Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal On Learning How To Lead From His Children
Some fathers invent wheelchair swings or longboardstrollers to provide unique opportunities for their children; Neil Blumenthal invented a new way of selling eyewear that provides eye care to children across the world. This father cofounded Warby Parker to reimagine just about every part of the glasses industry and help pioneer a for-profit business model that creates positive social change. He and his wife Rachel have a newborn and a 4-year-old, who helped teach him a thing or two about leadership.
What has being a father taught you about running a company?
What’s so amazing about having a child is that you get to see the world again through their eyes. To them, everything is new. When you’re running a business and trying to be constructive, you’re trying to look at things clearly, unbiased by experience. I try and take a lot from my son in that respect. The other big thing I’ve realized is that with your son, you don’t want to be overly directive, you don’t want to tell them what to do or else they can’t learn and grow. Being a good leader means developing other people around you and asking great questions and enabling them to draw conclusions on their own.
What are some experiences you’ve had as a CEO that have influenced the way you raise Griffin?
Gratitude – just being thankful and grateful to customers that buy from Warby Parker, and to employees and team members for the work that they do. Seeing that makes me feel great, but also motivates them and makes people feel more connected and happy. Trying to bring that into being a father and model that behavior, because if Griffin is somebody who is gracious, who is appreciative, (A) more people will like him, but (B) I think he’ll just be a happier person. Ultimately that’s the biggest thing you want for your child.
Are you more or less risk averse or do you otherwise size up situations differently now that you’re a father?
It’s made me more productive because you need to value time even more. How do I get done with work and then shut off so I can be present for Griffin? That’s something that I’ve gotten better at, because 3-year-olds definitely let you know if you’re not paying attention to them. But I also bring that back to the office; I try and stay focused and not be constantly multitasking because it’s inefficient and unproductive.
How has Warby Parker grappled with shifting expectations about work/life balance?
I’m not sure that the distinction between work and life is as black and white as it used to be. A lot of people join Warby Parker because they’re so passionate about it and they want to be here, so their work/life is blurring more than ever before. When you have kids, does that impact the number of hours you can physically be in the office? Definitely, but we try to make it a place where people want to tell their kids what they’re doing at the office. This year we had our first ‘Bring Your Child To Work Day,’ which was exciting because it was also the first year where we had more than two people with kids in the company. It’s not only awesome for those team members; it adds a little bit of energy and a fun dynamic to the office. Griffin loves coming in to the office because he always gets a lollipop.
How old was Warby Parker when you had your son?
It was less than a year old when Griffin was born. I’m not sure I’d recommend that to anybody.
Were you prepared to be a father at that point?
I was completely unprepared, but I don’t think that had anything to do with Warby Parker. It’s just that being a father is the most important job you do in your life and there’s zero training that you receive, which is very scary. Fortunately, I had an amazing role model in my dad. I just tried to copy everything he did.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are in the trenches of building a company and are also thinking of having a kid?
Rachel and I discussed it a bunch. I remember we went to a birthing class at one point and I fell asleep. She still makes fun of me for that. At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur or working at a startup helps prepare you for being a father because the hours are so erratic and the work never ends, and that’s how it works being a father — especially in the first three months before the child is sleeping through the night.
What did your father teach you that you draw on as a CEO?
He tried to let me form my own opinion. I remember one instance in particular, it was an election year and I asked him who he was “rooting” for. He said, “You root for sports teams, you vote for a president.” And he didn’t tell me because he didn’t want to influence my personal politics, which is something I’ve always admired him for. It’s about asking people their opinion and their recommendation given the information that’s at hand, given the situation before weighing in with my thoughts. Ultimately, the goal of any leader is to give away as much power and authority as possible, delegate it, bring up leaders. Often it takes time to build trust to make those tough decisions.
Who are you inspired by as a company founder?
Yvon Chouinard from Patagonia, Bill Knight with Nike — people that had very specific visions and built dynamic teams and ultimately built brands. They not only designed and developed good products but also influenced culture and changed behavior. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Who are you inspired by as a father?
One-hundred percent my father.
How does Griffin look in glasses?
Like a stud. We even have a pair of glasses named the Griffin. He’s aware of them, but he doesn’t know the glasses existed before he did.
Maybe we shouldn’t publish that.
Feel free. I’m going to have to tell him at some point.