No. 317: The DTC Playbook is a Trap

Harry’s delivered a sizable outcome in their recent $1.37 billion exit. The men’s grooming company should be viewed as somewhat of a wake up call to DNVB leaders. Yes, Harry’s sold a simple product but it also disrupted the DTC playbook on its way to an exit. The company wrote and followed its own playbook, why don’t more digital-natives do the same? It has been reported that just 20% of Harry’s sales volume came by way of direct to consumer revenue. Everything about Harry’s ascension opposed the presumed operating instructions of the DTC era.

Yes, Target and J. Crew accounted for nearly 80% of Harry’s overall sales. But that isn’t only what sets Harry’s apart from the tendencies of other digital-natives. By all reports, Harry’s is a well-run business: the logistics operation is flawless, the company is reportedly profitable, and they’ve essentially retooled manufacturing for the demands of the DTC era. Simply put, Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider have been extraordinary leaders.

Harry’s accomplished a great deal in six years. The razor manufacturer was an early omni-channel pioneer: partnerships with Target and J. Crew were pivotal in their ensuing mainstream success. Collaborations with digital publishers like Uncrate reminded consumers that Harry’s was an elevated brand, something more than their competitors. Harry’s was one of the first to launch pop-up activations. Each of these decisions countered conventional wisdom at the time.

From a 2014 interview with CNBC: Warby Parker takes on Gillette

Raider and Katz-Mayfield believe the key to Harry’s growth lies in this vertical integration, or what they like to call v-commerce. Simply put, the company now owns the entire process—from R&D to manufacturing to selling direct to the consumer. “It creates this virtuous cycle that makes for really happy customers, and then they become our best advocates,” says Katz-Mayfield.

When Harry’s acquired their manufacturing partner, the company became one of the few truly vertical brands of the DTC era. This was also antithetical. But, it allowed them to iterate their core product quicker and streamline product iteration for their sourced products like skincare, soaps, and shaving additives. The result was a Target aisle that began to reflect that Harry’s was more than a product brand, they were a category leader. In this way, Harry’s began challenging Gillette in an asymmetrical fashion by becoming one of the first true DTC category brands. By designing appealing products in other product verticals, Harry’s gained an advantage. This leverage helped them to amass over 2.4% of the entire razor market. In short, Harry’s wasn’t just great at marketing and design – they disrupted their industry.

I’m bearish. It’s hard, only the disruptors will survive.

Anonymous Founder

Skepticism of the direct to consumer era of online retail isn’t new. General Partner of Great Oaks Ventures, Henry McNamara recently tweeted:

Henry McNamara on Twitter

DNVBs Valued @ $1B+ & Funding 👓Warby $1.75B- $290M raised (6x) 👟Allbirds $1.4B- $77M raised (18x) 🪒Harry’s $1.37B- $461M raised (3x)* 💄Glossier $1.2B- $187M raised (6.5x) 🛏️Casper $1.1B- $339M raised (3.5x) 🪒Dollar Shave $1B- $163M raised (6x)* 🧔Hims $1B- $197M raised (5x)

He later corrected his figure on Harry’s ($375 million in equity sold) but the point stands. Is investing in digital-natives worth it? Yes. But only if the brand is capable of disrupting prior growth tactics and brand positioning. Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s represent two of the most notable exits of the DTC era, both found ways to acquire customers and sell a growing catalogue of products to them. Both were valued between 4-6x the capital raised. These companies found innovative ways to market, distribute, and grow. In turn, they innovated their way to earned market share, at the expense of incumbents and other challengers.


It goes without saying that I’m bearish on DNVBs as a whole. As a whole, the industry tends to rely upon left-brain operators with systems and definite plans. But, I’m bullish on the challenger brands who’ve figured out that winning is often a result of rewriting the playbook. For the brands looking to grow to (efficient) critical mass or even an exit, the DTC playbook is a trap. The journey from zero to one is not one backed by b-school theory. Brands won’t be able to project tomorrow’s viability by analyzing yesterday’s LTV:CAC ratio, alone. But DNVB growth isn’t an art, either. Digital-natives will have to be more than beautiful design and savvy copywriting. The proverbial DTC playbook must be rewritten each time. If the DTC playbook were to be written, it could be boiled down to this:

There is no playbook. DNVB growth must be a malleable and agile operation. Brands must find opportunities where there were none. They must seek to do what hasn’t yet been done.

