You recently sold your $400M company to Vice Media and are now entering a new chapter. How does it feel to sell your “baby” after 15 years of working on this business?
It feels great and it’s a new reality at the same. I dedicated my life to Refinery29 for the last 15 years. I literally put every single ounce of energy into this business versus anything I was doing for myself. We built a very successful business with north of $100 million dollars in revenue, with an audience of tens of millions of people, an event business where hundreds of thousands of people buy tickets. All those things are proof of what we have built. With Vice, we are now integrating into a business that shares very similar DNA. It just made sense, like two Lego blocks fitting together.
If you think about it, media has historically been a space that has been about consolidation. Fox and Disney merging recently or AT&T buying Time Warner – you see it happening everywhere. So, personally, it’s extremely exciting to me and it’s definitely a big change. I’m no longer CEO of this business, but there is an amazing CEO, Nancy Dubuc, who is running Vice Media Group now. I am mainly advising the business. looking to make sure this integration goes well and probably going to take a vacation.
That sounds like a good way to start a new chapter. Let’s talk a little about your relationship with Germany. You spent all of your professional life in the U.S., what differences do you see in the way business is done in the U.S. versus Germany?
I haven’t really done a lot of business in Germany, so I think more about the experience that led me to the U.S., that led me to who I became. I left Germany when I was 15 because there was something that drew me to the States. I felt that things like creativity and entrepreneurial spirit somehow belonged more into the DNA of the U.S. People over here encourage that, they want that from you. For the first few years, every time I came back to Germany and told people what I was doing, they were definitely not impressed and maybe a bit judgmental about not following a traditional path. Now it’s obviously very different, but it took a while.
After opening up Refinery29 in Germany a few years ago, and also through having a child, I have actually found myself feeling drawn to Germany again. Going back and launching the business there, entering partnerships and seeing our story come alive in Germany through local people on the ground really impressed me. It has been exciting to see the content created there and I suddenly find myself pulled between the two places. At that point, you feel loyalty to both.
Yes, I can relate to that, too. Was there something along the way that really forced you out of your comfort zone, but turned out to be a great breakthrough or opportunity in the end?
I do things that push me out of my comfort zone all the time. I’m the type of person that people see at dinners or big events and they may think I’m great connecting with other people. Inside, however, I think ‘I just want to be by myself’. Whether it’s speaking at a company meeting or giving a keynote, those are the things I don’t necessarily like. I’m not thinking to myself ‘I’m going to go up there and crush it’. No, during each and every one of those moments there is still anxiety. But what you begin to realize is that those are the times you actually accomplished something.
I firmly believe that seeking out those moments of discomfort, of making yourself vulnerable, those are the moments that lead to the most growth.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Professional life is a bit like a triage. In business, every moment you turn around there is a problem of some kind. It’s easy to get bogged down by that and it’s also very easy to get stressed out. Often there are moments that feel existential, those moments where you don’t have the money, somebody is not returning an important call, or you can’t close the deal.
At the end of the day you realize that to every problem that presents itself, there is a solution. It’s as simple as that. It may sound like a cliche, but I think it works wonders to stay grounded in that belief as you go about things.
I love the positive thinking. Looking back at 2019, some of your most successful stories and features were, for example, Shady, a documentary on the beauty industry, and 29Rooms, a pop culture museum that toured to 7 markets. What’s next for Refinery29?
Merging with Vice Media brings opportunities on a number of fronts; for example, our continued international expansion. We already have a big business in the UK and a smaller business in Germany and France. Vice Media has a big international structure and we are excited to grow in countries like India, for example, where audiences are huge and our focus on women in particular, is very relevant. Another area is our studios business. This past year we closed a very big TV deal with FX Networks to create a documentary series called Pride about the history of the LGBTQ movement in the United States. There will definitely be a lot more to come in our studios business!
Personally, what are you most passionate about at the moment and what are you planning for yourself in 2020?
I actually don’t know yet. It’s funny when you go through a moment like this – everyone congratulates you and says how excited they are about your next chapter, but I don’t even know what that chapter is. My ambition is to spend the first three or six months of the year connecting with the things that I really love doing – meeting with other entrepreneurs, hearing other people’s stories and advising businesses that I think have huge potential. In the meantime, I will look inward and learn more about myself until I figure out what might be next in store for me. I have a strong feeling that I am going to start something new soon.
Philippe Von Borries is the co-founder and CEO of Refinery29, a leading digital media and entertainment company dedicated to inspiring next-gen women to live a meaningful, authentic life. Philippe is a German Accelerator mentor and passionate about supporting budding entrepreneurs and bringing together creative minds – from content creators, storytellers, and strategists to marketers and data scientists – to create purposeful brands. Philippe and his company’s awards include winner of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Media, five Webby Awards, four consecutive Inc. 500 awards of the fastest-growing companies in the US and an ASME nomination for Best Website.
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