Quartz continues its series profiling companies around the world experiencing explosive growth.
“What was the last costume you wore?”
If you’re interviewing at Warby Parker, that’s the kind of question you should be ready to answer.
The maker of $95 eyeglasses vows to “inject fun and quirkiness into work, life and everything we do,” according to a list of its core values. Those values loom large, from the walls of its New York City headquarters to the interview process to quarterly reviews.
As the three-year-old company charts the course from scrappy startup to the bigger leagues, as it grows to a 300-employee operation backed by $56.5 million in financing, the founders hope that a strong culture and plenty of transparency will keep employees on the same page and anchored to the nimble approach that’s been part of its success.
Warby Parker was founded to disrupt an industry where glasses easily retail for hundreds of dollars per pair. Selling glasses online brought down costs—but there was more to it. Customers could order five pairs of specs—named after literary heroes like Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin—to try on at home, with no obligation to buy. Within 48 hours of launching three years ago, all pairs—the company won’t say how many—sold out.
Back in the early days, the four founders (all Wharton classmates) ran the company and processed orders out of co-Founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal’s Philadelphia apartment. Their first hire was Mara Castro, who they’d enlisted in December 2009 to help fill demand for their specs. The early team codified the principles that guide it today, which fellow co-Founder and co-CEO David Gilboa sees as key to perpetuating the Warby Parker way. “If people embody the kind of characteristics we’re looking for, I think the culture can scale,” says Gilboa.
And scale it must. It’s opened four stores and 10 showrooms across the US and offers more than 120 types of glasses, as well as a monocle. Its growth was also recently cemented by adding J.Crew CEO and retail guru Mickey Drexler to its board.
Setting the tone for the workplace starts with the interview. “It’s fairly easy to make up how you would do something, but honing in on past examples tends to be a better predictor of future behavior,” Gilboa tells Quartz in an email. To combat the deficiencies of first impressions, Warby Parker uses “behavioral interviewing” techniques.
The interviewer drills the candidate on a past situation. According to Gilboa, “if candidates respond with high-level answers, we keep asking questions until we understand exactly what their role was” as well as the reasons behind their decisions. Then, candidates switch from theory to practice, and candidates are tested on tasks they’d be expected to do day to day: copywriters write and software engineers code.
But cultural fit trumps technical skills, which is where the costume question comes in. “If we hire the most technically skilled person in the world whose work style doesn’t fit here, they won’t be successful,” he says. The approach has a serious rationale: “We find that people who are able to make the job environment fun build followership more easily,” Gilboa says.
Beyond shared values, the company takes deliberate measures to bring new hires into the fold, “to get new hires excited about the brand and give them the tools they need to hit the ground running,” Gilboa says. And while training courses and company histories are standard practice at major businesses, Warby Parker gives the process its own spin.
Newbies get a call from their supervisors the night before. Then there’s a welcome pack that contains key elements of Warby Parker’s founding story: a Jack Kerouac novel to commemorate the company’s literary heritage (and the writer’s journal provided inspiration for the company’s name) and a voucher to a Thai restaurant, which was the late-night cuisine of choice at Blumenthal’s apartment and the early makeshift headquarters in Philadelphia.
New hires also take an intensive training program during their first week there. Gilboa and Blumenthal personally conduct a session about the company’s broader ambitions and how the new recruit supports the mission.
Gilboa’s favorite movie is the The Big Lebowski, while Blumenthal is more of a Goonies kind of guy. That’s the sort of thing employees might find out at the company’s weekly “Ask Anything” slot in the company-wide Wednesday meeting. Employees submit anonymous questions, ranging from the whimsical to the serious.
The point is that as the company grows from four founders working out of an apartment to 300 employees, communication has to be more deliberate too. “When a company is small and pretty much everyone knows what’s going on, it can be very casual,” says Stanford management professor H. Irving Grousbeck. He adds that startups in transition need to develop two lines of communication: one that’s formal, usually taking the form of top-line messages, and one that’s informal, free flowing and conversational.
To combat risk of losing communication as Warby Parker grows, managers built various mechanisms on- and off-line to keep information flowing. There’s the Warby Parker Wiki that employees can access and update with notes from meetings, key lessons from the past or present, or team updates. Then there are the weekly meetings where confidential information is divulged—like the appointment of Drexler to the board or the result of Warby Parker’s latest fundraising round— well before the public finds out. “We believe that in order to build trust, you have to give it away,” explains Gilboa “and stress when information is confidential but trust the team to keep it under wraps.”
Time will tell if Warby Parker’s culture and principles can keep up with its growth. But for now, they’re the company’s way of moving forward while bringing the next generation of employees into the fold. “It doesn’t have to be the exact same culture as it was when we were 20 people,” says Gilboa. “Culture naturally evolves.”