Published July 10, 2013
For Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, thinking outside the box is an overused, overrated cliché.
The pair met at Harvard Business School where they put their heads together to come up with an idea that would revolutionize the way women look at beauty products.
They called it Birchbox, a monthly subscription service that delivers beauty samples right to your door.
Now, three years later, they boast more than 400,000 monthly subscribers, 400 partner brands, and a whole lot of start-up success.
Turning the Box Upside Down
Barna and Beauchamp met on the first day of business school when they were enrolled in the same class section.
The rest, they said, was fate.
“Business school was definitely an environment to test the idea (for Birchbox) in every sense,” Beauchamp said. “From the second we came up with the inspiration: 'How can we create a better discovery company for beauty?' we started talking to people as consumers, describing the idea, asking what they would pay, talking to professors.”
Beauchamp said the mistake many rookie entrepreneurs make is taking their idea to market too quickly. The duo wanted to avoid falling into the same trap, so they made sure to flesh out their idea and think about every aspect before they launched.
In addition to learning the art of entrepreneurship, business school was a ready-made support network made up of classmates who previously worked at start-ups, and professors who could help fine-tune the details of the idea.
“When we both realized we could find value in this kind of service, that’s what got us really excited,” Barna said. “Beauty junkies would love discovering the newest and best. People like me, who are more on the ‘just learning’ spectrum, would feel more comfortable discovering beauty in their own home with a curated balance.”
Once they knew they had a solid idea, they took it to a kind of test market filled with classmates, acquaintances, friends and friends-of-friends.
But going into business with your best friend isn’t always easy.
“The hardest thing from having an idea to launching it is setting up the legal paperwork -- it's like signing a pre-nup,” Beauchamp said. “When everything is still so exciting and positive, it’s hard to talk about what if things get negative. It’s a very hard conversation at any time, but especially in the beginning when things are all unicorns and cotton candy.”
With a structure in place and failure agreement if things went wrong, the two launched Birchbox with 600 subscribers. In three years, the company has grown to more than 300,000 monthly subscribers, a full-fledged online store to purchase full-sized items, and a blog for tips and tricks of the trade.
Quick Success: A Blessing and a Curse
Within three years, Birchbox has grown substantially in popularity and is quickly becoming a household name -- and becoming a launch pad for a host of imitators.
The quick rise to the top is more than the two co-founders said they could have ever imagined, but the rush of success brings with it a host of challenges.
“The fast growth is something we never anticipated,” Beauchamp said. “We got behind before we were really even started. We found ourselves getting close to working 25 hour days. We needed to change targets and hiring plans and had to shift quickly from wearing all the hats to taking them off and recruiting and building a team to help grow the company."
Now, Birchbox has a team of more than 150 employees in four countries, after the recent acquisition of Paris-based JolieBox, which opened up access to subscribers in France, the UK and Spain.
“The key for us was clarifying our dreams for Birchbox up front, making sure we were on the same page for what we wanted to accomplish and really communicating, just like a relationship. The more we talk, the better we’re able to stay connected,” Barna said.
Creating a lasting brand takes more than just a hot idea. It takes a healthy dose of dedication and a lot of determination. Barna and Beauchamp realize they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are unless they had an equally as dedicated team of advisers.
“We packed every box, processed every order, took payments through our website. It was a shadow of what we wanted the experience to be as far as customization and what we wanted, but we distilled it to the basics and said, ‘Does this work? If it does, how do we keep going?’” Beauchamp said.
Barna agreed, saying more often than not, first-time entrepreneurs who come to them for advice can’t see past their next big idea.
“They can almost be paralyzed by the size of the idea,” she said. “We encourage them to break it down and to see how you can make it into several steps. We’re big fans of the experiment. Get (your idea) started. Nothing feels better than getting it off the ground.”
She added having a sharp focus is the key to developing any brand in a valuable way. For Birchbox, it’s staying focused on the original idea: Discovering new and better products, rather than getting distracted by all of the copycats that have followed in their footsteps.
“Staying laser focused on that helps us not be distracted by the noise, the boxes for everything. We see that as an extension of the of-the-month-club. That’s not what we do. We do a try, learn, buy business full of 360 degrees of discovery,” Barna said.
The Birchbox pair has big dreams, but the duo has become realistic about how to accomplish them. Through trials and limited edition boxes, they’re able to test new ideas before they delve head-first into a new space.
“We have big dreams,” Barna said. “We want to be a global brand, a lifestyle brand, a household name with millions of subscribers. We belive Birchbox does that in the category of discovery and that we can become a cornerstone of e-commerce.”