Warby Parker built a 1,400-employee company by focusing on team culture

Growing a company from zero to over 1,400 employees is impressive on its own. Doing it in only eight years? That’s extraordinary. Founded in 2010, Warby Parker has scaled their eCommerce glasses and sunglasses brand from a startup with a “crazy” idea to sell glasses by mail into a global retail powerhouse.

Maintaining their meteoric growth means consistently bringing on new employees. Quickly growing a team is every bit as difficult as quickly growing your product and distribution, especially if you want to foster an engaged team with a culture of shared values.

As a mission-based brand (Warby Parker gives one pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair purchased), Warby Parker also needed a way to instill their team with a passion for the mission. That’s relatively easy when you’re a team of 10 or 20, but when scaling a team to over 1,000 people while maintaining the same set of socially conscious values, it becomes difficult.

To that end, cofounders Neil Blumenthal and David Gilboa developed a training and onboarding system that educates and also fosters strong interpersonal relationships. They put an emphasis on creating a culture that encourages direct, honest, and open conversations, which led to a company-wide focus on strong communication and employee engagement.

Involve the whole team in training and onboarding

At Warby Parker, the idea of team unity is at the core of every initiative. Whether or not you grow as quickly as Warby Parker, it’s important to make sure that every employee feels comfortable and valued, regardless of their tenure. This makes it easier to maintain employee engagement at scale and distributes the work required to sustain this growth throughout the company.

To keep everyone engaged and feeling valued, new-employee onboarding and training at Warby Parker is handled by members of the team at every level. Members of individual departments walk new employees through daily tasks, processes, and responsibilities, while executives speak to the mission and values of the company. This gives each new hire a way to meet people from all around the company and promotes the idea of closely knit teams.

Good team engagement leads to happier employees, which means better employee retention (and lower recruiting costs), more efficient teams, and higher revenue.

Employee engagement via Raconteur.

According to Raconteur, companies with higher than average employee engagement see a 50 percent boost in employee retention and a 17 percent boost in productivity.

Warby Parker employs various techniques to encourage peer-to-peer relationships between team members from day one. Balloons reading, “Nice to meet you!” are affixed to the desk of every new hire to let the rest of the team know they should reach out and say hi, for example. And because this is something they do for every new hire, current employees know to strike up a conversation and introduce themselves

Being the new person at work can be daunting. By shifting some of the burden of forging relationships with new colleagues to existing employees who, by virtue of being settled into their role already, are likely more comfortable, it makes it easier for new employees to get to know the team.

Each new member of the team is also introduced during their first weekly all-hands meeting and must share a fun fact about themselves. That sounds somewhat daunting, but it pulls new hires into a shared experience that every member of the team has participated in. By allowing, and even encouraging team members to be vulnerable with each other, Warby Parker helps develop a sense of trust between teammates early on.

“It’s through vulnerability that human beings create connections. The more vulnerable we can be with one another, the more that we’ll trust one another and the more we’ll be able to collaborate effectively.”

Cofounder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal to the New York Times

This calculated immersion is part of what makes it easy for Warby Parker to onboard and train their new employees so quickly. By forcing contact with members of the team at every level and creating a space where people feel comfortable being vulnerable—Warby Parker fosters a culture that supports the speed at which their company is expanding.

Use the company mission to strengthen emotional connections

Warby Parker is a one-for-one brand—the mission informs everything that they do. Their socially conscious model helped disrupt an established market by acting as a differentiator and attracting like-minded customers. This model also gives Warby Parker a way to forge stronger emotional connections internally, which leads to happier, more engaged employees.

Among the strengths of a mission-based model are the trust and credibility that come from giving to a worthy cause. Warby Parker, alongside other one-for-one companies like Bombas and TOMS, can leverage their internal employee network to generate an additional layer of legitimacy. The shared values that underpin each company’s culture attract the kind of employees that buy into the mission on a deeper level.

You can see this reflected in Warby Parker’s Glassdoor reviews—their culture and values are rated at 3.9 (out of five), with a CEO approval rating of 92%. Because Culture and Values and Senior Leadership are the two most important factors for employees when evaluating their workplace according to a 2017 Glassdoor study, Warby Parker’s relatively high scores have even greater impact.

