Wed, 29 May 2019
252: The Refinery29 Story—From Bar Napkin Sketch to Media Empire, with Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano
How four founders turned a sketch on a cocktail napkin into an iconic digital media brand.
One night in 2004, in a bar in New York City, three ambitious entrepreneurs huddled around a cocktail napkin and sketched out a vision.
They essentially wanted to translate the concept of the mall for the internet, only instead of catering to big name brands and retailers, it would connect visitors to all of the amazing independent brands and makers that were flourishing at the time.
That initial sketch—it started as a picture of a virtual mall—has evolved a lot since that night, and the team solidified around four dedicated co-founders. But 15 years later, the dream of Justin Stefano, Philippe von Borries, Christene Barberich, and Piera Gelardi has become a reality, and so much more, in the form of now-iconic digital media company Refinery29.
“One of my biggest regrets to date is that we didn’t save the napkin,” Stefano says.
Since they set out on that journey, the team has created an online space where media targeted toward women is distilled, removing the impurities of stereotypes, taboos, and shame. Initially focused on fashion and style, Refinery29 has since expanded to a staggering breadth of content.
Covering almost every topic imaginable—from skin care to the latest in immigration legislation—Refinery29 is a comprehensive digital media company dedicated to elevating women’s voices. It’s built an international audience of more than 550 million across all its platforms, which include all major social media, a YouTube channel with nearly 2 million subscribers, an award-winning podcast in its fourth season, a short film series, an app, and more.
But Stefano and von Borries, the two who initially had the idea for Refinery29, didn’t come from a background in publishing or fashion. In fact, as you may have noticed, they aren’t even women. But they saw a need, set out to meet it, and connected with the right partners to realize their vision and help it evolve.
In the early 2000s, Stefano and von Borries were just a couple of friends from high school, who had recently graduated from NYU and Columbia, respectively, and were embarking on their first post-grad endeavors.
Von Borries headed off to Washington, D.C., to work for a political startup called The Globalist, and Stefano took a position with the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, where he investigated complaints against the NYPD.
Despite the distance, the duo stayed close, and maintained a group of friends who were mostly in the creative space. They began to notice a frequently recurring topic of conversation among the group: dissatisfaction with media coverage, especially when it came to fashion.
“Most of the media companies that existed, most of the magazine businesses, were fairly mainstream,” Stefano says. “They would write about big designers that bought pages in their magazines. That’s how the model worked.”
Stefano and von Borries found that many of their friends still read these magazines, but not because they felt particularly connected to the content.
“They didn’t think it was good. They didn’t think it was interesting,” Stefano says. “It was just what they were forced to read, because that’s what you could buy at a newsstand.”
Their friends hungered for something with a more independent edge and authenticity, but couldn’t find it anywhere.
So the pair had the spark of an idea: What if they created something that appealed to young New Yorkers by focusing on serving their audience rather than on serving big companies and brands. But with no experience in publishing or fashion, they knew they needed to call in reinforcements.
At the time, Piera Gelardi was dating von Borries (they went on to get married), who worked as the photo director at CITY Magazine. When von Borries shared their idea and asked for her advice, she encouraged him to reach out to her former boss and mentor at CITY, Christene Barberich. Her knowledge of fashion and brands, as well as the world of publishing, would prove invaluable to the pair.
Barberich says that she was already paying close attention to the transformation happening in the media landscape. She noticed that with the rise of the internet, the one-way nature of traditional publications, with outlets talking at their audiences instead of with them, was slowly being set aside in favor of platforms offering more conversational approaches.
So when von Borries and Stefano shared their idea, she had a gut feeling that they were on to something big.
She immediately reached out to Gelardi and told her that she didn’t just want to consult. She wanted to become a partner in the endeavor. Barberich’s infectious excitement for the project then made Gelardi reevaluate her own position as a consultant.
“Because she wanted to sign up, it showed me that bigger vision and also reminded me to think about my own value in the equation,” Gelardi says. “Now we have four co-founders.”
Building the Brand
With the team assembled, the quartet was anxious to get their vision off the ground as quickly as possible.
But all four of them still had day jobs, so much to learn, and very little money to put toward the project. They met in a coffee shop every night after work and on every weekend as they powered toward their goal.
