Michael Dubin, Cofounder and CEO, Dollar Shave Club
The Ripple Effect
A viral video put Dollar Shave Club on the map, but it took a team to get it where it is today. CEO Michael Dubin talks about DSC’s growth, acquisition, and expanding product line.
It was the commercial seen round the internet. On March 6, 2012, Dollar Shave Club uploaded its first YouTube video, featuring one-and-a-half minutes of offbeat humor, during which founder Michael Dubin rides in a kid’s wagon, wields a machete, and encounters, among many other things, a person in a bear suit.
“Do you think your razor needs a vibrating handle, a flashlight, a back scratcher, and 10 blades?” Dubin deadpans while riding a forklift. “Your handsome-ass grandfather had one blade—and polio.”
It was a totally unique way to explain a simple concept: For an affordable fee, Dollar Shave Club subscribers would get quality razor blades delivered to their doorsteps on a regular basis, thus skipping the trips to the store for overpriced, gimmicky alternatives. And people loved it—the resulting traffic from the video’s launch crashed their site.
Since then, that commercial has been viewed over 26 million times on YouTube. It cost only $4,500 to produce, yet it launched the company on a trajectory that would later lead to a $1 billion acquisition by Unilever.
“It put us on the map, no doubt,” Dubin says. “We wouldn’t be where we are without it.”
But this isn’t a story about Michael Dubin and his famous viral video. It’s not even a story about razor blades. As Dubin is quick to point out, getting DSC to where it is today required a team effort. And with its ever-expanding product line, today, the company is about so much more than a good shave.
Timing Is Everything—In Comedy and Business
They say the most important thing in comedy is timing; the difference between roaring laughter and painful silence can be a fraction of a second.
Maybe this was something Dubin learned during the eight years he spent training at New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv theatre with notable alumni such as Saturday Night Live’s Horatio Sanz and Amy Poehler. While taking improv classes, Dubin worked various media jobs, starting as a page at NBC, then moving into production and news writing at MSNBC, and eventually, getting into digital marketing at SportsIllustrated.com.
But it wasn’t just Dubin’s punchline delivery that set DSC up for success out of the gate. Even the timing of its launch was strategic. As Dubin told NPR’s Guy Raz in a “How I Built This” interview, he chose that specific date—March 6—because, with his media background, he knew that news outlets would be hungry for a tech story leading up to the annual South by Southwest conference that takes place in Austin in mid-March. The launch date also coincided with Dollar Shave Club’s announcement of its $1 million seed round.
It Takes a Team
A viral video can be a major boost for any company, but it’s far from the secret to a successful business. For that, you need great people, and assembling them is easier said than done.
“Big business is a team sport,” Dubin says, “and it requires talent from all corners of the universe that will help you build what you’re looking to build.”
Knowing where to find your future teammates can be a challenge.
“Finding great talent is always going to be the hardest thing that any entrepreneur does,” Dubin says. “Because, ultimately, there’s somebody out there in the marketplace that can help you do your job really well and help you build your company the best way possible. But you’ve got to go out and find them in the great wide world.”
That’s why Dubin is a fan of recruiters, “because recruiters are paid to have knowledge of the network that you’re looking in.”
When building his team early on, Dubin had just moved from New York to Los Angeles and lacked a network in his new city, so he relied on his early investors to make introductions. “That’s a great reason to take investment—besides, obviously, needing to take it to drive growth and invest where you need to.”
To attract the right talent, Dubin recommends founders do two things. First, focus on your company’s mission. What are you trying to achieve? What gaps in the market are you trying to fill? Why do you come to work every day?
“Really talented people want to work for companies that have purpose,” he says. “And that’s defined in the mission of the company.”
Second, consider granting employees equity. “People want to feel like they’re participants in the success—if you ultimately do have the success—and that’s super meaningful.”
And if your mission changes, that’s okay. It’s natural for it to evolve as your company grows; that’s certainly true for Dollar Shave Club. “It started out more as a shave-only proposition,” Dubin says. “And then it grew out into becoming…more of a men’s health, more of a men’s grooming platform.”
What’s their mission today? “Help guys take care of their minds and bodies so they can be their best selves.”
