A Night At The Atom Factory

If tech is the new music, David Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal are rock stars. They’re founders of Warby Parker.

You know Warby Parker, the eyeglass company that undercuts Luxottica and sold their frames through a bus and is now opening shops across America. A ragtag band with an idea that they brought to fruition.

Only David and Neil are not ragtag, they’re graduates of Wharton.

They had the idea but they were insecure as to its success. They didn’t drop out of school, they did a ton of research, and the results exceeded their expectations.

A far cry from the braggadocio of music, wherein everybody’s a star with no experience.

Neil worked at a nonprofit. Warby Parker gives away a ton of frames. But unlike musicians who asked to be looked at, they’re not leading with that message.

It’s all about the idea. Just like it’s all about the song. Great execution is irrelevant if it’s a lousy concept. And once you go down the path you’ve got no idea where you’ll end up. Does Warby Parker need a retail store in every metropolis? Should it raise the prices of its glasses? THEY DON’T KNOW! You put one foot in front of the other and when you enter the maelstrom you adjust.

Like Troy Carter.

It’s his company, the Atom Factory. And if you enter the premises on Washington Boulevard you’ll think the music business recession never happened. It’s not down and dirty, not even funky, it’s modern and designed and it’s the best office I’ve ever been to.

Troy was the manager of Lady Gaga.

That ended.

He’s got new music clients, like Meghan Trainor, he even took his family on the bus with her last summer, but Troy is also one of music’s leading tech investors, he got in early, before the mania, before record labels had incubators and talent agencies had funds. He knows the players.

And he’s fascinating to talk to.

We started off discussing the Oscars. Should Chris Rock punt?

Troy said no. He has a job to do. Whatever he decides is cool with Carter, but Troy referenced Doc Rivers during the Sterling saga. You play the game.

And then we shifted to politics and the chances of Bernie Sanders, Troy told me he went to a Clinton fundraiser just after Ferguson and Hillary didn’t mention it. Troy hasn’t decided who he’s backing, but the younger generation, whose future has been stolen, aligns with Bernie.

And the younger generation was in attendance.

The Academy may be male and white, but not the people at this dinner. Not only were women well-represented, but there was more than a smattering of color. It was so different from the dinners the fat cats in the music business attend. When you speak with the same people you get the same message. Whereas these other voices edified me, opened my eyes, and that’s incredibly stimulating. Like Moj Mahdara of Beautycon, there are a ton of women in the world, you’d do best to understand their wants and desires, especially if you want to make money.

And everybody at the table wanted to make money.

But not at the expense of social good.

Troy called Michelle Papillion his pusher. She’s a gallery owner/art dealer, and she specializes in emerging artists and she keeps her business in Leimert Park and is as networked as they come. She wants art to change culture. Strange when everybody just wants art to make them rich.

Bobby Kim is more focused on personal satisfaction and consumer connection at his clothing company the Hundreds.

Not that there weren’t music people there, and we got into a deep discussion as to where it was all going, which made me anxious, since Apple Music people were there and I was asked my opinion…

But the reason for the get-together was that the Warby Parker people were in L.A.

They never wanted to be the cheapest company. Style is key. You establish a relationship with the customer and nurture it, which is the opposite of the old school I’ve got your money and now I’m gone paradigm.

And they learned a lot at business school. And I knew not of what they spoke. Art is different, it’s edgier, based more on instinct. It’s just that…

Warby Parker is cooler than the acts that are associated with it.

They did a deal with Beck. I never heard about it. That’s right, America’s most credible glasses company has greater mindshare than this Grammy-winning act. Because today we believe in corporations as opposed to bands, and that’s sad.

The musicians could change this. By following their muse and standing up for what’s right, not paying fealty to the man. But, unfortunately, the man is much more educated and aware of what’s going on, it’s like our whole world has gone topsy-turvy. I didn’t think I cared about eyeglasses, but when you stick it to the man, in this case Luxottica, you’ve got my attention.

Did you see that “60 Minutes” piece? The Italian eyeglass company bought every brand and then jacked up the price, you’re paying, whether you’re nearsighted, farsighted or just like sunglasses. They own everything from Lenscrafters to Sunglass Hut, from Armani to Oakley.

So I’m on Warby Parker’s side.

I used to be on the musicians’ side.

I’ll come back. When they’ve got my values, when they build upon experience, when they create something so new and good that I find it without advertising.

So most of what happens in L.A. never makes the news. The Kardashians may own the tabloids, but don’t think there aren’t young thinkers out there, changing things up.

I felt privileged to attend.

I was the oldest guy there.

There’s so much to learn.

We live in exciting times.

“60 Minutes” – “Do you know who makes your glasses?”

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