“It just became an obsession until we got it live,” Stefano says.
They called in all kinds of favors with friends who were programmers, engineers, and graphic designers, and built the first iteration of Refinery29 over a period of six months.
“It felt like forever,” Stefano says. “That six-month period, I think it felt years of work went into that.”
But in June 2005, the wait was finally over, and the team celebrated the launch of Refinery29 at a bar called Union Pool over pizza and beers. Looking back at nearly a decade and a half and several waves of changes since, the founders are still proud of the original website they launched that day.
“When you look back at the first iteration of Refinery29, it just really, deeply warms my heart, because I think it’s still beautiful,” Barberich says.
While the website received some fanfare on launch day, growth was a slow, gradual process, and they struggled to be taken seriously, especially by traditional media outlets.
“Most of the traditional publishers saw digital as a phase,” Gelardi says. “It’s so laughable now, but truly we would go talk to people, and they would act like we were trying to sell them a carpet or something. They thought it was a scam.”
Challenges aside, the untested nature of their business model was also a blessing in disguise.
“I think we were able to really pioneer this new space because it was, you know, an open road,” Gelardi says.
Barberich agrees. “When you start out and you really are at the beginning of something, you have so much freedom to just test things,” she says. “I do credit that period—the first two years when we were essentially flying under the radar—as this really important testing ground for us.”
They gradually tried out new content, such as a segment called “Neighborhood Watch,” in which local creatives shared fun activities and events they loved, and “Spotlight,” a section featuring products by homegrown, independent makers.
“The products that we would feature would sell out overnight,” von Borries says. “That was the first time that something we had created had really been validated. So we started to look into commerce.”
In early 2006, they decided to raise capital for the first time to fund a marketplace on their website, and in 2006, it launched, taking Refinery29 into its next phase.
“We didn’t engineer this thing at all to be what it is today,” von Borries says. “In fact, I think the journey for us has been sort of going down the river and hitting different moments of momentum in the business and seeing the world shift.”
And as the world shifted, so did they.
Experiments and Expansions
Before long, von Borries had quit his D.C. job and returned to New York City to work full time for Refinery29, and not long afterward the other three joined the work full time, too.
Stefano says that, over the first five years, they sold ads, hosted live events, held sample sales (retail events that involve selling extra prototypes, often from big names in fashion or design) and did everything they could to drive slow-but-consistent growth that took them to $1.7 million by their fifth year.
They then decided to raise capital to grow their branded content and native advertising. This resulted in a single-year leap to $8.9 million in revenue.
“It was not a fast journey,” Stefano says. “I think that a lot of people have this belief that you’ll launch a business and within, you know, 18 months, you’re going to be on fire, but it often takes far longer. And I would say it took us probably 10 years before we felt like we had a business that was here to stay.”
As von Borries and Stefano toiled away on the technical and management side, Barberich and Gelardi dove into the content and creative aspects of the business.
“Our desire has always been to elevate underrepresented voices, to really bring these new ideas to the surface and challenge sort of what is in the mainstream, and how the media speaks to and about women,” Gelardi says.
While the focus was initially centered on fashion and style, the pair slowly experimented with content expansions that appealed to the women who visited the site. Barberich was interested in topics surrounding health and wellness, so she tested the waters and found the audience receptive. Gelardi noticed that most mainstream editorial content on sex for women was “not focused on women’s pleasure or bodily autonomy,” so she looked to offer something better.
As they grew, they found an almost endless hunger for content on just about every topic imaginable, and with each new addition, a new wave of readers joined the ranks. Soon, stories on politics, finances, and entertainment appeared on the website, continuing to meet the interests of modern women.
They were also able to quickly learn from mistakes and make changes, thanks to the instant feedback provided by comments, shares, and analytics.
“We really were focused on experimentation,” Gelardi says. “We were so invigorated by having access to the knowledge of our audience in real time.”
With the kinds of data that traditional media outlets simply didn’t have at their fingertips yet, they were able to make informed decisions and pursue avenues that seemed utterly foolproof. But, Barberich says, information in this space can be both a blessing and a curse.