Growth, Acquisition, and Expansion
Taking on the shaving industry was a gutsy move. To put that into perspective, it was around the year 1900 that King C. Gillette invented the world’s first disposable razor, according to Gillette’s website. So when Dubin decided to disrupt the shaving market, he was going up against a company that had already been in it for over 100 years.
Eight months after the launch of its first commercial, Dollar Shave Club secured a Series A round of $9.8 million. And two years after that, the subscription razor blade company hit 1 million members.
In July 2016, Unilever acquired Dollar Shave Club for a reported $1 billion. At the time, DSC had 3.2 million members and was expected to exceed $200 million in turnover (which is sometimes defined as net sales and sometimes defined as revenue) that year. Dubin stayed on as CEO and continues to serve in that capacity today.
“Unilever’s been very good to let us run the company our way,” he says, “and that was part of the design.”
Today, Dollar Shave Club boasts over 300 employees and continues to expand its product line and global footprint. Beyond razors, DSC now sells cologne, body wash, shampoo—even flushable toilet wipes (they’re called One Wipe Charlies). It also has sites live in Australia, Canada, and the UK, with plans to expand further in the next couple of years.
Knowing When It’s Time to Add a New Product
For a long time, razor blade subscriptions were Dollar Shave Club’s bread and butter, and it gained a loyal following with its single product line. But growth almost always means product expansion, so how can a founder know when it’s the right time to add new products?
“You have to stay true to your core,” Dubin says. “You have to develop credibility in your core categories before you can expand outward. There is such a thing as doing that too fast.”
Timing matters. Move too fast, and you could confuse your customers and dilute your brand. Too slow, and you may miss your opportunity to take the market.
As for figuring out what your next product should be: ”You should definitely do your research. It’s always a blend of gut and research.”
Time Well Spent
These days, Dubin doesn’t star in any viral videos, but he told Foundr about a recent, albeit lesser-known, YouTube video of his commencement address to the 2018 graduating class of his alma mater, Emory University. In it, he sums up the lessons he’s learned over the years, including one about “little choices.”
“They’re the ones you make more frequently, maybe even every day,” he says to the graduates, “the ripple effects of which, I believe, actually have a bigger impact over the course of your life. They’re choices about where to invest your time.”
Given Dollar Shave Club’s meteoric success, it’s safe to say that Dubin and his team’s time has been well spent.
5 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Michael Dubin
Dollar Shave Club is a massively popular company that attracted a billion-dollar acquisition. What are some parting lessons we can take from this interview with CEO Michael Dubin?
- Video isn’t a magic bullet.“What worked for us is not necessarily going to work for everybody,” Dubin says. “Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here. The best advice that I can give to somebody is to find what makes you special, understand what unique talents you have or your team has, and leverage those to try and cut through the noise. It’s not easy. It’s not easy, and video is not the surefire way to do it.”
- Culture is more than company perks.“Culture’s a tricky word. A lot of people mistake culture for meaning like a coffee bar and a beanbag chair for everybody or stand-up desks, and that’s not what culture is. Culture is a much more complex, complicated animal than that. And to me, culture means…people are into their jobs, they feel like they’re contributing to the mission, they feel like they’re being valued for their contributions and recognized for their contributions, and that they have a career path at that company—that’s culture. All the other stuff is sort of superfluous icing on the cake.”
- Only use a subscription model if it enhances the customer experience.“A lot of people get addicted to this notion of a subscription business because they love the idea of monthly recurring revenue, but you should only be launching a subscription business if it’s going to be an enhancement to…the customer’s experience. The customer’s experience is the most important thing. If delivering them a subscription is going to make their life better or happier, you should offer a subscription. And if not, you shouldn’t.”
- Expect hard times.
“You’re going to go through hard times. You’re going to go through lonely periods. That’s to be expected. There’s really nothing that anybody can tell you that’s going to help make that feel better. … You just kind of have to go through it, truly.”
- Take breaks.
