Thoughts

The Warby Parker Scenius

There’s a fine line between inspiration and imitation. A whole network of direct-to-consumer brands emerged around Wharton and Warby Parker—now some are discovering the hard truth.

A while ago, Brian Eno coined the term “scenius” to describe “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” It’s a good word for what happens in various places at various times; a cluster of people who feed off each other’s ideas and talents, making each one of them better. That’s one way of describing what has been going on around The Wharton School and Warby Parker.  

The latter was the original inspiration for many startups; re-inventing the sale of eyeglasses by cutting out the middleman and shipping glasses direct to consumers. Its influence was such that it now finds itself at the heart of a network of startups in the DTC space, -companies selling direct-to-consumer. Many of the founders have gone to Wharton, have studied under the same prof (David Bell), worked alongside each other, moved on to their own projects, and shared tips and resources. Many calling on the same funders, design and branding agencies, and PR firms. All of these are great. However, in their haste to copy a winning formula many of the more recent startups forgot some important lessons.

Not all disruptions are created equal; eyeglasses were dominated in a nearly monopolistic way by Luxottica so there were unusual margins to disrupt. There aren’t that many markets like this. Like startups in other fields, the would-be disruptors didn’t realize that being online doesn’t automatically deter other middlemen and found themselves “trapped” by a new kind of landlord, having to spend massively for customer acquisition (CAC) through Google, Facebook and Instagram, in a manner analogous to what “brick and mortar” stores pay their landlord.

Some takeaways: Originality trumps imitation. There are no magic tricks, even online plays can have big expenses. Networks of collaboration are good but beware of groupthink and echo chambers.

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