"I think the best part about this is actually the shared experience. I think when you go through this journey, it can be so crazy."
Justin Stefano and Philippe von Borries are the co-founders and co-CEO's of Refinery29 - a 12 year old media and content company built for, 'the most powerful generation of women around the world.'
They are listed as one of America’s fastest growing private companies and the site is reported to generate one billion page views annually.
I sat down with Philip and Justin in the Refinery 29 offices in lower Manhattan a few days ago, and talked to them about their partnership, how they built a half billion business from a sketch they drew literally on the back of a napkin in a coffee shop on the upper east side, and what the future looks like from where they sit.
- A passion for helping others find their voice and express themselves
- The willingness to constantly ask questions about what's possible, what else could we do, where else could this go?
- The ability to look at the other point of view.
"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT
Episode 1: Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano
Charles: Hello, you're listening to Fearless, where we explore the art and science of leading creativity, an unpredictable, a morphis and invaluable resource critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders of the world's most disruptive companies; how they're jumping into the fire, crossing the chasm and blowing up the status quo. Leaders who have mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable, so stay tuned, because in the next half hour, anything could happen.
Hello, and welcome to the first episode of Fearless. Justin Stefano and Philippe Von Borries are the co founders and the co CEO's of Refinery 29, a 12 year old media and content company, originally made famous through its website, but now developing video programming and real time experiences among many other outlets. They describe themselves as on a mission to build the most influential media company for the most powerful generation of women around the world. Industry metrics say the site generates one billion page views annually. They're listed as one of America's fastest growing private companies. They recently sold a stake in the business [inaudible 00:01:41] broadcasting, and if the news reports are to be believed, the investment was based on the company being worth 500 million dollars.
I sat down with Philip and Justin in Refinery 29 offices in lower Manhattan a few days ago, and talked to them about their partnership, about how they built a half billion dollar business from a sketch they drew literally on the back of a napkin in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side, and what the future looks like from where they sit.
Charles: I'm sitting here today with Justin Stefano and Philippe Von Borries, who are the co founders and co CEO's of Refinery 29 INC. I want to welcome to both to the show.
Philippe: Thank you.
Justin: Thanks for having us.
Charles: I'm really excited to have you for a couple of reasons. One of which is that this is the first episode of Fearless, and you guys and the company you've built really exemplifies the kinds of leaders that I'm interested in talking to; disruptive, blowing up the status quo, changing the way people think about stuff. I couldn't be happier to have you here, and I'm really looking forward to an interesting conversation.
Let me start with a really simple question; what's your first memory of creativity, of something being creative? Either one of you.
Philippe: That's a really tough question.
Justin: First memory of something being creative. I remember doing paper mache, making paper mache sculptures in kindergarten when I was a kid, in terms of more traditional definition of creativity. I also have super early childhood memories from when I was probably three years old or so, of going with my parents to museums. I wouldn't say that was necessarily a creative act by any means, but I think that from a very early age, that feeling of being around creativity sunk in. My earliest memory is that, just roaming the halls of a natural history museum and kind of peering up at the totems. I think that's actually one of my earliest childhood memories period, the totems at the natural history museum.
Charles: I bet that was strengthening actually, as a small child.
Justin: It was unbelievable.
Philippe: My mom used to tell me when I grew up that I was going to be really successful, but if there was one thing that I was not, it was creative. I actually found my creativity through coming to the states and going to boarding school, which incidentally, is where Justin and I met. Probably progressively through A, today my wife, and Refinery. So, the journey has been later staged.
Charles: What was it that happened at school that made you - [crosstalk 00:04:32]
Philippe: It's funny. Justin and I have known each other, which is almost creepy at this point, for the majority of our lives and actually met in high school.
Charles: Literally more than half of your life.
Philippe: Literally more than half of our lives. Interestingly enough, we just returned there and gave the annual lecture to the student body and faculty, which was one of the most stressful, probably the most stressful moment in the entire history of running the company together. Anyways, the school was a little left of center, highly creative, encouraged you to sort of deviate from the regular path and take lots of creative classes, from architecture to photography to so on. That was probably when I really sort of got going.
Charles: Yeah, I can imagine, that must have been really stimulating actually. When you started to realize that you were creative, how did that change your self image? What did that start to give you permission to lean into?
Philippe: I think the thing about creativity is that you find it in unexpected places and just in sort of diverse experiences, and pursuing things that don't necessarily make sense in the first path. It's not like you seek out, and you're like, oh, now I'm going to be creative. It's just by sort of going after a lot of different things that you may or may not pursue in life. I think that's what it was all about, having license to do things just because they seemed interesting. Maybe they'll lead nowhere, but that's what life is about, you just take a lot of different detours. Some of them lead to the next stage, some of them bring you to the next level.
Charles: Justin, when you guys met, what was it that formed the basis of the relationship?
Justin: Philippe and I?
Justin: You know, alcohol, and all those fun high school activities that we probably shouldn't talk about on a public podcast. But, we were friends in high school. Philippe was actually a year older than me.
Charles: Is he still?
Justin: He still is.
Charles: He still is.
Justin: Well, maybe a year and a half, if we actually do the details of it. So, he was a year older and was close friends with my girlfriend at the time. We actually became friends on the weekends, when we would kind of all go away. We'd check out. We went to a boarding school, so we would check out and go to different friend's houses on the weekends to kind of escape campus. We checked out one weekend to go to one of his mother's friend's homes in Maine. I went because again, my girlfriend was good friends with him.
Philippe: You were adopted by the grade that I was in. You were like the -
Justin: Yeah, I was always into older people. I found them more interesting than my grade. That was kind of how we originally connected, and then we both ended up in school in New York. We both ended up going to college in New York city, and were both living on the Upper East Side. That's where we really became friends.
Charles: Did you study the same things?
Justin: No. I studied philosophy and politics. We actually went to different schools. I was at NYU and Philippe was in Columbia.
Philippe: But we both lived on the upper West Side so we'd hang out.
Justin: Upper East.
Charles: What were you studying?
Philippe: I was studying history. I went to Columbia, and that's why we started on the Upper East but eventually both ended up on the Upper West side. Justin went to NYU and I went to Columbia.
Charles: That's an amazing journey. Both from how you met, and also the fact that what you were doing in college ... I was going to say has no impact on what you're doing now, clearly that's not true but, it's not a straight line from that beginning to the company that you have built and are building today.
Justin: It's funny, we just went back a couple weeks ago to speak at our high school. It's the first time we'd been back in 20 years. We actually opened it, we opened our talk with a Steve Jobs quote that I'm going to completely butcher. The gist of it was basically that creative ideas or creativity comes out of the ability to connect dots, and the more dots that you have or the more dots that you have on your map, the better the idea can be and the more it opens up new ways of seeing things, because you have so many kind of relative points of reference.
Obviously we come from very different backgrounds than our current industry. We come from very different backgrounds than each other. Our entire path to get to where we are today has not been linear at all, it's been quite the opposite. I think part of it is the diverse experience that we've had over the year, I think its helped us and has been a real asset because that experience just helps you think about things differently.
Charles: How did you guys decide to start a business? What was the genesis of Refinery 29?
Philippe: We would take like deviant weekends away and do all the stuff that you're supposed to do in your early twenties, and always talk about ideas. We were just always thinking about different things that you could be doing out in the world. This is probably in year two or one after graduating college. It's interesting, because a lot of the people we were surrounding ourselves with were all going down different entrepreneurial tracks and we're launching different businesses. One of our good friends became a very successful musician. Our other two friends launched what became a really successful fashion line.
So, we were just surrounded by people who were entrepreneurs. Everyone in my family was an entrepreneur. We would hang out in the weekend and talk about different ideas. One faithful night, we were out actually listening to our very good friend's first show at a bar called Zebulun in Williamsburg, which unfortunately doesn't exist anymore, but was this really amazing place where all these incredible jazz musicians would play. We'd hang out and we went outside and we talked about the fact that there was all this incredible creative talent, opening up new brands, new stores. We were talking about local discovery in particular and we were saying, how amazing would it be if you could walk into a mall and instead of finding all these big box mass retailers that you're familiar with, you would find all of these incredible, independent brands and stores ... And if you could boil that down into a digital destination.
That was the first moment where we were connecting two things; mall on the left and cool indie brands and retailers, and bringing them together in a digital destination.
Charles: What year was this?
Philippe: This was 2004.
Charles: So the internet is still pretty nascent at that point, pretty innocent. That was a pretty radical thought back then.
Justin: Yeah, it was very quiet at the web. It was very quiet, there wasn't a lot going on.
Charles: That's [inaudible 00:11:40].
Justin: It was hard to get distribution. It was before a lot of the big content distribution networks ... social networks and also the hard networks had been developed. It was a lot of heavy lifting. We grew a digital business with clip boards and pens. Going out in the real world, and getting people's email addresses and manually putting them into an email data base. There was a very physical beginning to our very digital business.
Charles: I think that's true of most disruptive businesses. There's a real hard work behind it. It's not a moment of inspiration and click a switch and it all happens. There's real labor, there's real effort that goes into building a company like this.