“My advice to entrepreneurs who are starting companies is you have to be relentless, but you also have to step away and take breaks. You can’t work yourself to death because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
- His media background and the social network for travelers he tried to start before launching Dollar Shave Club
- The importance of building a great team to help your business grow
- How to attract and retain high-quality talent
- How Dollar Shave Club defined its mission and how it has evolved over time
- What the early DSC team looked like
- The famous first Dollar Shave Club video
- Life after Unilever’s acquisition of DSC
- Challenges the DSC team faces as they grow the brand
- How to know when to launch another product
- Dubin’s thoughts on the physical product subscription model
- How to build a healthy company culture
Full Transcript of Podcast with Michael Dubin
Nathan: The first question we ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Michael: Which job?
Nathan: I guess, how did you find yourself the work you’re doing today?
Michael: You mean as the CEO of Dollar Shave Club?
Nathan: Yeah, or did you have business before then, or was that your first business? Or-
Michael: Yeah, sure. I started my career in the media. I was a page at NBC and then I went into media production, news writing at MSNBC News. Did that for a couple years then went over to Time Ink, Life Magazine and Life dot com and Sports Illustrated dot com and was building a lot of early websites. That was back in 2005 and that’s really where I cut my teeth on brand development, marketing, early web. I build an eCommerce company for my friend that sold Christmas lights and holiday lights and then after that I went to a small marketing agency so I really spent the bulk of my career in media marketing, brand development and that was all good back drop for starting DSC. I did start try to start a social network for travelers back 2006, that was my first start up. That did not go anywhere and ultimately certainly that paved the way for success.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, so you started DSC in 2011. That’s like another 5 years of trying. Which some people might find interesting.
Michael: Yeah, yeah.
Nathan: Look I know you’ve done a lot of media and all sorts of things and I want to kind of take a different approach and spin to this. One thing I found quite interesting that was put forth in preparation for this interview was around the acknowledgement of the DSC team and the success that you guys have had and this incredible acquisition that you guys had. Talk to me around why that is important to you and what founders need to think about even in the early stages of building their company around, you know, if you do want to build something of true worth and significance it requires an incredible team of A players.
Michael: Yeah, I mean. You Just said it. I don’t know that I could say it much better than that but you know there’s an old quotation that’s not mine. Which is “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. Yeah business is a team sport. Big business is a team sport and it requires talent from all corners of the universe that will help you build what you’re looking to build. So I don’t know how much more sophisticated than that the story is but certainly you’re going to need to look for talent that’s very experienced if you want to grow a big company.
Nathan: What things have you done to attract and retain high quality talent in the early days? Perhaps even when you guys did seed funding. What were the things that you were doing? I’m curious there because some of the people that are listening might not be going down the venture pathway but they’re boot strapping and still want to be able to get great talent. What can they learn from your experiences there around attracting and retaining great talent? Even if they are boot-strapped.
Michael: Yeah I think that one thing is to focus on the mission. What is the mission at? What is the mission you’re on? What are you trying to achieve? What void in the universe are you trying to fill? That resonates with people. Really talented people want to work for companies that have purpose and that’s defined in the mission of the company. Ultimately that’s the first place you can start is why do people come to work everyday and are they aligned with that mission. So having something can rally behind is really important. The 2nd thing is to consider giving them a piece of the company. Stock options, equity in the company matters. People want to feel like they’re a participant in the success if you ultimately do have the success and that’s super meaningful. Those are two things. One is sort of spiritual and one’s more economic but they both matter.
Nathan: Yeah and when it came to working out the mission. Sometimes when people start a business they start from very humble beginnings and the mission evolves overtime. When you started with Mark, were you guys super clear on the mission and did it change as the time went on.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. It started out as a shave only proposition and then it grew out to becoming something a little bit more full. More of a men’s health, more of a men’s grooming platform. Our mission is today to help guys take care of their minds and bodies so they can be their best selves. That’s definitely not where the mission started.
Nathan: Okay and when it came to the early days. What are some of the traits that you look for in finding A grade talent? Are there there certain things that are red flags that you look for, out of curiosity?
Michael: Yeah well, I think one of the things that I believe in that some people don’t necessarily, is that I definitely believe in great recruiters. Because recruiters are paid to have knowledge of the network that you’re looking in and they make their trade on knowing who’s moving around job to job. Who’s looking for a new career move and they know these people and they know how well they do for companies or how well they don’t do. How poorly they do for companies that they work for.
