A former New York Times business editor takes a look at how start-up companies have undermined traditional retailers through clever marketing schemes to sell products ranging from razors to lingerie—in many cases spurring those traditional retailers to buy the disrupter companies for jaw-dropping price tags.
In Billion Dollar Brand Club, the veteran business journalist Lawrence Ingrassia...ferrets out the most compelling, consequential stories and people behind the direct-to-consumer revolution. He weaves riveting tales of legacy brands caught resting on their laurels, the hungry newcomers who outsmarted them and a network of prescient investors working behind the scenes. In less capable hands, Billion Dollar Brand Club could read like a series of dry business-school case studies, but Ingrassia’s keen storytelling and painstaking reporting ensure a far different fate for readers. In particular, the ascent of Dollar Shave Club (the company from which the book borrows its name) has the pacing of a literary thriller ... Selling big is one thing, but whether most of these companies actually turn a profit is the rare blind spot in Ingrassia’s reporting.
Unorthodox as they are, these companies may pose less of a threat to the makers and sellers of consumer goods than Mr. Ingrassia suggests. Precisely because they are founded by entrepreneurs looking to make a killing rather than a livelihood, selling out is at the core of their business plans ... Indeed, as Mr. Ingrassia admits, the disruption he describes may be but a passing phase ... Disrupting an industry is easy. Doing so profitably is a different matter.
Ingrassia...presents the pulse-deadening chronicle of a group of millennial businesspeople who managed to squeeze their way into the top echelons of the monied classes, all while leaving the lives of consumers almost completely unchanged or worse off than before ... If he struggles to explain what unites these various business models, one similarity that Ingrassia does point out is how well-educated the founders of each company are—and how little they each knew about the business they were getting into ... Ingrassia’s book strains to make these ventures sound exciting or original. The overriding suggestion is that all you need to succeed in business today is a viral commercial ... Even the central narrative tension of Billion Dollar Brand Club––small upstarts take on the giants––sloughs off in a depressingly quick denouement ... And Billion Dollar Brand Club contains almost zero analysis of what the ubiquity of this selling out could possibly mean. But the lesson is right there, whether he wants to see it or not. Corporations––who today plow record-breaking sums into stock-buybacks instead of research and development––have outsourced innovation to the wealthy or wealthy-adjacent who have the time and resources to get the ideas off the ground on their own ... In the end, Billion Dollar Brand Club is Chicken Soup for the MBA Soul, a reassuring collection of anecdotes that affirms, as the last paragraph of the book lovingly whispers, that there’s still 'plenty of room for start-ups.' If the book testifies to anything, it’s that the best and brightest of our country’s business class have invested all of their available brain power into making once durable consumer goods disposable and continuing the atomization and dispossession of worker power by extending lean manufacturing to new realms.