You expect Michael Dubin to be funny. After all, he wrote, produced, and starred in one of the funniest and most viral commercials that's ever been posted on YouTube, a 2012 ad for his company, Dollar Shave Club. In it, he brings the viewer on a tour of his warehouse to explain why "our blades are f**king great." A flood of visitors crashed his company's servers 90 minutes after the video went live. It has been watched more than 22 million times. That video, and the story of its creation--Dubin wrote it, and then he and a friend shot it in a single day for less than $4,500--has gone on to become entrepreneurial folklore. Today, DSC is the second-largest men's razor seller in America--topped only by Gillette.
But in person, Dubin is taciturn. What does he like to do when he's not working? "I like to sit." He later adds, "I also read and think."
Maybe he's tired. Dubin has just flown in to New York City from Los Angeles, where DSC is based and he lives, and the plane didn't land until nearly midnight. Perhaps Dubin has a lot on his mind. DSC, which he co-founded in 2011 with Mark Levine, has just launched Big Cloud, a line of skin care products for men, following up on the launches of the Boogie's line of men's hair care products and One Wipe Charlies "butt wipes." All this on top of distributing more than 70 million razors each year through $3 to $9 monthly subscriptions.
But Dubin isn't jet-lagged or preoccupied--or unfunny. It's just that his affect is dry enough to make the comedian Steven Wright look downright vaudevillian. Once you realize this, you see the edge to his "I like to sit" comment -- he was poking fun at my clichéd question. (Which I deserved.) Contrary to his public and televised persona--Dubin stars in all of the company's ads, one of which ran during this year's Super Bowl -- he has a low-key, choose-the-moment, speak-when-spoken-to way that many Americans never quite nail. Most of us aren't listening. We're either talking or waiting to talk.
Dubin listens. He was trained to. While living in New York City from 2001 to 2010, he studied improvisational comedy for eight years with the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade. He credits that experience with much of what he's accomplished, including what it took to pull together that popular video.
"Understanding what's funny or why the audience laughs is something that you learn through the process of improv," says Dubin. "It trains your brain to find what's funny about a situation. That helps the advertising that we do." Improv also taught him to think on his feet. "When you're in meetings with 20 people and decisions have to get made, it really helps to be schooled in a discipline of quick thinking," he says. "That's what improv really is."
One thing most people don't know about improv is that it isn't entirely improvisational--or at least not when it's done by a troupe that's worked together for a long time. This familiarity creates a sort of ESP among the performers: They know one another's favorite straight line, style, and character and specialty. "In that way, improv and business are very similar," says Dubin. "Whether it's an executive team or an improv comedy team, you need to know what you can expect from the other players or partners."
After graduating from Emory University in 2001, Dubin started out as a page at NBC. He then worked at Time Inc., where he was a marketing executive developing new web properties. While at Time, he launched, on the side, a short-lived social network for travelers called Leapfro.gs. Those experiences gave him the entrepreneurial chops to strike out on his own with DSC.
But why razors? With his background, why would Dubin build a company around what is arguably second only to paper as the most pedestrian commodity on earth?
"For years, guys have been frustrated with the price of razors in the store and the experience of having to go to the store and find the razor fortress and have it unlocked," he says. "That whole thing is very unnecessary." Dubin thought there was a big opportunity in this shared grievance. He was right, and finding a funny way to tell that story with his YouTube video put the company on the map fast.
"Life can be monotonous and dull," says Dubin, "and nothing fun comes in your mail anymore." One could argue that razors don't exactly signify "fun," yet there is something deeply satisfying about getting a box full of something you need, but always forget to buy, just when you need it. So far, three million monthly subscribers have been willing to pay for that satisfaction. And they get some actual fun in the mail, too, in the form of a monthly magazine called The Bathroom Minutes. It's filled with short humorous articles, lists, and facts, to occupy those quiet times when you're alone on the throne.
Dubin's ultimate goal, he says, is to build the Starbucks of razors. Starbucks, he says, took coffee, a commodity, and "built a culture around it. They built a shared language around it and created space for it. They created a church for this brand."
Right now, Dubin's church is under attack. Procter & Gamble, parent company of Gillette, is suing for patent infringement. (Gillette, uncoincidentally, launched its own subscription service, Gillette Shave Club, in April 2014.) But Dubin is, as ever, listening, and hears something very different from what the rest of us would in the sound of lawyers circling.
"It's a wonderful acknowledgment," he says, "that you've actually cracked the code and found something of value."
3 (Very Quick) Questions for Dollar Shave Club Founder Michael Dubin
Sleep or coffee?
Shuteye. "Unless there's really something that just has to get done, you gotta try to shut it down around 10:30."
Workout or couch?
The gym. "Getting the blood moving first thing in the morning really helps me set the right pace for the day."
East Coast or West Coast?
Both. "Philly will always be home for me, but I have a special loyalty toward California."