Over 400 Startups Are Trying to Become the Next Warby Parker

Wharton professors, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs are fueling an entire generation of Warby Parkers. Now there are more than 400 startups tackling products from toothbrushes to bras. What could go wrong?

James McKean wants to revolutionize the manual tooth­brush. It’s January 2018. The 31-year-old MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School whirls his laptop around to show me the prototype designs. Bristle, as the product might be called, has a detach­able head and a colorful pattern on the handle–like faux wood grain, flowers, or plaid. Cus­tomers would pay somewhere around $15 for their first purchase, and then get replacement heads, at $3 or $4 a pop, through a subscription service.

There are a few reasons McKean likes this plan. A Bristle subscription would be more convenient than going to CVS when you need a new toothbrush–you’d order online, set your replacement-head frequency, and forget about it. Also, Bristle brushes are friendlier looking than, say, Oral-B’s spaceship-like aesthetic. “To me, brushing your teeth is such an intimate act. You engage with these products by putting them in your mouth,” he says. A toothbrush, he adds, is “almost an extension of your individuality.”

A former McKinsey consultant and private equity investor from Utah, McKean caught the entrepreneurial bug from watching his clients. We’re sitting in a small study room at Wharton’s Hunts­man Hall, named after a fellow Utahn, the late industrialist Jon M. Huntsman. When it was established in 1881, Wharton became the world’s first business college. Its alumni, in addition to Huntsman, include Elon Musk, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, hedge fund billion­aire Steven Cohen, and Donald Trump.

For most of its history, Wharton’s reputation has been built on turning out the world’s finest spreadsheet jockeys. But, a few years ago, four students met at Wharton and started a company that would help ignite a startup revolution: Warby Parker. The concept: selling eye­glasses directly to consumers (DTC) online. Few thought the idea would work, but today Warby is valued at $1.75 billion, and its founding story has become a fairy tale at Wharton. Co-founders and co-CEOs Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa give guest lectures at the business school–as does Jeff Raider, the third Warby co-founder, who went on to help hatch Harry’s, a DTC razor brand.

With the Instagram-friendly branding of Glossier, Hims is a DTC company for erectile dysfunction and male baldnesswith investors including Forerunner Venture’s Kirsten Green and DTC razor company Harry’s. Harry’s co-founder Jeff Raider recently invested in Lola, a DTC tampon company co-founded by a Wharton alum and the wife of DTC PR maven Jesse Derris.

Read more at Inc.