This Internet-born lifestyle brand has disrupted the eyeglass industry and led the way for socially conscious businesses.

Warby Parker began, as do many entrepreneurial ventures, with the desire to solve a problem. In this case, the problem was simple: eyeglasses are too expensive.

The story began six years ago when one of the founders, David Gilboa, lost his glasses and found them prohibitively expensive to replace. Fellow Wharton students Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider also had similar experiences. They began to investigate why eyeglasses, a centuries-old technology, cost so much.

They discovered that the eyewear industry is dominated by a single company, Luxottica. Not only does Luxottica run the eyewear business for many of the major fashion houses, but it markets its own frames under several brands. These frames are then sold by retailers and optometry chains including LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, which are Luxottica subsidiaries. Luxottica even owns one of the top vision insurance companies, EyeMed. The result? Fewer choices for consumers, and higher prices.

The four then-students decided to found Warby Parker as a way to provide a lower cost—but still fashionable—alternative.

The Business Model

By designing and manufacturing their own frames and selling them directly to customers, Warby Parker is able to offer stylish prescription eyewear at a fraction of the price: as little as $95 per frame. The price includes prescription lenses. By designing the frames in-house, they avoid licensing fees, which can be up to 15% of the wholesale cost of a pair of glasses.

Warby Parker’s original online Home Try-On model allows customers to try out five frames for five days, shipped to them free. Once they five days are up, they mail them back using a prepaid label. They can order their pair of glasses online at any time.

Customers can now also try on and purchase glasses at nearly 40 brick-and-mortar retail locations. While the company began on the Internet, it has refused to be stuck in an e-commerce-only box. Rather it is a lifestyle brand, which has garnered the attention of the fashion media and celebrities alike.

Giving Back

The founders of Warby Parker also sought to address another problem: nearly one billion people worldwide lack access to the eyeglasses they need to learn and work effectively.

The company partners with non-profits like VisionSpring, where Blumenthal (who serves as Warby Parker co-CEO alongside Gilboa), previously worked as director. VisionSpring trains men and women in developing countries to give basic eye exams and bring eyeglasses to their communities. Each month, Warby Parker tallies up the number of glasses sold and makes a donation to their nonprofit partners, which covers the cost of sourcing that number of glasses.

So far, over two million pairs of glasses have been distributed to people in need.The entrepreneurial lesson: Innovative companies aren’t always about the latest tech or gadget. Innovation can come from meeting people’s basic needs.