Harvard Business School grads Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna had an idea they knew could revolutionize the multi-billion dollar beauty industry–they just didn’t have the connections, at first.
Their idea? Birchbox: With thousands of beauty products in the marketplace, Birchbox is a website that “cuts through the clutter” by sending samples of beauty and lifestyle products to paying customers, carefully curated and personalized based on their profiles.
We named Birchbox a Most Innovative Company in the fashion and beauty category for its ingenious idea of matching brands eager to share samples with consumers ready to discover the next great beauty find.
“The dream was based on, ‘Who wouldn’t want that?’” Beauchamp says. They started by sending cold e-mails to presidents and CEOs of well-known beauty brands, seeking to partner with established brands as they grew their business.
They were met with some resistance along the way. “’It’s never been done before in this way’; ‘We have existing relationships with retailers who sell a lot of our product;’ ‘Why should I change the rules for an unproven concept?’” Beauchamp recalls being told. At first, companies would say, “You’re so small. Why would we want to work with you?” Shortly after, they were hearing, “You’re so big, we have to plan for you months in advance [to get enough samples].”
“Birchbox solves inherent problems,” Beauchamp says. For starters, most consumers want to try a product before committing to a full-size purchase. The monthly subscription service also introduces customers to try products specially selected by Birchbox staff–products they may not otherwise find themselves. “We appeal to a diverse range of women. [Our business] model is designed to make personalization part of the experience,” Beauchamp says. The company works with all types of brands, both large and small, and sells full-size products on its website, making it easy for subscribers to buy the hard-to-find international or niche brands they’ve sampled.
In less than four years, the company has grown from 600 monthly subscribers to more than 800,000, with more than 9 million boxes shipped. Here’s how they did it:
“We don’t hear no at Birchbox,” Beauchamp says. It’s more of an “Okay, but yes, we’re probably going to work together in the future, so what are your fears? What are your concerns? We’ll come back in a few months and address them.” Another saying heard around the office is, “Never accept no from somebody who can’t say yes.” In other words, make sure the decision-maker understands the value proposition, says Beauchamp. If you rely on someone to relay your message, who doesn’t have the authority to make the decision, they may muddle your pitch, she says.
“We didn’t pretend to know all the answers [when going into meetings],” Barna says. Instead, Beauchamp and Barna did their research, but entered conversations asking brands open-ended questions, like, “What are your goals? What’s hard for you now? How are you reaching new consumers?” Barna recalls. “It’s not about vendors or retail channels. It’s a relationship,” she says. Beauchamp agrees. “We always tell our brand partners, ‘If you ever wonder if it’s something we’ll do, ask us,’” she says.
In the beginning, Beauchamp and Barna were personally fulfilling orders. Today, a major fulfillment operation handles that part of the process. The company first tracked everything using an Excel spreadsheet, but now they’re using algorithms, Barna notes.
It’s important to know your vision, be laser-focused, but not worried about what’s going to happen 10 steps down the road, she says. Beauchamp says it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and suggests businesses ask the right questions: Am I building the right team, attitude, and vision to get where I want to be? “Trust yourself, trust that you’ve hired the right people, and have the right vision,” she says.