Eyeglass vendor Warby Parker sees $6bn valuation in direct listing


Eyeglass brand Warby Parker was valued at more than $6bn after it completed a direct listing in New York on Wednesday, more than double its worth during a recent private fundraising round.

A direct listing allows investors to begin trading shares on an exchange without the company itself raising any money. Warby Parker is the first consumer-goods business and the first public benefit corporation — meaning it has a legal requirement to balance the interests of shareholders and other stakeholders — to pursue such a listing in the US.

The company’s shares opened at $54.05 on the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday afternoon, compared with the $24.53 price paid in a fundraising round last August and in a tender offer as recently as April.

The strong start highlighted the continued investor appetite for fast-growing companies despite recent jitters in the broader stock market. More than 300 companies have listed in the US this year, not including special purpose acquisition companies — over twice as many as in the first three quarters of 2020.

Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker co-chief executive, said becoming public would provide “exposure” to help attract more customers and staff, but added: “We feel great about our balance sheet and didn’t think it made sense to take on the unnecessary dilution” of a traditional IPO.

He said a direct listing was “a more transparent, inclusive and fair process that enables us to engage with a broader group of investors . . . without unnecessary intermediaries”.

The 11-year-old New York-based company started life selling glasses directly to consumers online, but now has a network of more than 100 physical stores and plans to add more. Executives also hope to build nascent businesses in contact lenses and eye exams.

Warby Parker, named after two characters in a Jack Kerouac journal, reported a net loss of $56m in 2020 on revenues of $394m.

Direct listings have slowly gathered steam as an alternative to traditional IPOs since the music streaming service Spotify was the first to take the route in the US in 2018. Warby Parker’s deal, following swiftly on from the listing of data analytics specialist Amplitude on Tuesday, brings the tally for 2021 to six, as many as had listed in the previous three years.

Going public through direct listing is cheaper for companies than a traditional IPO, and supporters such as Bill Gurley of venture capital firm Benchmark have said they provide a more efficient method of deciding the appropriate initial share price.

However, bankers and other experts stress they are only suitable for a small number of companies that have raised lots of capital and have a high-enough profile to interest investors.

As a result, they have been dominated by venture capital-backed tech companies. Warby Parker had previously raised more than $500m from investors including Tiger Global, T Rowe Price and General Catalyst.

“There will be space for direct listings [in future], but it’s not going to take over the IPO market,” Reena Aggarwal, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert in public listings.

She said the lack of a traditional bank-led sales process in direct listings could make them particularly vulnerable in a market downturn.

“When there is a correction — and at some point that will happen — then you’ll need more effort selling a [listing] than you need today,” Aggarwal said. “Today, there’s a lot of money chasing deals.”