Born and raised in Cologne, Germany, Philippe von Borries came to the U.S. in 1999 as a history student with an entrepreneurial edge and a passion for media. Little did he know that he’d soon be the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of the leading next-gen media and entertainment company focused on women. Refinery29, now reaching an audience of 350 million globally, has received numerous awards and recognitions along the way including Crain’s Fast 50 for three consecutive years and Fast Company’s Most Innovative Media Company. Christian Busch, CEO of German Accelerator New York, met Philippe at the Refinery29 headquarters to have a chat about the company’s success story, his key personal learnings and the most important questions every founder should ask when raising capital.
You first came to New York in 1995 as an exchange student and returned in 1999 to attend Columbia University. How did you go from there to starting a female millennial brand in the U.S.?
After my history studies at Columbia, I took on a job at a political startup in D.C. called The Globalist. While I had a passion for the content, I was missing New York and the creative community. Many of my friends started their own businesses and I, too, wanted to get something out there. I had that entrepreneurial edge but didn’t know exactly what I wanted. So in my mid-twenties, I decided to move back to New York. Inspired by both my girlfriend at the time, now wife, and my business partner Justin, who I knew from boarding school, I started ideating around some interesting problems. I noticed that, specifically in New York, there was this shift away from the masses towards things that felt like they had more of an independent point of view. Discovery of things that were unique seemed to be a real challenge. How do you go to a city and discover really cool things? And that was the initial impetus to Refinery29.
The idea was to build this destination made up of the coolest, most interesting independent brands and stores in the city.
Women became the chosen audience very quickly.
If I remember correctly, you started out in a little basement office trying to sell stuff, not actively building a media brand.
We have to see this in the context of the time. When we started in 2005, social media barely existed and the way to build distribution and audiences was through email and newsletters, or literally the sharing of links with other websites and domains.
The content we produced was very service-oriented. We’d go to stores and photograph things that had just arrived and put them up on the website. The next day people would go to the store and buy those things. Everything came through the lens of service. That’s still a really important component when you think of content creation. It gave people something that served a greater purpose rather than just an article. We didn’t think so much through the lens of just commerce or media.
Talk a little about who you started the company with. You mentioned Justin before – who else was on the founding team?
There are four of us. Justin Stefano and I sort of had the initial idea for a discovery platform, but Piera and Christene got involved very soon. Piera Gelardi, had been working at an indie magazine called CITY Magazine together with our global Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder Christene Barberich. Christene and Piera both came on board and that was the beginning of Refinery29.
I would assume you are among the most female digital media companies in New York City. How did you build that culture, or did it just happen organically?
I think it was intentional and organic at the same time. Obviously, the subject matter is female-focused, but over the last five years, a lot has happened in the world where women claimed their own power. Refinery29 has always been a place that naturally attracts women into leadership positions. Now, 80% – 85% of our employees are women. Interestingly, when we started raising, we basically had an indirect experience of raising for a female-focused business. A lot of men just didn’t get it. The people that did were female investors, of whom there are still very few. Less than 2% of VC funding goes into female-founded businesses. That’s embarrassing and shocking, but 10 years ago it was even less.
We were lucky to have amazing and truly inspiring female investors and advisors on our team from an early stage.
You just touched on another topic that is important for the founders who participate in the German Accelerator program. Almost all of our startups want to raise money in the U.S. at some point – quite a challenge in a competitive landscape like New York. Together with your team, you have raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital investments. What are your top tips for raising money in the U.S.?
Obviously, there is more of a start-up economy in the U.S. and it’s generally easier to launch a business, but no matter where you are it boils down to very simple things like: are you telling a good story? Do people believe that you’ve really dissected a specific space or a specific problem? Do they believe you are capable of making it happen? Do you have the passion and the belief in yourself and in what you are doing? Although people do back people who are doing it for the first time, there is also the question of have you done it before? Ultimately, there is a whole array of ingredients that play into this.
Keep a lookout for part 2, in which Philippe talks about his relationship to Germany, what it is like to sell a company after 15 years and what motivates him to get out of his comfort zone daily. Last but not least, get a sneak peek of what’s coming up at Refinery29.