Tech

Warby Parker and the Spirit of Invention

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

In yesterday’s newsletter, I lamented that more companies don’t ask, “Is this a good idea?” when they’re cooking up new products.

Today I want to write about the admirable question that is behind many inventions: Why does it have to be this way?

This is the unifying query behind technologies that try to simplify selling a home, let small businesses avoid leasing and operating their own office space, and give us the power to buy a car from our sofas.

Sometimes the upstarts that bring these ideas to life are wildly overhyped or create miserable jobs. Often, though, it’s worth admiring the spirit of challenging the old ways.

I’m going to tell you the dirty secret of lots of “technology” start-ups and inventions: There is often very little technology magic. The great idea behind many so-called technology companies is often a novel but dull twist on what came before. (Remember, I like boring stuff. So this is not an insult.)

The dull idea behind Warby Parker, the internet eyewear vendor that sold its first shares of stock to the masses this week, was that all the intermediaries involved in buying glasses and contact lenses made the process far more annoying and expensive. Why do we buy glasses from the place where we get prescriptions? How much more do glasses cost because of all the steps involved: designers, manufacturers, fancy brands, opticians and retail stores?

Warby Parker and other relatively young online sellers, like Casper mattresses, Glossier for cosmetics and Dollar Shave Club, tackled this question with a similar approach. They bought products from the same factories that churned out glasses, mattresses or razors for established companies. (In some cases, they bought the factories.)

Then those upstarts flooded Facebook or other online spots with relatively inexpensive marketing. They could offer those pools of potential customers a product for less than their competitors because they cut out Walmart, LensCrafters or many others involved in moving a product from concept to store shelves.

And because a company like Glossier sells on its own website and in its own stores, and Revlon mostly doesn’t, it can tell right away which eyeliner is popular, make more of it and pitch it to its most devoted shoppers.

This is totally boring, right? But that is the magic behind many of the companies whose products you see only on Instagram or TikTok. It’s a new-economy twist on old ideas like Costco making its own brand of coffee and dog food. Warby Parker and the store brand of cereal have the same DNA.

It’s not clear how many of the internet-based product companies like Warby Parker will last. Warby Parker is spending a lot, including on marketing, and the company is unprofitable. Also, perhaps you’ve noticed there are four zillion online mattresses companies? What were novel ways to manufacture, advertise and sell products a decade ago have been copied to death. And a lot of internet-based product companies told investors that they were the next Facebook when really they were more like Costco. That is a recipe for disappointment.

But I don’t want to dismiss what young companies are trying to do. Even if their models don’t work, we can applaud the optimism and arrogance of trying to bust the status quo.


Tip of the Week

Your gadget’s worst enemy

Here is Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, with the scourge of the week. Uh, I mean the tip of the week.

It messes up your keyboard and your phone’s charging port. It makes your video game console overheat. It’s everywhere.

Yes, your gadget’s worst enemy is dust.

Whenever I’ve had major problems with a piece of technology and taken a close look at its insides, it’s been filled with dust. I don’t blame myself. The guts of our gadgets are out of sight and out of mind. But it’s a problem that snowballs.

So what to do? You can develop better electronic hygiene habits.

Pick up some cleaning supplies, including cans of compressed air, a microfiber cloth and a set of screwdrivers for opening your electronics. (Some Apple devices require specialized screwdrivers. I recommend searching the web for your model to figure out what tools you need.)

For your computer or video game console, open it up once a year or so to clean out the dust. For smartphones, blow out any dust in the charging port or headphone jack, if your phone has one. If you are able to unscrew the back of the phone, carefully use canned air or a sewing needle to remove any gunk from the innards.

Some modern electronics are difficult to take apart and clean, but you can ask for help. Reach out to a local independent technician and ask for a routine cleaning. It will go a long way to prolonging your device’s life and making it feel as good as new.

Before we go …

  • It’s time once again to yell about Facebook: Company executives are appearing in congressional hearings to answer questions about recently revealed internal Facebook documents on what the company knows about the harms its apps have done. My colleagues Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel write about Facebook’s spin on some of that research.

  • Why it’s hard to use Siri to control a Nest thermostat: Tech giants tend to want exclusive command over the connected gadgets in our homes. That makes it nearly impossible for our home speakers, TV sets or light bulbs to work well together, The Washington Post writes.

  • A billboard feud: Amazon wants to take over a mammoth billboard in the heart of Manhattan. It just happens to wrap around Macy’s and is where the retailer blares messages for its flagship department store. Macy’s is not happy, my colleague Tiffany Hsu reports.

Hugs to this

It’s fat bear week! This is a yearly celebration of the animals’ weight gain before winter, and you can vote to pick your favorite brown bear in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. All these bears are winners. (But I am rooting for Otis.)


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