Valuable workplace factors via Glassdoor.

A third important factor is Career Opportunities, which we’ll talk about a bit more in the next section. This kind of buy-in from the team is what helps Warby Parker scale their company while still staying rooted to the values on which they were built.

As a company, Warby Parker is also likely reaping benefits from a revenue perspective. Research says that companies with engaged employees have 2.5 times the revenue of competitors with low employee engagement. More revenue means faster growth. That, in conjunction with the employee retention benefits of a strong cultural focus, makes it easier for the company to grow their team effectively.

In other words: having a strong, happy team that can stay engaged and connected as it grows is a big part of what lets Warby Parker grow their team while keeping everyone happy and united.

Default to honest and open communication

Maintaining a great company culture is impossible if you don’t share information effectively. Warby Parker’s focus on honest and open communication gives their team a way to stay connected as the company grows—and makes it easier to empower every employee to make decisions that support company values and goals.

To facilitate these kinds of conversations, Warby Parker uses the same tactics with hundreds of employees that they did at the start. One of those tactics is quarterly 360-reviews for every member of the team. When Blumenthal and Gilboa founded the company, they would get together on a monthly basis to provide one another with direct feedback. 1,400 teammates later, the pair wanted to make sure that everyone could get the same benefit from peer review the founders had when they started. So they still largely follow the same format.

Those early reviews “set the tone for the culture at Warby Parker, which would really be rooted in open and honest feedback,” says Blumenthal, who believes it’s important for everyone to know where they stand.

Providing feedback to and receiving feedback from one’s peers may sound scary, but these open and honest conversations build on the idea that individual vulnerability helps boost team cohesion and strengthens relationships.

The number one priority for anyone in a leadership role at Warby Parker is employee development. Offices have libraries stocked with educational material and offer regular skills training. They make it easy for anyone to reach out with questions about their growth and career path.

In placing such a high value on employee growth, they’re making every employee feel like they’re important to the team. This increases retention, because happy and engaged employees are less likely to leave. Longer-tenured employees also provide more value to the company’s bottom line.

Cost to Value of an Employee from HuffPost via Josh Bersin.

It’s expensive to hire new people; with Warby Parker’s growth moving so quickly, they’re already spending a lot on acquiring new employees. Anything that increases returns on their initial investment helps smooth the process and allow for even faster growth.

By strengthening their team’s relationships, focusing on employee engagement and retention, and valuing honest and direct feedback, Warby Parker makes it easier for their team to unite around a shared goal. These underlying relationships are the backbone of their growth—without a strong team, the company would not have been able to scale as quickly as it has.

Takeaways

Warby Parker has grown their company to 1,400 employees in under a decade. They did this by focusing on team engagement and employee growth. Building a culture that supported the company’s goals while also making it easy for teams to come together with a shared mission provided their brand the foundation it needed to grow.

► Get the whole team involved

Growing a company from 0 to 1,400 people can only happen with the support of engaged employees. You need to make sure your team fully buys into your mission and shares company values. This leads to a stronger, better connected team that can support aggressive hiring schedules.

► Keep communication open and honest

Warby Parker performs quarterly 360-reviews for every member of its team, giving their peers an outlet to talk directly about their experiences. When you foster these kinds of conversations, it helps every member of the team learn more about themselves and grow, together.

► Embrace vulnerability

Every member of the Warby Parker team is introduced at their weekly all-hands meeting—and they have to share a fun fact about themselves. This not only gives current employees a way to recognize and welcome new people to the team, but also helps reinforce the idea of open and honest communication. And it gives everyone a shared experience, even if it is uncomfortable for some, and makes it easier for everyone to empathize with one another.

► Live the mission

Warby Parker is a one-for-one company. For that to work, every team member needs to share a similar set of values. When you live the mission and encourage your employees to do so as well, it attracts and supports like-minded individuals who will amplify your message.

► Make emotional connections

A team of 1,400 people is huge; Warby Parker does not want it to feel overwhelming. By embracing vulnerability and encouraging honest conversations between teammates, the team forges stronger relationships. You need to make real connections to foster a happy and productive workplace.

Sam Hollis
Sam Hollis is a writer at Jilt. When he's not writing about high growth eCommerce startups, he likes to play the piano and cook. See more his writing at his Contently page.

