The morning skincare ritual of millions around the world owes a lot to a moment that occurred 120 years ago in a bathroom in Brookline, Massachusetts.
In 1895, King Camp Gillette was struggling to shave his trademark whiskers with a blunt razor and realised he’d have to send it to a cutler or a barber to be sharpened yet again. There had to be an easier way, he thought.
That moment of frustration sowed the seed for the idea that would evolve into the Gillette safety razor, the grandfather of modern razors. Its success led to the creation of one of the most dominant companies in any market: Gillette creates around 70% of all razors worldwide, and as of May this year was valued at $20.4bn, putting it in the same league as the likes of Apple and Amazon.
Around five years ago, a pair of companies set out to achieve the seemingly impossible and take on Gillette.
Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s both claim to be the answer demanded by frustrated shavers tired of companies flooding the market with over-complicated products (such as Gillette’s FlexBall, which pivots the razor on an orange orb). At some point, clients said enough was enough.
“They have been a dominant player for so long, but they’ve also created a lot of animosity,” says Michael Dubin, the 37-year-old co-founder of Dollar Shave Club, from the company’s headquarters in Marina del Rey, California. “They have such an enormous market share, but in the process of creating that market share they created a lot of that frustration.”
That frustration inspired Harry’s own King Camp Gillette moment.
“It was born out of an experience that my co-founder Andy [Katz-Mayfield] had in a drug store. He went to the store one day and waited for 10 minutes for someone to unlock the case where the razors were being held, paid $25 for four razor blades and some shaving cream, and just felt like he’d been ripped off,” explains Jeff Raider, co-founder of Harry’s.
The new companies knew that simply copying Gilette was no use. Others had made the attempt without making a dent. They’d have to do something different.
Dollar Shave Club’s approach was to be brash, bolshie and have an everyman appeal. With Dubin as the face of the company, he and his co-founder Mark Levine playfully but aggressively turned shavers’ heads by pointing out there was another way – and they were it.
In March 2012, Dubin – who had a previous life as a producer on MSNBC – appeared in an advert. It featured a man in a bear costume, a slapstick romp around a factory with an employee called Alejandra, and the not-exactly-subtle slogan “Our razors are f**king great”. Dubin played the no-nonsense, tough-love friend who tells you when you’re being an idiot.
The ad went viral, with more than 20m views.
“What we’re doing is helping guys find the products they want in a really easy way, in an affordable way, and hold their hand as they make these grooming decisions,” he says, before detailing the company’s broad-base appeal.
“I know our median age is 36, I know household income is above $75k,” says Dubin. “Who is this guy typographically? We have a very national base. We’re as big in the red states as we are in the blue states, we’re in the cities, we’re in the countryside. The voice we speak with is a very mainstream, acceptable one.”
The result? Dollar Shave Club’s sales have steadily increased since its launch, from $4m in 2012 to a projection of between $140m and $150m this year, with 2.4 million users.
Harry’s went for a slightly more discreet approach. Its image was sleek and sophisticated, and viewers got the sense the founders wouldn’t be caught dead in a bear costume. Raider used the approach he’d taken while establishing the sunglasses brand Warby Parker in an industry that was dominated by market leaders such as Ray-Ban and Oakley (Warby Parker is currently valued at $1.2bn).
That meant agonising over every detail: the team went through 20 different razor handles before the company launched in 2013. Raider scoured blogs run by shaving enthusiasts while on the lookout for the perfect factory to source their blades (he found it in Eisfeld, Germany). It also meant letting the customer know that they came first (“We proactively email every one of our customers to tell them that we’re here for them and that we love them,” says Raider without any hint of irony).
They decided to advertise on podcasts, seeking access to listeners who would make great customers (ads were heard on Reply All and StartUp, a show about the creation of a podcast company by Alex Blumberg). This was a great move, as listeners were likely to share qualities Harry’s tried to embody: curiosity, inquisitiveness and a willingness to try something new.
“They’re defined by the fact that there’s never an end state for them in the world. They’re just trying to constantly make things better in their lives every day, and the world around them,” says Raider of a typical Harry’s customer.
“The other thing is they are looking for better things. And they’ve made really thoughtful choices about every product they have in their lives – whether it be clothes or furniture or electronics. Everything that they own says something about who they are.”
As for their business model, it was one that could only be born in an internet age. Instead of having to leave your home and buy overpriced razors at your local store, consumers could now simply sign up online and have razors, which cost under $2 each, sent to them (Gillette’s cost around $4.50 each).
It worked. Harry’s doesn’t release sales figures, but it has bought the factory in Eisfeld, and secured $75.6m in funding and was valued at $750m this June.
Both companies are still dwarfed by Gillette, but their attempt has prompted the shaving giant to launch its own shave club. Their efforts to take them on were dubbed as “capitalism at its finest” by Forbes.
Meanwhile, there have been a few other entrants into the market, such as South Korean firm Dorco, which is looking to make the seven-bladed razor a reality. There’s also talk of a laser-powered razor offered by Skarp Technologiesscheduled to launch in spring 2016.
But for Dubin, shaving isn’t the final frontier.
“We’re riding a wave that’s growing culturally: it’s very much OK for you to talk to your friends about grooming,” he says alluding to the growth of the male grooming industry which was worth $6.3 bn in 2014. “We talk to our members about the things that you do in private, like wipe your butt.”
It’s true: Dollar Shave Club now offers a bum wipe. And the customers love it. “I get stopped in airports, people thanking me that we have this product,” says Dubin before launching into a story about a business man putting a conference call on hold while walking through a busy terminal to grab him. “He opened up his green backpack, and there were a stack of our travel wipes. It was hilarious.”
You might not want Dollar Shave Club to hold your hand while wiping your butt, but that’s not going to stop them trying.