Philippe: Yeah, few things work that way. Few things just turn on and next thing you know, they're listed publicly. I think most things, when you ask around, you ask somebody how long they've been doing it, when did they start, you're always shocked to find out that they've actually been doing it for like ten years.
Philippe: And you had no idea. For eight of those years, they were walking around with clip boards, signing people up. That's always the story.
Charles: So you have this first genesis of an idea, what happens then? How does it start to become real?
Justin: We started just meeting a couple times a week after work at a coffee shop.
Charles: Where were you working?
Justin: I was working for New York City, investigating the police for a civilian oversight organization called the CCRV. Totally, completely, could not be more different. I would leave work at five or six PM, whenever I was done and go up town and meet Philippe in the East village. There was a coffee shop that we would always go to, and we would just work on this until like eight or nine at night.
Charles: Did you see what it ... obviously not this vision but, did you have a sense or a vision of what you were trying to create? What you were aiming for?
Justin: We literally had a sketch on a napkin. We did that. That sounds so cliché and silly but at that bar that night, we actually drew out a mall map on a napkin, which I wish we still had. I don't know what the hell happened to that thing. It would be really cool if we had it.
Philippe: That would be cool, yeah.
Justin: But when you look at what the first launch of the site looked like, it was obviously different but it was pretty similar to that concept, which was based on those maps inside of a shopping mall.
Charles: So this was a physical business you were envisioning.
Justin: It was a digital business but it was based on a real world paradigm, which was the shopping mall map. That was the first, the thing that we wanted to translate into the digital world, because you had City Search and you had some of these local indexes that existed but they were basically like the yellow pages. There was no storytelling, context or anything special about them.
Charles: So what was kind of the extent of your imagination? How big did you see this becoming as a concept? What was the geography of it to begin with?
Philippe: Big is relative to the size of the stage in your life. To us, launching this thing, getting it out into the world and getting people to come there seemed big. Pretty quickly after launching, probably two months thereafter, we were both fully in it and committed, so that seemed big to us. We didn't go out there and say, okay, this thing is now going to morph into becoming the most influential media company for young women around the world. It was very organic, step by step. First step of big was about building an audience that came back regularly, and making sure that on the other side, signing vendors up and small merchants and brands that were delivering value. It was a very stage by stage progression, where you always sort of felt like you arrived at the next level and then you're like, oh, it's day one again. Now lets go to the next level.
At some respect, ten years later, that's actually still the case. We constantly feel like now we're at the next level and now it's the next step.
Charles: How did the name come about?
Philippe: The name came about because we were sort of obsessed with the concept of discovery and local curation and refining information, so, refinery was literally a digital mall and it was a physical space. That mall was called the refinery and each level was made up of 29 stores and you could filter by different categories. It was a silly idea because we outgrew it in like hour two of running the business. In fact, I think for the first three years, remember how many conversations there were where people were like, "you have to change that name."
Justin: Oh yeah. Its like someone telling you your child is ugly. You're like, I can't change the name. It is what it is, it was born this way.
Philippe: But yeah ... I think people had a hard time reconciling it with sort of ... We didn't talk about the audience yet. It wasn't actually for men and women, just women were the ones who actually cared. I think people had a hard time reconciling it with sort of style and traditional forms of media and women, and people just couldn't put it together.
Charles: You were gender neutral to begin with, you weren't setting out to build a women specific.
Philippe: Totally. We just built it as much for us as for anyone. We were totally gender neutral for the first couple years, but then it became pretty clear that women were the ones who cared.
Charles: How did you start to morph it into the site or the business that it is today? What was the next crucial step as you started to realize there was an audience for this? You started to realize there was some traction behind this, what was the next phase? What happened then?
Philippe: It pretty quickly was apparent to us that content was the conduit that brought people back. By the way, all different forms of content. We'd go to stores, literally every day, we'd go to all of these stores who are featuring and they had no e-commerce so we'd take a piece of merchandise, like a necklace or a dress and we'd take it out in the street, lay down a piece of white paper, photograph it, go back to the office, upload it and show all these cool products. On the other hand, we were doing cool features about people's favorite spots in their neighborhoods, in their profiles and people became hooked. I think we realized pretty quickly that we're good at producing content and sort of strategizing in and around content.
Email became a thing. We were able to get people to come back through email again and again. So, we realized that that was our way of growing the business and growing the brand. We'd identified the voice that people identified with. We built a business model, at its first incarnation, it was actually e-commerce focused because the opportunity in digital media just seemed relatively small. Then, we had built our small indie mall and a large brand came to us. I think at the time it was Ralph Lauren and they said "Hey, we want a store in there" and we said no, it's just for indie brands. We said "we can build you a pop up store. It's going to cost you x amount of money." It was probably like 100 thousand dollars. That became, essentially, the earliest form of brand content, because we built them a store and we created a lot of content to get people back. They saw a lot of success with it, and that was like the dot on the map of what would essentially become our business.
Charles: What do you think attracted the audience? What made them come back originally as you were building the original concept? What was the connection for them?
Justin: It was content that they weren't getting at other places. We were writing about stuff that main screen video wasn't writing about. We were writing about young designers that weren't getting covered in the pages of Lucky magazine or Vogue or Elle. We were writing about local stores that weren't getting covered on local television. We were writing about the stuff that was happening at the fringes but there was a lot of people that were really interested in it. There was just nowhere else to get that kind of content. I think that was really kind of the draw at the beginning, and the voice and the point of view. It always had a really strong voice.
Charles: Did that come from you guys or did you have other people involved?
Justin: That came from Piera and Christine, who are two other co-founders, who were really driving a lot of the creative vision on the content side of the business. They just did an unbelievable job at creating content that connected and that felt really authentic. It was really authentic, it didn't just feel that way. It was their voice. The packaging was really good. Christine came from a traditional media background and was really good at packaging up headlines, and packaging up tone. Piere came from traditional creative direction background and could really package up the look and feel. It just had a very unique aesthetic and texture to it that stood out.
Philippe: There were early things I remember that went viral in the days of when viral just became a thing. We did this infographic on how to get shot by the sartorial list. I'm not sure, do you remember the sartorial list?
Charles: No, I don't.
Philippe: The original man behind street style. Street style was at one point not a thing and then it became the thing that made fashion weeks. So, this guy had a huge following, created this chart, this infographic about how you could get shot by the sartorial list, and that just blew up. Fashion week, in a similar vein, it's such a different thing today than it was ten years ago but, we would go to fashion weeks and just shoot people's shoes. Not their full bodies, there was this thing called "style stalking" and people just went crazy over it. To Justin's point, it was about two things; it was about discovery and utility. We always connected those two things, that you could discover something cool but then we gave you the path to take action.
If you found something that was far out there, we showed you how you could discover it, buy it somewhere.
Charles: Were you analyzing why it was working? Did you have that realization at the time, in real time? That's a really smart play -
Philippe: As much as real time was a thing back then, but we were always focused on data, always. From the earliest of early days, we would study how people came to us and what things they were looking at, what patterns we were detecting in the content that we were producing. In fact, I think one result of us growing the business through those early years in which we, by the way, hardly raised any money, was that we had just set ourselves goals; month after month after month, in terms of what success meant, and looking at data was one of the key reasons that it actually got there.
Charles: When did you decide to leave your jobs? What was the point at which you thought "there's enough here that we want to do this full time." You were investigating the police, Philippe, what were you doing?
Philippe: I was working in DC for a startup in media. It was called the Global List. It was all about international reporting and international affairs and I got interested in media, really didn't like living in DC. It just felt like I was missing everything about New York creatively. I was all in month three of doing this thing. We were 24 years old.
Justin: Just to be clear, there was no rational reason for this. It made no sense. There wasn't an indicator where we were like, oh, this is clearly going to be successful now, so now we can leave our jobs. Leaving our jobs was insane at the time and made no sense. Actually, we had a lot of friends -
Charles: So you had no vision for, "we'll have a billion page views" -
Charles: That was not -
Justin: We had friends that were literally like -
Philippe: It wasn't insane. I would tell anyone who is 24 years old who has a dream like that.
Justin: I'm not saying that. I would absolutely encourage someone else to do it for sure, but, it is a leap of faith thing. At that stage in a business, you don't have enough data to make a rational decision about it. You have to make a somewhat irrational decision based on kind of your passion for what you're doing, and in a certain kind of faith in the fact that you're going to figure it out. There's a start up term called Ramen Profitability, meaning that you just make enough profit to cover your costs.
Philippe: Yeah, your ramen. Not that we were eating Ramen. We were probably eating pizza somewhere.
Charles: So you both came to this conclusion pretty quickly, that there was enough here that you wanted to see what it could become.
Philippe: Yeah, very quickly.
Charles: Really? There were four of you to begin with, is that right?
Charles: When did you start to think we need to add other people to this thing? What was the trigger for this becoming beyond a group of co founders and saying we need space, we need all those thing that turn it into a business?
Justin: We sub divided our first office ... We launched in June 2005, and we rented our first office in the beginning of 2006, so that was probably about six or eight months into it that we got our first office space. We didn't have our first employee until ... It was a while. It was probably a good year and a half after launching before we actually hired someone outside of ourselves. We called in a lot of favors, we worked with a lot of freelancers. It was a while, it was a lot of ... We were just doing everything.