5 Comments

  1. I\’d like to see more creative ideas.
    – how do you encourage the difficult conversation where a subordinate reviews their boss\’s performance?
    – is there a try-it-to-see-if-you-like-it mechanism whereby someone can see if a management role suits their personality (ie, to prevent the Peter Principle from slowly infecting the culture)?
    – does everyone think they are fairly paid? And do they have the information to make the \”more difficult work equals higher pay and will I actually like that bargain\” decision?

    1. Hi Martin,

      I can\’t speak to Warby Parker, specifically on these, but I think it\’s important for companies to work on building a culture where honest communication is valued and encouraged, even when it is difficult. As a manager, it is just as important to seek criticism of your own performance as it is to give it to your employees (and to make sure that when you give both criticism and praise it is specific and meaningful). If you create a culture where feedback is the norm, those conversations won\’t be as difficult.

      One tool for managers to see candid and honest feedback from those they manage is the skip level meeting. Here\’s a basic primer, but I can recommend the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott, which goes more in depth (on this and many other management concepts): https://www.insperity.com/blog/skip-level-meetings-get-truly-honest-feedback-employees/

      I think your other questions can also be addressed by building the right culture at your company. If you\’re really able to encourage open and honest communication by default, folks will be empowered to say, \”Hey this isn\’t for me\” before it\’s a problem. Though, it\’s also a big part of manager\’s role to make sure their team is put in the best position to succeed, and that means recognizing when someone isn\’t a fit for a role and finding a better fit for that person (or helping them to address whatever issues are acting as blockers).

  2. Hi Sam, Thanks for the great post! I think the takeaway was – and I guess many would agree – the one about how vulnerability can connect humans like nothing else! A friend of mine, who’s a successful businessman, sits with new hires every term and talks about his failures and aspirations honestly. I’ve seen the new hires repose the trust!

    Just wondering from my limited experience… when a company grow from 5 to 30, the camaraderie can still be retained because the founder knows everyone by name, but I think the real test begins when the headcount crosses 100 or so. What do you think?

    1. Hi Sharon,

      One of the previous companies I worked for grew from a dozen people when I started to over 150 when I left five years later. It wasn\’t Warby Parker-speed growth, but we still ran into some of the issues you describe. ;) At the start, it was easy to know everyone\’s name and the CEO was super accessible all the time, five year later that was kind of impossible. At Jilt, we\’re still pretty small (about 20 people), but growing rapidly and we\’re already at a point where regular 1:1 meetings for everyone with our leadership team is hard to accomplish (without asking our CEO to be in meetings 24/7).

      One of the best things to do, from my perspective, is to keep team sizes small–make sure no manager is responsible for more than 8 to 10 people, maximum. And then empower managers at every level to really connect with their team and foster that sense of camaraderie. As you expand outward, find ways to bring teams together (e.g., by working cross-department on projects) and to make management accessible, even if it can\’t feasibly be on a one-on-one basis.

      Some other thoughts:

      • Don\’t make socializing mandatory, but encourage people to connect with each other in non-work ways at work. That is, forced socializing (like happy hours after work) can sound like a good idea, but can actually be alienating for people. For example, we\’re a remote team and when we got together for our big annual retreat last year Spring, we made there was a lot of unstructured time for people to just hang out and get to know each other (plus: most of the \”team building\”-type activities we did, weren\’t mandatory… we allowed people to be themselves, whatever that meant). You can do that in an office, too, by encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work. Though it\’s technically a book about flat management structures, Reinventing Organizations by Frédéric Laloux has some good thoughts on this.
      • As you grow larger, hold regular internal \”town halls\” where the executive team answers questions–openly, honestly, without rehearsal–from employees. That might sound like a scene from The Circle, but it is a good way to make leadership accessible to everyone when face-to-face meetings aren\’t possible.
      • Encourage folks to connect with people at the company they wouldn\’t normally run into (e.g., those outside their team). One unique way that the crew at Help Scout does this is with something they call \”Friday Fika,\” in which random team members are paired for a 30 minute, unstructured video chat (on any topic–Help Scout started out by including a prompt question that was not about work). They\’re a remote team, but this concept could be applied to an office, too.

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