a team of 11 people before we launched. We made our own custom razor handles, custom blades with a factory in Germany, made our own shave cream. We had forecast more sales at Harry’s than we did at Warby Parker, and we still sold out. But we were better prepared to absorb the shock.
Warby Parker is known for its social mission. How did you approach that at Harry’s?
We think that there is a really important role that we as a brand can play in having a voice around what it means to be a man in the world today. The traditional masculine norms are O.K., but guys need to be able to define masculinity on their own terms. Men can be both confident and vulnerable, they can be both strong and empathetic. So we partnered with organizations that are helping to sort of expand the narrative around masculinity, and we donate 1 percent of our sales to those organizations.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
You’ve got to be all in, and you’ve got to love it. Those two things are two sides of the same coin. And then, be humble enough to learn along the way. When we started Warby Parker, we asked all of our friends, “What do you think, would you buy glasses online?” They were like, “No, I don’t think I would. I’ve got to kind of touch them and feel them and experience them in person before I buy.”
At that point, we could have just said, “That feedback doesn’t make sense.” But instead we said, “That’s a really important thing that we just learned. How can we evolve our business model to account for that?” And so we ended up with this home try-on program where we let people try on glasses at home for free and then send them back to us.
What keeps you up at night?
I think that the world’s going to change a lot faster than most people do, that disruption happens at a geometric pace as opposed to a linear pace, and that pace is only going to increase. If you think about our industry, a couple years ago it was 0 percent online. Now our market is 10 to 20 percent online and growing really fast. People incrementalize change when actually, change happens exponentially.
David Gelles is the Corner Office columnist and a business reporter. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. @dgelles
A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 4, 2018, Section BU, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: The Billion-Dollar-Company Touch. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe