MICHAEL DUBIN HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
Inc.|May - June 2021
He said goodbye over Zoom to his billion-dollar idea, closed his laptop, and ... he was gone. So what’s the founder of DollarShave Club to do now that he’s already shaved the world?
ALEX BHATTACHARJI

"Not sure what that says,” Michael Dubin swirls his finger at a scribble of graffiti on a pair of garage doors. “But, anyway, this is it.”

It’s late March, and the co-founder and longtime CEO of Dollar Shave Club has brought me to an alley in Venice, California. To the place where it all started. In January, Dubin announced his departure as CEO of the company he’d sold to Unilever for $1 billion in 2017. A week later, he signed off on an all-hands Zoom, closed the laptop, and entered the life of an entrepreneurial empty nester. “I was like, ‘So, good luck, everybody,’ ” Dubin recalls.

Now he stands before padlocked doors, behind which lies not some industrial-chic office space or bustling warehouse, but an actual two-car garage that was once, a decade and a lifetime ago, Dubin’s home. It was here, inside this technically illegal rental, that Dubin, after being fired from an ad agency, parked himself and plotted the launch of a revolutionary direct-to-consumer razor company—a billion-dollar baby conceived on a concrete floor, and then nursed on a well-worn lounge chair and picnic table outside.

“So that was the first one,” Dubin says, nodding slowly. “Not that I spent tons of time thinking about Dollar Shave Club landmarks, but ….” He shrugs and nods again, his expression brightening. “There’s no office to go to right now. So I figured, let’s be out in the world.”

By the time Dubin asks, “Do you want to walk?” he’s already begun heading out of the alley, sidestepping a top-pled recycling bin and errant cinder block in his path. Though it was Dubin who suggested we meet here and revisit Dollar Shave Club’s origins, he seems eager to keep moving. “By the way,” he adds as he steps off the sidewalk, “I’m a walk-in-the-street guy.”

Indeed, Michael Dubin seems to thrive when at risk of being run over. Gillette and Schick, massive brands owned by conglomerates, controlled some 90 percent of the men’s shaving market when Dubin launched DSC in 2011. He took them on with a now-legendary web ad that cost all of $4,500 to make. He shot it in a day. Serving as spokesman, he delivered deadpan lines: “Are the blades any good? No. Our blades are f**king great” and “Your handsome-ass grandfather had one blade ... and polio.” The video became a viral sensation (it currently has more than 27 million views on YouTube), and he awoke to learn that the consumer response had crashed the company site. Within two years, DSC had claimed a 10 percent share of the razor market and amassed 3.2 million subscribers. By the time Unilever acquired it, DSC had expanded its offerings beyond shaving to deodorant and personal wipes, hair care, skincare, and dental care; sales had grown to nearly $200 million per year. Dubin and DSC had spawned numerous imitators, ushering in an internet-enabled direct-to-consumer revolution. Honorifics like “disrupter” and “marketing genius” became attached to his name, as did a strange kind of celebrity aura.

At times, it got surreal. He remembers being in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, about six years ago, sitting at a table near Harrison Ford, when he saw a starstruck young woman hovering—waiting to meet the actor, Dubin assumed until she sheepishly approached him instead: “I was like, ‘Wait. Indiana Jones was just having dinner next to me, and you want to talk to the guy who sells razors on the internet?!’ ” In truth, she wanted his thoughts on getting her idea for a sportswear line off the ground.

Now, as we walk down Electric Avenue, cars turn wide to avoid Dubin, who, true to his word, is walking in the street, alongside traffic. He seems to have created his own lane. “You’ve got to stick your neck out and collide with life,” he says, “because it will change you. There are so many trite sayings in business, like ‘Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.’ But there’s some truth to some of these things.”

Stepping onto the sidewalk, we arrive at Zinqué, a casually hip café on the corner of Venice and Abbot Kinney Boulevards. Dubin surveys the open-air patio. “I want to try to find a comfortable seat,” he says, “because I hurt my back skiing.” A few moments later, he confesses the truth is a bit less glamorous: The injury—a torn disk—did occur while he was on a ski trip to Montana, but came on while he was strolling along a nature trail with his girlfriend.

“I WALKED OUT OF DOLLAR SHAVE CLUB ON MARCH 10, 2020, AND I NEVER WENT BACK. I MIGHT’VE TAKEN ONE MORE LAP AROUND THE OFFICE IF I HAD KNOWN THAT THAT WAS GOING TO BE MY LAST TIME IN THE OFFICE AS THE CEO.”

“Standing and walking is no problem,” he says. “What’s annoying is: Running is fine, sitting is fucking horrible.” It’s a fitting metaphor for his present state: down from the mountaintop, feeling the aftereffects of his adrenaline-charged ride, attempting to reconcile his dueling impulses to recharge and stay in constant motion.

If Dubin is at a crossroads, it’s an enviable one. He’s a respected entrepreneur. He cashed in without selling out. He exited on his own terms and stayed for nearly five years after the sale—far longer than most founders—using the time to grow the company and himself each year.

But that’s the thing about crossroads. Eventually, you have to pick a new direction. And go.

Here’s a funny thing about Michael Dubin: He’s 42 years old, and he seems to get a kick out of joking that he’s retired. He calls being able to wait for extra vaccine doses at CVS, as he did, “a benefit of being retired.” When asked, at one point, if he has time to keep chatting, he smirks, “It’s all right. I’m retired.”

But when people ask why he’s not reclining on some beach, living out the final scene from Trading Places, he’s incredulous: “I’m not a sit-on-the-beach-forever kind of guy. I’ve got too many other things that I want to do to stay idle for long. So I joke that I’m retired. But, the truth is, I’m making little deposits in the what’s-next bank.”

Dressed in a sweatshirt, blue corduroy shorts, and white running shoes, Dubin appears, at the cafe, at ease with his sabbatical—a man unobliged to make withdrawals from that bank anytime soon. His light-brown hair is longer than in the past, long enough that he can pull it into a nascent topknot at one point during our lunch. In the two months since stepping down, Dubin—who devoted a decade of his life to clean shaves—has gone scruffy. He’s happily out of rhythm. “It’s been really nice to wake up in the morning and just let my mind wander,” he says. “I’m a big daydreamer, and to be able just to let my mind go where it naturally wants to go is refreshing and energizing.”

He’s had a few light moments (tweeting “Once again @JeffBezos drifts my wake” to a story about Bezos stepping down as Amazon CEO, two weeks after Dubin’s own departure). But his sabbatical thus far has largely been devoted to heavy but inspiring reading, like Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and Robert B. Reich’s The Common Good.

“Now that I have more time,” Dubin says, “one of the things I’m thinking about is, how do I put great ideas out into the world, without actually having to sell a product on the other side?” Dubin, who drives a white Chevy Volt, wants to create an ad encouraging people to drive electric cars. “I think that the story hasn’t been told as artfully as it could be. I think it can touch the heart, touch the funny bone. It’s been fun to think about: What ideas can have a real impact without profiting me?”

Time and again, throughout our day, Dubin says he has no regrets. Every challenge and setback was a learning experience. He’s happy where he and DSC have netted out. Change one thing, says Dubin, who counts Hot Tub Time Machine among his favorite movies, and the whole present might come unraveled. Still, there are times when he does wish he’d been able to turn on that mental recorder so he could experience the highlights today, in slow motion.

“When you’re the first-time CEO,” Dubin says, “you get so in the rhythm of growing the business and steering the ship away from the cliffs and toward the sunset—ultimately, that’s all-consuming. It can be hard to pause and reflect and enjoy the moment.”

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