They’re trained to be really career watchers of other people and so ultimately you don’t necessarily use your recruiter for every position because that can get expensive and eventually when it goes internal recruiting department but hopefully a great recruiter can help you screen for red flags before you even have to. Then what I try to look for when I get to the actual interview myself is, you know. You have to develop a muscle for interviewing somebody that has expertise that you don’t have. If you’re going to be a good CEO you have to get good at that repeatedly, repeatedly and that’s a skill you have to hone overtime.
Nathan: When it comes to when you’re looking for skills. Do you prefer passion or skills or one or the other? From your experience do you always go for somebody that’s got the experience that have done it before or do you look for people that are just hungry?
Michael: I think you always want to look for people that have done it before.
Michael: When possible. They might cost you a little bit more money but I’m talking for your senior early executive.
Nathan: What about your early team? What did that look like in the early days when you were hiring? Are a lot of those people still there? Did you meet them through networks? Did you meet them through any of your seed investors?
Michael: Yeah. I met a lot of them through my early investors and that’s a great reason to take investment besides obviously needing to take it to drive growth and that’s where you need to but having access to talent networks, proven talent networks are critical and investors that have been around to start up the ecosystem for a while can point you in the right direction on that. We benefited in the very early days from that. I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles and I did not have a big network in LA and so I had to rely on the network of my early investors to make introductions. Now ultimately I had to pick from that pool of candidates but they were instrumental in setting up a field.
Nathan: Yeah. When it came to some of the people in the early stages of growing DSC. One thing that I found, and it happens to everyone, you have a strike rate, right, and I think as time goes on your strike rate gets better. What was your strike rate in the early days for getting the right people?
Michael: I would say in the early days we had an 85% hit rate but again we selected from a pool of existing talent.
Nathan: Yeah. Okay that’s pretty good.
Michael: From sort of a known pool of … Yeah it was critical.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. One thing I have to ask you is the famous video that because, really a very very big launch platform. I still remember I was on Facebook. I didn’t even have a business. I wasn’t even- knew anything about this space entrepreneur, eCommerce. None of this stuff. I remember sharing this video with friends. That was the biggest launch platform really for you guys to really get on the map right.
Michael: Yeah. It put us on the map no doubt. We wouldn’t be where we are without it.
Nathan: Yeah so I’m curious because I’ve listened to other interviews and you’ve said you did that. It didn’t cost very much to produce, right? It was a low budget.
Michael: Yeah. It cost us probably $4500.
Nathan: I guess for people that are listening. In the early stages of their business and they’re looking for a way to get cut through because there is so much noise do you believe every start up or brand should have a promotional video. If so, how much should they spend on it? What everybody saw, was that the first cut of it? First version or have you tried many different times? Were you split testing it? I’m just really curious there.
Michael: Yeah so ultimately, I think everybody’s strategy is different. Our strategy in 2012 worked with the video. It cut through the clutter. There’s a lot of videos that go live everyday for start-ups now and what works for us is not necessarily going to work for everybody. Unfortunately there’s no easy answer here. The best advice that I can give to somebody is to find what makes you special, understand what unique talents you have or your team has and leverage those to try cut through the noise. It’s not easy and a video is not a surefire way to do it.
Nathan: Yeah, no. That makes sense. Look, obviously you had an unfair advantage because of your career and background already working in the media space. You obviously called in some favours on the production front and all that side of things, right?
Nathan: Awesome well look, I want to kind of move to- now you guys were acquired by Unilever and you’re still there and you’re still growing the company so I’m curious around how is life post-acquisition? Does it still feel like your baby? I’m just really curious.
Michael: Well it doesn’t feel like a baby. I definitely feel a sense of responsibility but it definitely much more than a baby right now. You know, we have over 300 employees. Everybody is highly engaged. It’s a very very different monster than it was when we started but Unilever has been very good to let us to run the company our way and that was part of the design and they’ve been great. I always like to say they stay true to their word.
