The prescription eyeglasses retailer Warby Parker was launched by four drinking buddies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The founders intended to disrupt a high-profit margin industry by taking out the intermediary.
Selling prescription eyeglasses online (Warby Parker mostly sells via brick-and-mortar today) would also defy skeptics who preferred to see certain things—shoes, diamond rings, cars—in person and were disinclined to get them online. Warby Parker’s incumbent competitors, 39DollarGlasses.com and EyeBuyDirect.com, had sloppy websites. A crucial part of Warby Parker’s startup plan was to start a user-friendly website where shoppers could upload a photograph of themselves and try on glasses virtually.
At first, the founders outsourced the website, resulting in disastrous consequences. In an interview with Fortune magazine (1-Jun-2019,) co-founder & co-CEO David Gilboa reflected on the pitfalls of outsourcing critical business components:
None of us [the founders] was qualified to build the website, so we solicited proposals and got a handful of bids from agencies. We chose the cheapest option, but a few months in, we realized it was a mistake. Their execution wasn’t what they promised. So we ended up firing them.
Now we develop most of the technology we use in-house to ensure we maintain as much control over the customer experience as possible. We’ve developed our website and both of our apps internally.
Idea for Impact: Don’t outsource what you’re supposed to do best.
Outsourcing a core function may give you a short-term uplift, but you’ll fail to create the core expertise within your company. That’s necessary to build a sustainable competitive advantage. The vendor just isn’t as invested in your success.
Building know-how internally is more challenging, but it’ll pay off in the long run. Sure, you may need to tap an outsourced hire for specialized expertise that you lack. But concentrate on developing your core functions in-house. In fact, be as micro-managey as possible in the early days.
Leverage outside help for bookkeeping, legal, and everything else that doesn’t generate a competitive advantage.