Charles: So, you were teaching yourself how to run a business at the same time as trying to figure out what the business was.
Justin: Correct, at the same time as we were driving a beat up van around Brooklyn photographing stores and interviewing store clerks about what products were selling on any given day.
Charles: What was the toughest lesson back then?
Philippe: Just how long everything was going to take, I think that was the biggest thing. The timeline on everything is a lot longer, including building an audience and getting a brand to commit, all of that. At first, we didn't raise money for the first couple of years and eventually raised money from a New York City designer, Steven Alan, who gave us a 160 thousand dollar check and we made that last for three years and built our first business. Any other lessons?
Justin: There were so many. There was lots of small, micro lessons. Everything was on such a small scale, that you couldn't fuck up that bad. That's one of the great amazing things about a startup and also about having limited resources. You make lots of small bets versus big bets. There was lots of little things.
Charles: I always thought the process of building a business really got you humbled really quickly. It certainly did in my case. I remember the hardest lesson we learned, I think in the first couple of months ... We started a film editing company in our case and we hired a business manager who knew slightly more than we did about running a business, which is to say, not much ... She came to me one day and said "I'm really busy. I've got all these things to do. Tell me what I should prioritize." I said "invoicing. You don't have to worry about that. Why don't you stop invoicing for a while and we'll just catch up." 90 days later, we ran out of money because we didn't send out invoices for like 30 days. I always think that no matter how aware you are of the macro level stuff, it's the small stuff that you have to learn painfully sometimes when you're starting your own business.
Philippe: Yep, it definitely is.
Charles: It's a tough process. So, you rent an office space; what is the business looking like now? You've got people like Ralph Lauren coming to you and saying "this stuff is special. There's value here for us." How did you start to expand on that?
Philippe: First of all, we needed to build a business, right, because we didn't actually raise a lot of money so we needed to make this thing profitable and generate revenue, and make us generate enough cash so we can pay ourselves 30 thousand dollars a year. So, we executed a couple of these partnerships and things started to fall into place, and what we realized is that there was an opportunity. The traditional publishers that we were sort of working in the shadow of were completely ignorant of digital at this point. It wasn't happening. We were able to convince a lot of brands to take a risk on us. I think the first big step happened when we decided to hire someone on the sales side and someone on the marketing side.
This is actually a big lesson, both of these hires seemed way to big at the time. It's interesting, because now, when we speak to a lot of young entrepreneurs who are at different stages, and you think about making that first hire, you end up being a little bit too conservative. I think we decided to just take a leap of faith and that this was going to be a big step for us, and it proved right.
Charles: What were you looking for in those people? Were you starting to think about chemistry? Were you starting to think about personality? Were you conscious that you were building a culture at that point?
Justin: I wouldn't say that we were conscious that we were building a culture, because I think we didn't even know enough at that point to be thinking about it that deliberately. We were conscious about the fact that we wanted to be surrounded by people who we really wanted to work with, and who we saw eye to eye with, both in terms of the opportunity to build something really big as well as their overall point of view on the world and their ethos and their value system. We naturally surrounded ourselves with ... I mean, we were like four friends who started this. When we built the company, naturally, we were hiring people that we wanted to be around. Our culture very organically started forming from that.
Charles: How was your partnership evolving? I always think it's fascinating to talk to people who have had a successful long term partnership. I married my business partner. As Philippe knows, that brings both joy and implications to that relationship.
Philippe: I don't know what you're talking about.
Charles: How did you form your partnership? How did you evolve that?
Justin: There's been a lot of different iterations of it. Its gone from times in the business where we had to have very distinct, very different roles, we did very different things. Early on, I would say it was that way because we had such limited resources that you had to just ... Philippe was very focused on content and growth and brand, and I was very focused on the revenue and did we have our payroll system set up? Who the accountant was going to be, and all that stuff. He said at the beginning that he never thought of himself as a creative but that's bull shit, he's very creative. I think that we both did this because we both love all sides of the business.
I think over time, there has been different constellations and I think more recently, we're both more involved in lots of stuff, and there's more shared ownership of areas inside of the business where we're both passionate and where it's really important that information circulates efficiently. So, it's evolved a lot over the years.
Charles: What's the toughest part about being in partnership for you guys?
Philippe: We share an office together. There's several moments a week where we probably want to punch the other person in the face, but then we still go on weekend trips together. I think the toughest part is that you have to ... The toughest part is also the best part; it's that you have to ultimately agree on things, right? One person might want to wait on something, the other person might want to move quicker but, in the end, you always actually have the added benefit of making the decision together and going through difficult or great moments together, right? I think the best part is that we can go to a dinner or be on the way to a dinner and be so pissed at each other about something, then you go to dinner and on the way back you laugh it off. That happens again and again.
