What Seizing the Now Looks Like at a CPG Giant


Mike Dubin, CEO Dollar Shave Club

You know what Mike Dubin isn’t doing right now? Reading any more articles about Mike Dubin.

He’s probably on a beach in Santa Monica, wondering how he’ll spend the $90 million he made when Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club, a subscription razor service he founded in 2011, for $1 billion in July. (In all honesty, he’s probably at a desk–he’s staying on with Unilever–but, considering his windfall, I’m going to be picturing him on a beach regardless.)

You already knew about Mike, though. It was an acquisition that launched a thousand articles and will likely sustain the dreams of rabid founders, and their VC handlers, for years to come.

At General Assembly, we work with companies that look like Unilever to help them better compete for the future. (I was actually lucky enough to attend a conference put on by Unilever a few months before the acquisition was announced. It featured Mike Dubin as a keynote speaker. I should have worked that one out…)

Our member companies, about 100 of the Fortune 500:

  • Hire GA graduates to fill key positions–we have 25 campuses all over the globe and thousands of alumni
  • Use GA assessments to benchmark both job applicants and their current talent, and
  • Sign up for GA training to ensure their people are always, always, always getting better

We deal in innovation, and innovation is all about what you do now to shore up your success later. Our team loves the work we do because we get to spend all day today thinking about what the world’s leading companies will do tomorrow.

Spending a lot of time thinking about the concept of “innovation” will certainly give you buzzword fatigue, but it will also, hopefully, offer a glimmer of insight, at least every once in awhile.

Today’s insight is:

Growing a company is like growing a garden…

…and if you want cool new plants in your garden that are going to bear the fruits of tomorrow, there are basically three ways to get them there.


Innovation Method one: ACQUISITION


“Tree of 40 Fruit” by the artist Sam Van Aken. The artist grafted the branches of 40 different types of fruit trees onto a single trunk.

This is like taking a fully grown tomato plant from one garden and moving it into another garden. This is also like, you guessed it, Unilever buying Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion.

There are many benefits to this kind of growth: If the transplant is successful, you will know exactly what kind of fruit you’re going to get, and you will get it quickly.

But there are also many risks: it will be a bigger job to move a bigger plant. Roots will have to be severed. Perhaps the plant will not take to the new soil and it will die. A million newspapers will want to write about the plant. You might be buying the plant out of fear of what it could do to you, which doesn’t feel nice.

Even the word “transplant” sort of gives me the chills. There’s a Frankenstein element to the whole thing, a surgery, something unnatural. But also sort of cool, when it does work.


Innovation Method Two: INCUBATION

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 3.29.11 PM

What you see if you if you Google Image search the word “nurture.”

This is like going to the nursery and buying one of those baby tomato plants and planting it in a special corner of the garden that gets extra care.

Let’s stick with Unilever. In addition to making splashy acquisitions, Unilever also runs a program called The Foundry. The Foundry calls itself “the entry-point for tech innovative companies seeking to connect with Unilever.” It puts out challenges to solve, provides mentorship, throws events. Unilever encourages participating companies to work with existing Unilever brands to try to make those brands better.

The Foundry is like the sectioned off area full of these baby plants. It abuts the real garden: Some of the baby plants at the edges may grow well, and spread into the establishment territory.

The incubator model is far from proven, however. And even if something good does come out of it, Unilever won’t know exactly what they’re getting, in the way that they did know with Dollar Shave Club. (What they were getting: a brand that already appealed to a prized demographic, with heralded consumer-relationship skills, e-commerce capabilities. Most of all, a chance to shave off a bit of Gillette’s market share.)

The benefit that The Foundry offers Unilever is a chance at making their brands better. The Foundry must cost less than $1 billion to run, and, thanks to the nurturing work Unilever will do, the resulting garden could look more natural and grow taller than a garden full of transplants.

Innovation Method Three: DEVELOP YOUR PEOPLE

tomato plant

Look at the innovative thing these tomatoes grown from seeds did! I am not sure this is a picture of a real thing.

This is like buying a seed and putting it into the ground and helping it grow the old-fashioned way. It will take sunshine, which you can’t control, and water, which you can control at least most of the time. Even with these things, you might never hear from it again. But sometimes it will peak up over the dirt, and you’ll have to weed around it, which will be annoying, but sort of satisfying, and at some point you’ll decide to buy it one of those cages and then you’ll have to train it to climb up the cage. When it does grow, it will fit right in, and you’ll have been there all along, watching it, and you will be proud.

At a company, I feel like the seeds are the people already working there. They are capsules of potential who are already immersed in the earth of the place. Growing the seeds is like training your people. Training gets none of the press and attention of acquisitions and incubators. A fair amount of it takes places entirely underground. Boring. It is laborious and constant.

But it is so valuable! One tiny seed has the potential to grow into a huge and productive tomato plant of its own. And it will cost you less because you got in on the ground floor. And since it went through the whole process of growing in the garden, it will be able teach other seeds how to do that, too.

Train your people.