So yes, I am bearish on many of today’s DNVBs. Brands are merely following the paths of the brands before them and I believe that it hinders more than helps. Their path to their early-stage milestones are often unproven anecdotes written by investors who’ve likely never sold a physical product.

In a recent thread by Ryan Caldbeck on this same topic, the founder and CEO of Circle Up expressed his similar skepticisms with the following points:

    • I’m not that convinced that DTC is going to kill a lot of incumbents. If we look at share loss for Pepsi, Unilever, etc- much of that is not DTC, it is products/brands that meet unique needs of today’s fragmenting consumers.
    • I’m deeply skeptical that the DTC startups have nailed online marketing. Almost all of them are burning cash at levels unprecedented in CPG (most of $ for marketing). Does that mean they are good at marketing, or just that they have convinced venture capitalist to to give them money?
    • A question might be: can they sustain the innovation? I haven’t seen a lot of startups come out with more than a small handful of products. Most of the DTC companies are not using DTC for what I think it’s great at – which is iterating on product development.


In a recent Member Brief, I wrote on the asymmetrical warfare that Caldbeck summarizes so eloquently, “A dynamic brand enables more than product success, it enables category success. As brands known for one thing enter the categories of other competitors, the companies with the most brand equity and marketing sophistication seem to be best positioned to make the leap from product company to category brand.”[1] But brand equity is just one component; Harry’s operational superiority and omnichannel sophistication has been on display over its six years as an independent company. It should be a message to younger companies that achieving an exit will take more than a beautifully-crafted facade that hides operational chaos (as is often the case).

As long as DTC brands attempt to follow what’s been done before them, you too should be skeptical of the industry. Many investors seem to look for a DTC Playbook to hand their portfolio companies. As if to say, “Here is how it’s done. Now execute the game plan!” But it’s likely that it will never be that way. As digital-natives begin competing in traditional retail’s territory, heritage brands should serve as a reminder. They had unique paths to critical mass, very few encountered the predictability that the DTC era seeks.

Rather than determining speculative best practices with few data points, DNVBs should review the small number of successes from the DTC era. There have been but a few unicorns minted and even fewer exits earned. Each company earned a place atop the market by responding to forces, maintaining agility, promoting executive autonomy, and thinking a few steps ahead of the curve. Not one company on McNamara’s shortlist got there by following a playbook. That should be the only guidance that earlier-stage founders need.

Read the No. 317 curation here.

By Web Smith | About 2PM


Member Brief: 2007 – 2019

As the direct-to-consumer industry evolves, so will the inferences and analyses that we can make. In Asymmetrical Warfare, I wrote: “As media buying becomes more difficult for challenger brands, more direct-to-consumer brands will shutter. And competition will become more symmetrical and predictable as the hundreds of new brands narrow down to the sturdier dozen.” In hindsight, this is only partially correct.

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No. 294: Brands must hack culture


NEW YORK — In just a few short years, Fab went from a $1 billion valuation to a $15 million fire sale.

Across eCommerce, success is more unpredictable than ever. When it comes to culture-driven products, things that worked in the past often do not work in the future – the sheer number of Avengers sequels notwithstanding. But despite the inherent unpredictability of our tastes and the complex way they interact, venture capital still places a heavy bet on pattern recognition. These patterns: be it a proprietary product, low-cost customer acquisition tactics, or the ability to reach scale fast – are hardly reliable predictors of success.

For example, Harry’s proprietary product is manufactured in its German factory. Insourcing manufacturing was a great initial way to differentiate their razors from Gillette’s low-quality but expensive razors. But, superior product quality has since become table stakes in the shaving market, with a number of startups all offering the same key features. Five years and $375 million venture dollars later, Harry’s has only 5% market share in the traditional retail sales market. It is a distant third in the online manual shave market. Not until Target provided its massive distribution muscle, did Harry’s growth begin to tilt upwards. To stay competitive in this mass market, Harry’s now needs to worry about the shelf space and brand marketing – just like the incumbent. 