Through twelve years, there has never been a moment where we held a grudge that lasted longer than 24 hours. I think 24 would be like a long time. I think the best part about this is actually the shared experience. I think when you go through this journey, it can be so crazy. There is moments where you're just like, oh my God, what am I doing? Two hours later, you're like, this is the best thing ever. To have somebody you can share that with is a pretty meaningful experience.
Charles: Have you gotten to the point now where you'll make decisions for each other, or do you always make sure you're including the other in every key decision?
Justin: Key decision -
Justin: Key decisions we're both really good at looping the other one in ... But we both make decisions all the time that we know the other one will be fine with for the stuff that isn't huge and strategic.
Charles: Really interesting. To what the dynamic between two people ... As the pressure mounts when you're building a successful business, you just have to keep navigating the inter personal side and a lot of people don't make that work. 12 years in, I think it's an enormously impressive characteristic of the two of you, that you've been able to figure this out.
Justin: Yeah. The downside to not figuring it out too, like Philippe was saying ... When I meet people who are kind of solo founders, who did it all themselves, I don't know how they did it. The amount of peeks and valleys, it's really freaking hard. Having someone to share that experience with, it outweighs all of the issues ten times over.
Charles: Yeah, I agree totally, having had the benefit myself with somebody, to share the frightening moments as well as the up moment. I think however you find it, it's really important to have that perspective in your partnership.
So, the business is growing. You decide to put systems, infrastructure, processes in place. You've got space, you're starting to add employees, what happened then?
Justin: We started growing up, right? We started having to focus more on operations and on culture building, and had to create infrastructure. When you're ten people, you can kind of pack it, right? When you're 15, even 20 people, you can still kind of pack it. I think for us, the moment where it started feeling like a real thing, is when we were probably around 30 or 40 people. Suddenly, we really needed processes that would help us scale. We just started bringing in people around us that knew how to do that, kind of help us build that out.
Philippe: We also raised our first official round of financing, and that actually focused everything. The story of Refinery really is the story of two chapters. The first chapter, we were literally just in our twenties, building this thing, building a brand, raising a little bit of money but not enough to make it seem ... not that it wasn't real but the expectations were different. We were forcing our own expectations on us, and as time went on, we brought serious players to the table, who became backers of the business, the expectation from the outside world started to look different as well. I think the second half then, has been defined by high growth, fast expansion of our team, really important partners who have committed themselves as financial backers in Refinery 29.
I remember specifically, thinking about our first board meeting. I remember going to Justin and being like, do you know what a board tech looks like? I remember specifically, I was like I have no idea what we're going to put in this thing. What's this thing going to look like?
Charles: What did you put in there?
Philippe: Well, I think another lesson is that we've always been so open about what we didn't know, but with a degree of confidence at the same time. We actually went to one of our investors, the investor that invested in business and said just send us the board tech from one of your other portfolio companies. We have no idea what to put in this thing.
Justin: We should go dig that board tech up.
Philippe: So, we made a board tech. We had no idea, but that's the story of building this business for us. Again and again and again, there have been moments where this is a first. That happens now several times a week and its been the story of the last twelve years.
Charles: I imagine that moment when you decided a, we should go and get serious money and b, the next question was how do we do that? It must have been quite a point of evolution for you guys. When you look from the outside in at a business like this and the success you've had and are having, and you start to look at the people that are now involved in the business as financial partners, you go back all the way to the very first moment where you think I'm going to get somebody else involved ... Describe that. What was that process like? What was that feeling of a, we should do this and b, how do we do this and c, can we do this like?
Justin: Meaning, when we first raised -
Charles: When you raised your first serious round of funding from the outside, what was it like going through that process?
Justin: First of all, they always say the first round is the hardest round, and that's absolutely true. The amount of time and focus that it took us to get that done, I think we were working on it for a year before it finally got done. Maybe longer. That, talk about a process of ups and downs. You would have a meeting with someone where you thought the deal was closed, it was done, and then you would just never hear from him again.
Philippe: Our very first meeting happened in San Francisco, in Palo Alto with probably one of the most important funds. It actually started with leaving San Francisco. This is how ... how we literally knew nothing about the world of venture or the geography of venture because we left the city going north on the freeway and arrived in wine country, only to realize that we were supposed to drive south to Palo Alto -
Justin: Palo Alto was south.
Philippe: And race through San Francisco and arrive 45 minutes late to a meeting and literally one of the most famous names in Silicon Valley. Walked into a meeting, sweating, sitting across from five dudes wearing kakis and oversized shirts and showing up and telling the story about fashion ... A women's focused media company, and of course, you can imagine how the meeting went.
