On a cool fall evening in 2008, four student entrepreneurs set out to revolutionize an industry. Each of them had lost and broken eyeglasses and--already buried in loans--were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. One had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years. He was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for pricey new lenses.
Luxottica, the 800-pound gorilla of the eyewear industry, controlled more than 80 percent of the market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant. When they casually mentioned their idea of creating an online eyeglass shop to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No one would ever buy glasses over the internet, their friends insisted.
They proceeded regardless. They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase. They called the company Warby Parker. They expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them "the Netflix of eyewear," they hit their target for the first year in less than a month. The rest is history. In fact, Fast Company named them the world's most innovative company in 2015.
Years ago, psychologists discovered there are two routes to achievement: conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo. Originality is taking the road less traveled (as the founders of Warby Parker did), championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.
Of course, nothing is completely original in the sense that all of our ideas are influenced by what we learn from the world around us. We are constantly borrowing thoughts, whether intentionally or inadvertently. We're all vulnerable to "kleptomnesia"--accidentally remembering the ideas of others as our own. By my definition, originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that's relatively unusual within a particular domain.
Originality itself starts with creativity--generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn't stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality. The Warby Parker founders had the originality to dream up an unconventional way to sell glasses online but became originals by taking action to make them accessible and affordable.
Back in 2009, one of the founders pitched the company to me, offering me the chance to invest in Warby Parker. I declined. It...