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How Refinery29 became the country’s fastest-growing media company

A Q&A with Justin Stefano and Philippe von Borries, co-founders of Refinery29

By Rachel Cieri
Photography Hannah Chen

In a time when media companies are changing hands faster than a gravy dish on Thanksgiving, Manhattan-based Refinery29 seems to have found the secret to a stable revenue stream. Deemed the country’s fastest-growing media company by Inc., the site has evolved from a hyper-local shopping guide when it launched in 2005 to a fully integrated, lifestyle media destination with content, advertising and e-commerce rolled in one.

Co-founders Justin Stefano and Philippe von Borries have been through their share of growing pains. Growing from 45 to 120 employees in less than two years, moving offices and relaunching the site over the summer haven’t been easy feats. But with a focus on becoming a marketing partner for brands and better engaging its audience through personalized experiences, Refinery29 is on track to hit $26 million this year.

Q: What’s been the key to Refinery29’s explosive growth?
Stefano: We’re not a media banner farm. Our approach to advertising is content marketing solutions for brands to natively integrate them into our platform in a way that performs better for the brand because we can tell a three-dimensional, textured story about them. It’s also better for our users because it’s resulting in content they actually want to read and engage with, versus ads, which can be disruptive to the experience.

Q: And your relaunch has enhanced that experience?
von Borries: [We’ve built] out a semantic database technology. The goal is far greater discovery through better personalization so that your experience with Refinery29 is substantially different from my experience. That’s both from a content angle and from a commerce angle. If you’re on a page about J. Crew, you’ll see different products than I’ll see. You’ll see different stories.

Q: Why build it in house?
von Borries: You can’t build a forward-looking digital company without owning your technology. The most important decision we ever made was to stop having ad networks sell our advertising in year three because it was one of our core assets. The same goes for technology. Giving your customers the best experiences with those brands requires you to invest the resources.

Q: How have you managed the massive employee growth?
Stefano: Onboarding people when you’re hiring at such a rapid pace can be challenging. One of the most important things when you’re hiring at this pace is setting up a number of team-building and cultural events to keep people connected. We host a lot of events at the office — mostly breakfasts and monthly lunches, and we’re going to start doing a monthly cocktail party.
von Borries: We want people to interact and ideas to cross-pollinate. We’re very transparent and have a monthly meeting where we share results across the company so everyone is in tune with what’s going on and areas in which we can do better.

Q: What is your approach to change management?
Stefano: It’s not letting something build up to the point where you have this massive issue to figure out — and just having an iterative approach to growing so you deal with challenges when they’re still manageable. It’s being hyperaware of the things in the organization that are off track and then micro-adjust them. It’s almost like a chiropractor. It’s a challenge to not put your head in the sand and focus on fixing the little things when they get misaligned. CEO

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This article was originally published in the October/November 2013 issue of New York SmartCEO magazine.

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