Charles: That sounds like the kind of journey that I would have taken myself actually.
Justin: It was tough. The other thing is, as soon as you raise a real institutional round of funding, obviously everything changes. You start having the quarterly board meetings, the expectation for results and for accurate forecasting and for hitting your numbers. All that stuff gets a lot more serious.
Charles: Did you like the rigor that that brought or did you push against it?
Justin: We did actually. We always ran a fairly disciplined, kind of rigorous process. Even ourselves, before we raised money, we would always go on quarterly retreats, we'd create decks and come back with business plans for the next quarter, for the next six months. We always kind of self imposed that to a degree before we raised the financing. The difference was that we self imposed it, but it was still for us. So, if we wanted to change something later or something went in a different direction, the only people that were going to be disappointed was ourselves.
But, as soon as you raise money and you get people involved from the outside, it just changes the dynamic.
Charles: The growth of the business has been pretty stunning since that point. You've really found a really important voice in society I think. I read something that you had written, Philippe. I think it was a keynote that you gave at South by Southwest, right? Changing the framing around millennial people and saying millennial is actually a mindset. Talk to us a little bit about that, and sort of how you place yourselves in the world now. What does millennial as a mind set mean to you guys?
Philippe: Just quickly of course, the arc of the story is that from those early days ... Our focus now, as a company is on women, particularly on telling stories through a female lens, and that women are the protagonists of our content. Ultimately, creating content that matters for everyone, but it's through a female lens. That, of course, is one of the most important parts. The second thing is that we deal with our audience being young women. Majority of them being millennials now, they're gen z, so it's the full spectrum but, I think the point of that talk was that you're dealing with a world that likes to just bucket things and saying, here are your 500 million millennials, but they're all individuals. They all have separate passions and things that they love. It's about niche interests that bring people today.
The story of Refinery is about celebrating niches, and people that have a specific interest, and being a millennial is about caring about the world, about global society and having very specific interests that connect. That was the point of that talk. It certainly is the very influence of Refinery.
Charles: That recognition has evolved over the last what, three, four, five, six years for you guys? When did you start to see the world through that particular lens? It's such a powerful lens.
Justin: I would argue that it's actually been the essence, it's been core to the brand since the beginning. Even when we were writing about indie designers that were kind of popping up in Bush wick in two thousands, there was always a focus on the uncelebrated, the undiscovered, the new, the thing that was about to happen and a alternative mindset. I think that goes all the way back to the founding.
Charles: Have you always felt that there was a responsibility? It's interesting I think, that two men own a business that arguably is one of the most powerful voices for guides of influences over women. At what point did you guys feel like there was kind of a calling to this? In the time that I've known you, I felt that sense from you guys, that this is more than just a business for you. This is an important thing to provide for people in today's world. Is that fair?
Philippe: Yeah, I think we're always drawn to this idea of creating something that also felt like a movement, that felt like it was drawing people into an important conversation, from the very first days of bringing people together that didn't have their interests represented anywhere else. That piece has come into focus, in terms of the clarity of the mission, probably over the last three years or so but it's really been part of our journey since day one.
Charles: So this has been obviously an extraordinary journey. You've gone through all kinds of learning and all kinds of personal evolution and development ... What have you found scared you along the way? What were the hard moments that you had to overcome?
Justin: There's obviously been a lot of those moments. There was 2008, 2009, when the economy started falling apart and we were completely freaked out, because we didn't know what was going to happen. The ad market, the consumer spending market ... ironically, looking back, it ended up being really good for us and turned into one of the best things that happened. The result was that brand started actually pulling their money out of more expensive advertising formats and looking for more efficient ways to market to consumers, so our business ended up growing.
At the beginning of it, it was pretty freaking, when you saw people packing up their boxes and walking out of Lehman brothers. That was certainly a freaky moment.
Charles: What about for you, Philippe?
Philippe: I don't know about freaky but, I think one of the hardest parts about growing a business is that we live a mission that's pretty pronounced, and you need to live that as importantly on the inside as well. I think culturally, as you build a bigger company with global offices and a large staff ... Making sure that those values truly resonate in the same way internally. That's something that we both feel incredibly passionate about.
There's moments where you realize, oh shit, this is a value of ours, and we actually didn't live up to it the way we want to. You realize those moments when things happen along the way. I don't know, something wasn't treated a certain way or something happens that culturally has an implication that in this type of company is even more important. I think those are the moments of it feeling difficult, but it's only as a result of feeling so committed to it, that you realize that's the most important thing. At the end of the day, of course we're building this for our millions of users who are tuning in. We can only do that with the people who are actually making it here.
