“As the CEO, you have to realize you can’t do everything yourself anymore,” says Michael Dubin about Dollar Shave’s, and his own, growing pains.
Michael Dubin conjured Dollar Shave Club initially as a way to help a friend’s father offload a surplus supply of razors. The idea was good; the marketing, genius. Propelled by an insanely viral You-Tube spot featuring Dubin and his dry wit, the company took in more than $3.5 million in revenue in 2012. Sales topped $225 million by the time Unilever bought DSC, for a reported $1 billion, in 2016. –As told to Lindsay Blakely
I have a background in media, marketing, and brand development–and I did improv training with the Upright Citizens Brigade for eight years. So I did the bulk of Dollar Shave Club’s creative work in the beginning. I wrote the script for that first video spot, and a friend of mine from my improv days shot it in one day for $4,500. It was very scrappy. The day it went live, our site crashed from all the traffic–but within 48 hours, we received 12,000 orders.
We moved pretty quickly beyond selling just razors. Our members definitely let us know they wanted more, and we always knew we would do other products. In 2013, we came out with a shave butter. Then we launched butt wipes, something that we learned through our research a lot of guys were secretly using already. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Since 2015, we’ve launched in at least one new category a year–shower, hair care, skin care products–and the prep for these launches starts years before they happen.
The marketing element is critical to DSC–it’s so vital that we get that right. Great storytelling is why we’ve been able to grow so fast. That and the pretty low barriers to entry when it came to men’s grooming products.
In the beginning, you’re figuring things out on the fly and everyone is wearing many hats. For a good part of the first year, we were all doing the same things–responding to emails, printing labels, making trips to the warehouse in the middle of the night.
By late 2014, something started to shift in the company. You get to a point–usually it’s between 50 and 80 employees–when you need to start bringing in some process and organizational discipline. As the CEO, you have to realize you can’t do everything yourself anymore. And teams need strategists, but they also need the right layers above and below to execute in specific areas. And I don’t mean stacking people on top of one another hierarchically. I’m talking about ever-deeper layers of specialization and focus.
Dubin’s creative is as good as his razors.
Around this time, I started up an internal creative agency. We needed to build a really robust campaign for our first made-for-TV spots, which poked fun at how hard it can be to get into the “razor fortress” in most retail locations. I found some entrepreneurial creatives who could do more with less–we still had to be pretty scrappy–and an incredible project manager who could keep us on track.
A lot of companies outsource much of their creative work. We don’t. We wanted this expertise in-house precisely so we could be more nimble. This small group has grown to about 20 people. I still lead the team, help brainstorm, and give final approval, but instead of doing 75 percent of the work, like I did in 2013 and 2014, now I’m involved in probably about 20 percent of the work.
Our viral videos are basically our bible, and they help the team maintain our unique voice. The marketing has probably been the hardest thing for me to delegate as we’ve gotten bigger. It’s tough to realize that you need to hire people who can do things better than you, especially when you have some expertise in a particular area.
Then again, it’s also challenging to hire people for positions that you have no expertise in. I made that mistake with my first senior engineering hire, back in 2012. I just didn’t understand the necessary qualifications because of my own inexperience. It became clear pretty quickly that it wasn’t a good fit. Ultimately, if you want to build a big company, you need talent for every department that matches the much higher level you see at more mature companies. The more experts you have, the faster you can move. Instead of doing the work yourself, you have to shift into a role of inspiring and motivating people to drive the right results. It’s one of the most important shifts a startup needs to make on the road to becoming a big company.
Last year, we developed our Wanderer line of shower products. Our team had teased out a couple of different angles for the campaign, and then we settled on one we really liked. It was around the concept of the shower’s being the best place for your mind to, you know, wander. Four days before the shoot, someone on our creative team noticed that a competitor had just released a campaign for a similar product–and it featured a guy daydreaming in a shower. There was definitely a moment when we said, “Oh, shit–what do we do?” Obviously, one option was to just run with our original creative anyway.
But you can never be precious about your darlings. (I forget who gets credit for that quote.) The team got back in a room and immediately started working some new scripts that could make use of the talent and directors we’d already booked. The fact that they were able to scrap three months of work and redo the campaign in a matter of days had everything to do with the expertise on that team. I also think creativity thrives when you have to work within restrictions.
I know from my days of doing improv and sketch writing that improvising makes you a great synthesizer of ideas. I look for people with that natural ability. You want to know how they deal with challenges. If you’re the right type of synthesizer and solution builder, you’ll find a way.
I feel like we’re still in the process of shifting from startup to larger company. We’re always trying to build the ideal structure. We can do more, faster, now that we’re owned by Unilever–and now that I don’t have to spend my time fundraising every year. But we operate completely independently. I don’t discuss creative decisions with Unilever. DSC is DSC because of the decisions we have made in-house, and Unilever respects that.