Nathan: Yeah, well that’s awesome. When it comes to growing the company what are the challenges that you guys face because you guys are really a household name brand. What kind of things do you guys face and what are the some of the things that you guys are doing to you to further grow.
Michael: Well we’re investing in new products. We have over 3 dozen products now between fine fragrance and body wash, bar soap and shampoo and a lot of other products. We’re launching products all the time. Really excited about that and our customers now are signing up to multi-category subscriptions. Not just razors. Category expansion is a huge piece of that and then so is international expansion. We’ve have in Australia, Canada and the UK and we’re looking to grow that more over the next years.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s actually a good question because you guys stayed as a single product focus company for a very very long time and I think there’s a lot to be said in that. You see this is a growing trend now. When you think of eCommerce people expect to go to a store and there’s just so many different options but you guys did a very very good job at staying pretty singular focused for along time. Any comments or thoughts around that level of focus in staying singular product for quite along time. Achieving a really large scale.
Michael: Yeah well you know you have to stay true to your core and you have to develop credibility into your core categories before you can expand outwards. There is such a thing as doing that too fast so I think that we wanted to stay focused until we’re ready to branch out.
Nathan: And at what time do you know when to launch another products?
Michael: I think just gotta kind of feel it. I’d say once you’d earned a sufficient amount of trust in your core category, that you can leverage that trust to go into adjacent categories. I’d say once you have enough. Once you feel lodging it isn’t going to distract people from your core category that’s going to be creative not dilutive because there’s a danger there. You could launch too fast and then people get confused as to who you really are and what you really stand for, so yeah.
Nathan: When it comes to working out what that next product is or in an adjacent category. Because you’re really looking for the lowest hanging fruit and perhaps even somebody is already a buyer and they’re already a buyer and you’ve got goodwill there and they trust you. You want to find further ways to potentially serve them. Like you said, you guys have multi-channel subscriptions or multi-product subscriptions now. What are some strategies or tactics that you could share with our audience around knowing the next product and market research and validation. Anything there that you could share that might be helpful to foundrs?
Michael: Well you should definitely do your research. It’s always a blend of gut and research. I never recommend doing anything too quickly but at the same time you don’t want to over research because you could certainly think something to death. Yeah, definitely research it but don’t overthink it.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. When it comes to, I guess you guys want to move into a new space. Do you have anything that perhaps would be valuable? Anything that you’ve learned from your experiences perhaps where you’ve launched too fast or you’ve missed the nail on the head or you just didn’t work? Any experiences, stories? Just because I know this is something that people struggle with, like when do you know when to launch the next product. When do you know when to add on another service?
Michael: Well you know. I’ve sort of answered that you know. I think you want to wait until you’ve got core trust in your core product area or category so that you have enough trust that you can leverage as you go into the next one. People need to be able to say “they’ve nailed that category A so I believe that they’re going to do well in category B” but if you do it too quickly people will be like “wait a minute I thought they were a scissors company, now they’re selling rulers so are they now a home office store? Should I be thinking about them for everything or just the best possible scissors that they have”? There’s a danger until you’ve really nailed your first thing, you’re going too quickly.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. That makes sense. When it comes to hard times because this is definitely not easy. Especially building something of true worth and significance and scale that you have and guys have in your team in a short period of time. Do you have any stories or anything you could share about some of the hard times?
Michael: Well, yeah. You’re going to go through hard times. You’re going to go through lonely periods. That’s to be expected. There’s really nothing that anybody can tell you that’s going to help make that feel better, feel great. You just have to go through it truly but what happens each time is you get a little bit more used to the crisis and you realise ultimately that things never, most of the time, most of the time I should say, are never as bad as you think they could be. They’re also not going as great as you think they could be so the truth is always in the middle. To that you could then say to yourself “try not to sweep yourself out, take it one day at a time” and eventually you’ll develop a muscle for weathering the times.
Nathan: What are your thought on the physical product subscription model. Were you guys some of the first to do that? When you launched was it very common back then?