Charles: Yeah, which is a great segway actually, just for a minute or so, getting your insights about how you judge yourself as leaders? What does a good leadership day look like for you guys? To the other end of the spectrum, when do you feel like we can be better than that from a leadership standpoint?
Philippe: I think a good leadership day is being present, showing up, being around. I'm just actually speaking very personally. Having conversations with people that you didn't even know yet or that you hadn't seen in a long time. Connecting the dots for people, in which they have an ah-ha realization, they didn't see that. Those are probably some of the biggest things; being a clear communicator for your staff, being transparent and honest. Those are all moments of showing up strong as a leader.
I think showing up not strong as a leader is when you realize some of your own limitations, and over time you become really aware of them and of course, like anything else, if this is a leader or being a husband or just a friend to someone, you realize that there are moments where you don't act your very best. You just need to say hey, that happened, you acknowledge it and if you can actually acknowledge it publicly or even just to one person, that's probably for the best.
Charles: Absolutely. What about leading creativity? What have you learned in yourself, in terms of how do you unlock original thinking in other people?
Justin: You have to ask a lot of questions and you have to listen. I think it's almost the same answer to your original question, about when you feel best about your leadership. It's when you can create the space and help get the best out of people through letting them express themselves and letting them go through their own creative process, which means giving them the space to think. Again, asking guiding questions that help kind of get out what's inside and what they want to express. Often the best ideas and the most creatives ideas, they just get lost in translation. You just have people who are speaking different languages, or someone is trying to communicate something and it's really, really good, but it's just not coming out in a way that's connecting for you or for your team.
If you can help to facilitate that, and help to get it out, that's where some of the most amazing things come from. Again, creativity often is not super clear. There is a process through which ideas get refined. There's a process through which they get defined, and just being able to help to support people, to help facilitate that process.
Charles: Finally, what does the future look like for Refinery, for content? You guys are very much a modern media company at this point. Much more than just a website. What does the future look like for content, for media and for Refinery?
Philippe: Such a big question. It's actually probably the most exciting moment that's ever existed in media in terms of disruption and how people consume content really coming into focus. I think talking about ourselves, we really are focused on building on top of this brand and the meaning of the brand that we've established with regards to the representation of women. Utilizing the strength that we've developed as a digital brand to take a lot of experiments and launch things out into the world that would have taken others years, and lots of green light meetings. We can do that like that, and that's really powerful.
Out of that, continuing to build really important moments that build communities. An interesting example is something we did with 29 rooms, which was our ten year fashion week anniversary party three years ago, and its now a huge thing that people identify just by that name. It has now allowed us to build a big experiential business where people come together in the world. That wasn't on our radar five years ago.
Justin: I would also say that I think we're going into a resonant. The next five to ten years in the content space is going to be incredible. There's never been a better time to be a content creator. Certain things are getting more difficult. The business models are changing, distribution is changing, all these things are kind of up in the air but, inside of that, there's just so much opportunity. Consumers are reading and watching more content than they ever have.
There's all this new space that's being opened up in people's lives through new technologies and innovations. Think about self driving cars, right, all of a sudden people are going to have another hour and a half commuting every day to consume content and to read or to watch or to listen. We think there's going to be a big boom that happens in the content space. Also, distribution, all the big distributors are becoming somewhat ... commodified isn't the right word, but they're all becoming the same. In a world in which distribution is infinite, content and really important stuff that consumers really want to watch or really want to read is what can help differentiate their businesses and their platforms as well.
So, we're really excited about what is ahead.
Charles: Just as a wrap, it strikes me that there are really three themes that I've heard today from both of you. One, I think, is your passion for helping others find their voice and express themselves, starting all the way back with companies and individuals and artists who may have not been able to find an audience otherwise, and certainly in your present day iteration. Second thing is your willingness to constantly ask questions about what's possible, what else could we do, where else could this go? Third, I think is your willingness to look at the other point of view. I think your partnership is really founded on that, your ability to see the other side and maybe not in the exact moment but very quickly thereafter that maybe somebody else has got a different way of looking at this that might be valuable and I should think about that.
I think those three together, to me, are very much the essence of what has driven your success. Thank you both very much for doing this.
Philippe: That was such a great summary of our meandering thoughts.
Charles: I'm super grateful to you both for doing this. I look forward to seeing you down the road. You guys are on an amazing journey and I'm excited to see where you go next.
Philippe: Thank you for having us on the inaugural podcast.
Charles: Yep, absolutely. Can't think of anybody better. That wraps up this episode of Fearless. Join us next time as we delve further into the art and science of leading some of the world's most disruptive businesses and unlocking the power of creativity to change ourselves and the world. Thanks for joining us.