LOS ANGELES – Dollar Shave Club founder and Chief Executive Michael Dubin began using an app this year to track the time he spent on different tasks.
The finding: Organizational issues were eating up his day. Since consumer products giant Unilever spent $1 billion a year ago to buy Dollar Shave Club in the biggest startup acquisition in Los Angeles County history, Dubin has pored over organizational charts, new marketing ideas and big hiring decisions to set up his discount razor seller to take on bigger goals.
Unilever bought into the idea that Dollar Shave Club could sell more lucrative products than razors and that it could win over consumers abroad. But the initial results of what is expected to be a multiyear transition — Act Two, as Dubin calls it — have been underwhelming, according to two sources familiar with the company but unauthorized to discuss it.
The shuffling of departments, a few layoffs and an even bigger number of new hires have upset the company’s cheeky, underdog culture, those people said.
There’s work to do, Dubin said.
“Did people just naturally grab [new grooming products] without being told why they should? They haven’t,” he said. “It’s about changing perceptions, which begins this fall with a big campaign. You have to take some steps to get there.”
He disputed assertions that missteps over the next couple of years could threaten the corporate independence he won from Unilever as part of the buyout. Another Unilever subsidiary, Ben and Jerry’s, has been able to maintain wide autonomy since being acquired 17 years ago. But Dubin acknowledged that he’s one voice, alongside three Unilever executives, on Dollar Shave Club’s new board of directors.
“Anything can change at any time, but that’s not in the cards,” Dubin said.
In regulatory filings, Unilever described Dollar Shave Club’s growth in the first half of 2017 as strong and said that it “will preserve” the independent unit’s “entrepreneurial approach, taking valuable lessons for the rest of our portfolio.”
In a statement, Kees Kruythoff, Unilever North America’s president, said he expects Dollar Shave Club’s success shipping directly to consumers to carry forward as “we work toward accelerating growth and expanding into new categories and regions.”
Targeting all senses
Near the end of 2018, Dollar Shave Club wants to be an online shop where guys — a term Dubin says is more relatable and less clinical than “men” — can buy everything needed in a bathroom to look, smell and feel their best.
The company got its start in 2012 with a mail-to-home razor blade subscription costing as little as $1 a month. More than 3 million people subscribed, with the help of funny commercials featuring Dubin parodying the complexity and expense of buying shaving supplies. Sales reached $152 million in 2015.
Dollar Shave Club hasn’t disclosed financial results since the acquisition closed last August, saying only that it expects a double-digit year-over-year revenue increase and that its razor market share by units sold has increased 3 percentage points to 27 percent in the last year.
The company is fighting a patent infringement lawsuit filed by rival Gillette before the acquisition. Dubin declined to comment on the litigation, which is scheduled for trial next year.
Sources said the razor business is growing more slowly than in years past because of increased competition on price from brands such as Gillette. But for Unilever, Dollar Shave Club was the primary factor behind a 47 percent jump in direct-to-consumer sales in 2016 compared with the prior year, according to a financial filing.
Newer products haven’t taken off. Mostly priced at $5 to $10, the products include moist wipes, cream, hair gel, body wash and shave butter. The products carry Dollar Shave Club-related branding and will continue to be distinct from any rivals within the Unilever family, such as Axe or Dove.
Dollar Shave Club is on track to launch oral care products this year, Dubin said. But he noted the company is behind on plans for antiperspirant and deodorant, saying, “You have to get things right from efficacy to safety.”
The hope, two sources said, had been that the wide personal care slate could, in short order, more than double Dollar Shave Club’s average monthly revenue per user to about $12 from the ballpark of $5.50. The company disputes the figures, though such growth potential could help explain why Dollar Shave Club accounted for almost half of Unilever’s acquisition spending last year.
But whether because they are pricier, haven’t been marketed enough or just aren’t desired, the other products haven’t been flying off warehouse shelves.
“Our non-razor product business is a meaningful side of the business, but it is not where we want it to be,” Dubin said.
Peter Cowen, managing director of small investment bank Sutton Capital Partners, said dollar razor blades don’t necessarily mix well with $8 shaving cream.
“Dollar Shave Club hit lightning in a bottle with charisma and an excellent product at excellent value and should be remembered as a big success,” said Cowen, who hosts an annual conference for the subscription-based service industry. “But I’m confident those other products haven’t been as successful.”