Michael: I don’t think we can take credit for subscription commerce. People have been subscribing to magazines for a hundred years. We did not invent a subscription. I think we were one of the early people to really leverage it with such scale for such a important core consumer package good but at the end of the day a lot of people get addicted to the notion of a subscription business because they love the idea of monthly recurring revenue but you should only be launching a subscription business if it’s going to be an enhancement to your business, to the customers experience. The customer’s experience is the most important thing. If delivering them a subscription is going to make their life better or happier you should offer a subscription. If not, you shouldn’t because otherwise people are going to get frustrated and that’s going to do more damage than good.
Ultimately razors made sense for subscription because you run out of them and when you run out of them you’re forced to use an old razor or no razor and the old razor doesn’t feel good and no razor makes you look like pretty scruff and unprofessional perhaps. Your solution is optimal but when the razors just kind of show up. You’re like, “ah goodness”. That shave with a fresh blade feels amazing.
Nathan: That makes sense. That’s a great answer. I agree. The reason I was asking this question is you see a lot of companies or new brands entering the space that are all subscription on the physical product side which is interesting and it’s definitely a growing trend. Yeah, no that all makes sense and I think that’s really a great way to look at it. I guess when it came to, you did a really good job at the scale you must have had- Was the biggest challenge cash flow and production of products? Was that the biggest challenge?
Michael: In terms of what?
Nathan: Scale, like you had to demand but you couldn’t keep up with having enough product to send to people.
Michael: That was an early days problem but wasn’t really a long term problem for us.
Nathan: Okay. What was some of your biggest problems that you faced with growing?
Michael: I think finding talent. Finding great talent is always going to be the hardest thing that any entrepreneur does because ultimately there is somebody out there in the marketplace that can help you do your job really well and help you build your company the best way possible but you got to go out and find them in the great wide world of zillion hundred million people and that’s really tricky, right. That’s always going to the hardest part.
Nathan: Yeah that makes sense. We have to work wrapping up but I’d love to hear about culture. You guys are still based in LA. You have a warehouse packing orders still in California. No, you’re in Kentucky now. You got a DC, a 3PO in Kentucky. Is that still correct?
Michael: No, no. We’re in Ohio. We’ve one in Ohio and one in Los Angeles.
Nathan: Got you. I’d love to hear about culture. What are the things you guys are doing around culture? What really excites you about the way you’ve built the culture at DSC?
Michael: Well I think that culture is a tricky word. A lot of people mistake culture from meaning a coffee bar and a bean bag chair for everybody or stand up desks and that’s not what culture is. Culture is a much more complex, complicated animal than that. To me culture means people are into their jobs. They feel like they’re contributing to the mission. They feel like they’re being valued for their contribution and recognised for their contribution and that they have a career path at that company. That’s culture. All the other stuff is icing on the cake.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. What are some things that you guys are doing to ensure if somebody works at DSC they do their best work. They’re recognised, they’re rewarded. There’s just great people.
Michael: Well we try to call out peoples successes. That’s the first thing. That’s the best thing. We are always looking for new ways that we can do that.
Nathan: Awesome. Well look. We’ll work towards wrapping up Michael. Just a final question. Two last questions. One, what is the best piece of advice that you’d like to share anybody listening and secondly where’s the best place where people can find out more about yourself and your work?
Michael: Well there was a good podcast that we did recently that I did, that talks about origin of DSC that’s on NPR it’s called “How I built this” by Guy Raz. That was back in December of 2018 so that’s a good one. If they want people can also look at my- I gave the commencement address at Emory University in Atlanta. Which is my… I did that in April, oh sorry, May of 2018 so I would absolutely check those things out. That’s on YouTube. You know the web is full of other things if they want to search for interviews of me or whatever. Ultimately that’s where they can find out more. Your other question was what’s the best piece of advice I was given or the best piece of advice that I can give?
Nathan: Either or.
Michael: I would say my advice to entrepreneurs who are starting companies is you have to be relentless but you also have to step away and take breaks. You can’t work yourself to death because it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Michael Dubin
- Check out Dollar Shave Club’s website.
- To learn more about DSC’s start, listen to Michael Dubin’s interview on How I Built This with Guy Raz.
- For more inspiration, watch Dubin’s Emory University 2018 commencement address.