Beauty e-commerce site and subscription beauty box service Birchbox launched in 2010 with the goal of reimagining the way people discover and shop for beauty products online. Co-founders Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna believed they could get people to pay for something that historically had been free — beauty samples. Through a monthly service, their customers could get personalized samples to help them discover their new favorite products. They envisioned Birchbox as the perfect solution to the frustrating and confusing experience of shopping for beauty merchandise.
And it worked. Birchbox now has more than 1 million subscribers who get their five sample-size beauty goodies delivered to their homes in a decorative box each month. In 2012, it launched Birchbox Man, which gave men an opportunity to find beauty products better suited to their personal needs. Birchbox opened its first brick-and-mortar store in New York City in 2014, and plans to open another in Paris later this year.
The team is also gearing up to launch a new subscription, Birchbox Select, which will give customers more flexibility and even more control over their monthly samples. They'll be able to pick from a number of need-based boxes such as Dry Skin or Color-Treated Hair. The company is doing extremely well and that's in no small part because of Beauchamp, its CEO.
As part of the series, we recently interviewed Beauchamp to learn more about what it takes to launch a company that innovated shopping for beauty products online despite having no experience in beauty or technology. Beauchamp is currently the CEO at Birchbox, the mom of two adorable twin boys, and a Harvard Business School graduate.
She revealed why she loves hiring new moms at Birchbox, her vision for the future of the company, and her best words of advice for girls who hope to be CEOs someday.
How did you first become interested in the beauty industry?
"When I was 19, I landed a summer internship at Estee Lauder. It was my first experience working in beauty, and I distinctly remember realizing that this was a special industry. The people were passionate, wildly creative, bright, and analytical. On top of that, I was exposed to the amazing business dynamics of the industry, from the inelasticity and incredible margins, to the fact that beauty is a category that reaches across demographics and is countercyclical to the economy. It seemed like the holy grail of industries to build a career."
Could you tell us about the inspiration behind launching Birchbox?
"My co-founder and I didn't start Birchbox because we were passionate about beauty — in fact, we were quite the opposite — but we were fascinated by the economics behind it. Our idea was to overcome the limitations of the internet, and change the way people discover and shop for beauty online. We wanted women to enjoy it on their own terms. The inspiration was two-fold:
No. 1: When my co-founder Hayley and I were in business school, we noticed that beauty — which is an enormous global industry — was under-penetrated online, at a time where there was so much disruption happening for consumers on the internet. We wanted to build a company that could effectively sell beauty online.
No. 2: On a personal level, as consumers who weren't 'beauty people,' we wondered why it was so hard to find the best products. If you don't obsess over beauty and don't enjoy researching the latest launches, you still deserve to get the best stuff. You still want to look beautiful and you still want to spend your money on things you love and things that work. We thought, how could we give people the confidence to purchase online? At the time, Hayley's friend was an editor at Condé Nast and would send her products all the time. Mollie had access to the best new products and would use her expertise to pick out the ones she thought would work for Hayley. It was a light bulb moment — if only we could all have a beauty editor best friend! So that was the consumer insight that inspired what the customer experience would look like.
Our business model was to take something you have historically received for free — samples — and make them more relevant and enjoyable for you, while asking you to pay for them. We believed that relevance and personalization were valuable to consumer — and the consumer really got it."
What was the most challenging part of getting the company off the ground?
"It's a challenge to pitch a female-oriented business to a room of male investors who don't inherently relate to the value proposition and pain points you're working to solve. When we first started Birchbox, nobody believed we could get women to pay for samples. It took many nos from investors and brands before we heard our first yes, but then we were lucky to find product-market fit very quickly."
Did you have doubts along the way? If so, what did you do to overcome them?
"Yes! Who doesn't?! But I have also come to realize that being successful is not about knowing everything. Believing you need all the answers is what spurs the imposter syndrome. The leaders that I look up to most have a level of confidence that gives them the capacity to trust in their team, and the humility to believe that the best ideas might not be their own."
There are now several competitors in the subscription beauty box space. How are you working to differentiate Birchbox from your competitors?
"When we started, we didn't anticipate how positively consumers would respond — and we immediately got copied. But the subscription isn't the most innovative thing that we do. We found a whole new beauty consumer. The beauty industry is focused on a hyper consumer who is really passionate about beauty. We're not trying to compete with companies who know how to serve her. Birchbox is uniquely able to reach women who are much less engaged with the category; we're competing with non-consumption.
We're awakening a whole new consumer in the beauty industry by removing the friction from the discovery experience. We're able to change her behavior and unlock her spending power; in fact, within six months of subscribing to Birchbox, our customers double their spending in the beauty category overall. It's about beauty on your own terms — without it being hard, without you needing to be obsessed with it to have a great experience."
You previously stated that hiring new moms has been beneficial for your business. Why are they such an asset to your team?
"At Birchbox, new moms are our secret weapons. The demands at home make them more efficient and productive at work. They're more grounded, better at time-management, better at delegating, and better at prioritizing. For me, it was hard to turn my brain off from work before I had kids, but now I'm able to do that and it's beneficial. When I take a break I'm able to add more value. Just because new moms may need more flexibility doesn't mean they don't have ambition and drive, and we respect and encourage that."
What's your vision for the future of Birchbox?
"We had a big vision from Day 1: to change the way people discover and shop for beauty online. And our strong value proposition is what set us apart, and proved we could have scale and longevity. Our vision hasn't changed, but today we're laser-focused on building a destination for the everyday beauty consumer. We like to think of ourselves as a beauty company for non-beauty people — we help them explore beauty in an efficient, non-intimidating way. We're rallied around our customer and are evolving to stay as relevant to her as possible.
While most beauty companies focus on women who are passionate about beauty, we over-index in a customer that has a more casual relationship with the category. She has been underserved by the beauty industry, and our mission is to build a home for her. We're giving her a relevant, efficient, and approachable way to experience shopping for beauty."
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in the workforce today?
"Women should first understand their value and their own self-worth — that they are talented, deserving, and can contribute even in the early days of their career. It's an honor to any employer that you choose to bring your own talent to them. All women deserve to have high expectations of the company they work for (it's supposed to be a relationship!), so be demanding and work harder so you know when you have the right to be demanding.
I want to empower women to feel comfortable asking their employer for whatever it is that they need, whether that's more resources, a higher salary, development opportunities, flexibility in their schedule or mentorship. Ask smart questions, stay humble, and learn from every opportunity. And always celebrate other women finding success."
What’s one piece of advice someone gave you that’s always stuck with you?
"Trying to build an exceptional company is supposed to be exceptionally hard. That's what we signed up for."
What advice do you have for young girls who hope to be CEOs someday?
"My hope for young girls is that they are excited to work hard; that they are looking forward to really bringing it every day, and earning more responsibility with that effort and execution. And in return, I hope that they will expect they deserve to be respected from the day they start their careers. I hope that they will believe that they have something to add, even with no experience initially, and that they will find their voice and contribute to productively to the conversation.
And for those who are aspiring entrepreneurs, I always say to embrace your naivety. It gives you the freedom to aim for massive opportunities without being encumbered by all of the reasons that it will be hard to succeed."
Cover image via Katia Beauchamp