The Way I Work: Philippe von Borries, Refinery29
Refinery29 is something of a hybrid. On the surface, it is an editorial website covering women's fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Behind the scenes, it's also a creative agency, creating native advertising campaigns for brands. Oh, and it's also a burgeoning online retail powerhouse. With $16.6 million in 2012 revenue, the New York City-based Refinery29 is the fastest-growing media company. As told to senior writer Christine Lagorio-Chafkin.
I had a conversation recently where someone mentioned the boundaries of personal and professional life. Running at full throttle becomes an exercise in seeing that your personal life and your professional life are the same thing. My workday starts at 7 a.m. when I wake up, and it ends when I go to bed. Sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m., I'll roll out of bed and check my email. Anytime I roll out of bed, I check it. Which is bad. But I do it. The boundary just doesn't exist when you are an entrepreneur.
The first fun fact in how this functions is, I'm married to Piera Gelardi, our creative director. The recipe to make that work is we don't commute together. I come in first, usually.
I try to get in as much work as I can--an hour and a half or two hours--at home in the morning. It's my time for thinking. Anyone who works in an open office where everyone sits next to you knows it's really hard to get certain things done. I try to work in the morning on stuff that takes longer to conceptualize: the types of things that really force you to have a blank slate and freedom of mind. I try to use that bit of morning time very wisely.
My day is split into a few buckets; one is one-on-one meetings. When Justin Stefano, the other CEO, and I have one-on-ones with each of our direct reports, we track what all of them are working on week to week, and how they're doing and what they're trying to accomplish in the longer term. But then we also really drill in and try to ask what they're learning about themselves in the process. When you get to the matter of people's self-awareness, you have the opportunity to help them grow, and that's really important and rewarding.
Justin heads the revenue and finance teams, and I do product and marketing. There's an incredible amount of collaboration, though. We have an interesting and I think incredible friendship and partnership that we've made work. We are still good friends seven years in. We take trips to Maine together; every three or five months, we try to make two to three days of space and time available to be together and talk strategy.
We started back in 2005, a completely different time in the world of digital and the world of media, and certainly also in the world of fashion. Our mission back then was to build a platform for the world's greatest independent brands and boutiques. We launched with this map that mirrored the floor plan of a mall, the mall of your dreams. You orient yourself by the stores in that mall. That's also where the name comes from, because it was also about refining and distilling things, and curating. The number 29 came from the number we limited everything to, the 29 best of everything.
That's not very practical, and it's not something we do anymore today, but it stuck. The name is unique, and now people give us credit for that, but for years we were being punished every day for having this name. People were like, "What the hell does it mean?"
We always had commerce, even in 2007, when we had our first marketplace, because we always thought of commerce as a critical way to connect consumers and brands. And to make money. We also very quickly started to get very successful in advertising. We have always treated that as part of the approach to being a consultant to brands and working with brands in crafting creative campaigns. We don't see the world as being so split between advertising and content.
During any weekday lately, there usually are one or two interviews with somebody who is applying for a position here at Refinery29. Justin and I have made a point of trying to meet, at least for 15 minutes, anyone who is going to potentially work here, for whatever position it might be. That's really, really important. And we've hired about 40 people since January 1. We're at about 120 people on staff now and will be at about 145 or so by the end of the year.
Our company is fundamentally a head-count company, not a platform company. We have people. They are our assets. There are no silos in this company; in a sense, it's a fabric and everything connects. That means you really need to find people who connect culturally. That's more important than what anyone's background or experience is.
The most important thing when you grow larger is to make sure that beyond the face time you have with people, everyone aligns on the common mission. To that end, we do this thing called the R29 Fireside Chat. The Fireside Chat happens in the afternoon over drinks or a meal with some music and an imaginary fireplace.
We invite about 15 people randomly selected from different departments--it might be an editorial assistant, all the way to a head of sales--and they have the opportunity to ask questions they would never ask in a company meeting setting. That's really incredible, because when people meet in departmental groups, there's always an agenda. It's really interesting what people bring to the table. People start firing away with serious and sometimes difficult questions. For Justin and me, it's the most enlightening time.
We also have full-company meetings regularly. We share all of our results and what makes us successful and what's ahead. We really celebrate the all-hands meetings, almost in a theatrical sense. Recently a female mariachi band came to play, and we were there in the morning as everyone arrived with bloody marias--a bloody mary made with tequila--for everyone. Justin and I wore giant sombreros for the meeting.
One of my biggest pet peeves is eating at my desk. I never do it. I can't do it. I just find that you need to have separation in your day. I usually try to connect with someone from the company over lunch. I'll have lunch sometimes with a friend, because I never have an evening free.
Otherwise, I'm scheduled block to block all day. In the evening, I'm usually at an event, something related to a conference, or that obligatory catching up over drinks with someone that we all do in New York. It's definitely also a really great opportunity to go out with someone from your team. I don't have kids, so I am able to really take my whole day into consideration, to take different pockets of the day to work on different things--that's the big picture.
By the Numbers: Come for the fashion tips; stay for the shopping
50 million: Unique visitors to the website, annually.
37: Percentage of visits that are from people returning at least six times per month
10: Percentage of visits that are from people returning 50 or more times per month
1.3 million: Email subscribers
$6.6 million: 2012 revenue
$24 million: Anticipated 2013 revenue
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