Dollar Shave Club, with 21% of the online market share, was not profitable when Unilever bought it in 2016. Its media-beloved Youtube ad was viewed more than 25 million times since 2012. Social media was responsible for Dollar Shave Club’s awareness but that form of media also undid its staying power. The main lesson: awareness doesn’t equal conversion and fast user growth doesn’t mean profitability.

To hack growth, startups have to – first – hack culture.

In addition to the usual signals, venture capitalists should look into whether or not a company has roots in trend or subculture. A subculture is made up of people who are more informed and passionate about a topic than anyone else. They are likely to be beta-testers, source material, and advocates for a new product or service. Cycling brand Rapha started from cycling obsessives. Apparel brand Patagonia started from the subculture of social responsibility. A deep subculture entrenchment ensures that a company can maintain and enhance its difference as it scales. Long-term defensibility has more to do with whether a company can believably connect with a community through the shared things. This takes precedence over a proprietary product or its acquisition channels.

Success also has to do with what Japanese call kuuki wo yomu or, reading the atmosphere. In the October 2013 article titled Yes, Real Men Drink Beer and Use Skin Moisturizer, Bloomberg magazine quotes Mintel’s data on the 5-year rise in the global sales of personal-care merchandise geared to men. Harry’s was founded earlier that year, Dollar Shave Club two years prior. Both of them capitalized on the shift in the culture of modern masculinity, but neither of them invented it.

The shift was already happening. As sociologist Duncan Watts notes in his research on social influence: if a society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one. But if it isn’t then almost no one can. The success of Harry’s or Dollar Shave Club didn’t have to do much with a spiffy video or on the German factory-produced razors. It had more to do with how susceptible men already were to the idea of grooming and how easily persuaded they were to invest in it.

Social influence is often mistaken for disruption.

The dynamics of how trends spread are shifting from (1) brands, media, and retailers pushing ideas to (2) mass market exploitation to the (3) networks of niches and taste communities. Both startups and VCs have to consider social processes that ultimately define success of their inventions.

In addition to engineering products and services, startups then need to engineer social influence in their market. The fastest way is to piggyback on the already existing social influence, and amplify it through go-to-market strategy that emphasizes social activity among a company’s initial following. This social activity then serves an ad for a product or service aimed at the mass audience. Luggage brand Away’s initial community of travelers – and their stories – became an ad for its products; rides of the Rapha’s Cycling Clubs are the ad for Rapha’s gear.

Social activity in a market accumulates social capital. How a social currency is going to be created and exchanged is the inherent part of business plan. It’s a business’ core value unit. And whether a company has the potential to build and trade in social currency should become part of venture capitalist’s evaluative criteria. Beauty brand Glossier’s currency is beauty preferences of its fans. Glossier’s currency is so strong that this brand is now creating the entire marketplace around it. Social currency builds scale, defensibility, and network effects.

To prevent social currency from being devalued due to the reverse network effects, companies need to maintain and grow their distinction as they scale. The best way to do this is through product and service diversification. A brand is an umbrella for a portfolio of unique products. Streetwear brand Supreme mastered the art of distinction, with a large part of its audience owning unique brand products. Product diversification increases the number of bets, reduces risk, preserves social currency, and organizes a company around the inherent unpredictability of people’s tastes.

The ultimate irony of the popular disruption narratives is that they venerate a deeply anti-social attitude. They celebrate an outsider and a renegade who “moves fast and breaks things.” But without social influence that creates the susceptible mood and allows the new products, services, and ideas to spread, there is no “disruption.” Instead of applauding the world’s outliers, we should direct our attention to the society that makes them thrive. There should be a sociologist among engineers.

Read the No. 294 curation here.

By Ana Andjelic| Edited by Web Smith.  About Ana: named to Forbes CMO Next list, Ana was most recently the Chief Brand Officer of Rebecca Minkoff. She has earned her doctorate degree in sociology and worked at the world’s top advertising agencies. She’s also a frequently published author, public speaker and writer. She lives in New York City.