“I think in some ways you lose that spontaneity,” she says. “Just having an idea to do something and being able to pursue it and not worry so much about what the outcome was going to be or worry that it was going to hit a certain traffic benchmark.”
So while they take advantage of the analytics available to them, Gelardi says she always wants to leave room for risks.
“I think influence also comes down to risk-taking,” she says. “It’s the art and the science; it’s not just about volume. Quality can be subjective, as well, but I think it is about risk-taking and knowing that core of who you are and staying true to it.”
Barberich and Gelardi say that they see their roles as a balancing act between the numbers and creative spontaneity.
“I think that that’s really what motivates people,” Barberich says. “When they feel like they’re making content that they deeply love, but that’s also touching a person’s life. The greatest success is to know that something struck a chord that is universally felt.”
Scaling With Heart
As the company continued to grow, all four founders felt an overwhelming pressure to keep the train on the tracks.
“I think that a lot of people lose sleep in this company because they care so much,” Barberich says. “In laying that foundation, we want to make sure that people feel really fulfilled by it and it doesn’t lose its path.”
They knew they had to stay true to the heart of their mission and remain in sync with their audience, all while rapidly expanding far beyond what they had imagined possible.
“The audience has been the single most important focus—and staying committed to that audience—and clearly everything that’s happened in the world at large has sort of snowballed our commitment to serving women amazing content,” von Borries says. “Our belief is that, in this moment, to really build a long term, sustainable brand in this space, you really have to mean something to your audience.”
And Barberich believes the key to scaling while staying true to the heart of the business lies in a single, but incredibly vital, part of the business.
“Honestly, if I’ve learned anything in the near-14 years that we’ve been doing this it’s that it all comes down to the people that you hire,” she says, “because scale is all about the people that you’re trusting to handle the scale.”
And she says they have been fortunate at Refinery29 to find and hire people who care deeply about the mission of their brand.
“When you bring people on board that really, automatically love the brand, when things get har, and they will inevitably get hard, it actually helps those people to deal with the issues that arise and recover quickly.”
Gelardi also believes that hiring new staff members who have that entrepreneurial spark inside them helps the brand thrive.
“The industry that we’re in is ever shifting. The work that we do is ever shifting,” Gelardi says. “I think it requires that level of entrepreneurial creativity in order to really be able to roll with things and to find the solutions.”
Establishing a Legacy
Much has changed in the 15 years since the four founders first tossed around the idea for Refinery29. Especially on the internet.
What once felt like a wide open space, now feels more like an overstuffed room pumped full of noise. Because of this, von Borries believes people have begun seeking more intimate, offline experiences, something Refinery29 is working to supply.
“We were always doing events,” he says. “Back 15 years ago when we launched Refinery, we would host local events at stores and boutiques and would bring people together. We’ve always been thinking about the real world, and when you do something in digital, the real world is very validating.”
One such example of Refinery29 IRL is 29Rooms, an art exhibition that features 29 collaborative spaces touching on topics meaningful to readers, such as virtual reality, body positivity and music.
At the end of the day, all four founders are focused on building a legacy they can be proud of.
“You can’t have a media company, I don’t think, without having a really true understanding of what it is you want to leave behind someday,” Barberich says.
And she believes that today’s world, with its renewed focus on social justice, women’s rights, and political activism, is the perfect place for a platform like Refinery29 to thrive. Now more than ever, people are seeing unmet needs, especially in areas of representation and diversity, and feeling driven to meet those needs.
“I think the motivation to start a business is fairly universal,” Barberich says. “You feel that there is something missing. You feel that there is something missing and usually, you’re not the only person.”
She encourages those who feel that tug not to ignore it, but to step out boldly.
“When that happens, you have to really face the facts that this is going to be scary. It’s going to be a ton of work. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to need the help of a lot of people, and a lot of times you’re going to need their help for free, and you have to be able to ask for that help, so great relationships really make a difference.”
When looking at Refinery29, that was certainly the case. If one thing made Refinery29 what it is today, it’s relationships.
The relationship built between two high school friends. The relationship between a mentor and her intern. The relationship between a couple that brought them all together. And the relationship between a business and its audience—a two-way exchange of encouragement and authenticity that has amplified the voices of women for 15 years and will continue to do so into the future.