Before launching Birchbox in the fall of 2010, CEO and co-founder Katia Beauchamp had to figure out how to get the attention of some of the world's biggest beauty brands. The recent Harvard Business School grad knew that her love of beauty and style combined with her finance background were a winning biz combo, but getting the heads of brands like NARS and Kiehl’s to pay attention was a different story. But Beauchamp, along with fellow Harvard grad and co-founder Haley Barna, kept it simple. They cold emailed presidents, CEOs, and executives at major companies with a subject line about reimagining beauty retail. It was their way in. And it worked.
Today, the $10-a-month subscription service that ships sample-sized products to consumers, has made good on that subject line promise. Birchbox has more than 1 million subscribers, sells full-size products on its website, and most recently announced profitability.
We chatted with the CEO about those infamous cold-emails, why she hires new moms, and raising money while female.
Let’s talk about cold-emailing. You’ve said that you and your co-founder started cold-emailing CEOs in the beauty industry to get the idea in front of them. What are a few things that every cold-email should include?
I cold-emailed several presidents, CEOs, and brand managers in the beauty industry and the majority of people responded! Here are some tips:
1. Have a compelling subject line. It needs to motivate the reader to open the message. At the very least it should say something more than "Hello" or "Looking to get in touch." I used "Reimagining beauty online."
2. Keep the email concise. The email should be short enough so that a person can read it without having to scroll down on his or her phone. The less time and energy it takes to read it, the better.
3. Don't attach a business plan to explain the idea. That's asking a lot. Try a one-pager that briefly describes the idea/value proposition. We framed our one-pager by introducing the brands as the stakeholder and how Birchbox could help that brand.
4. Ask for something that’s easy to say yes to. I asked CEOs and brand managers for five minutes of their time to give me advice. Those emails eventually turned into a meeting and the meeting turned into a pitch. Those pitch meetings ultimately led to partnerships with massive brands, early on.
You’ve said your secret weapon is hiring new moms because they are productive, efficient, and grounded. Why do you think this is important?
There’s a real appreciation at Birchbox that moms remain ambitious in their careers. This may not sound revolutionary but I believe this perspective can unlock the power of women at work and benefit all parties. The ideas of flexibility and ambition can seem at odds for some, but we have worked to give our team that space and see it pay off. As far as putting it into practice, we place an emphasis on on-boarding moms as they transition back to work, as a core part of our maternity policy. This has built stability and trust between us and our team members, and continues to provide value for organization. We have extremely talented people, who come back to work with energy, excitement, and a new perspective.
"We place an emphasis on on-boarding moms as they transition back to work, as a core part of our maternity policy."
You interned at Estee Lauder during college, what about that experience made you want to get into the beauty industry? Did you have any mentors coming out of the experience that helped along the way to founding Birchbox?
I co-founded Birchbox in 2010, technically, as an outsider from the beauty industry. I did have one taste of the industry as an intern for the Estee Lauder executive training program while attending Vassar College. It was a very competitive program, which was something that initially attracted me to the opportunity. That summer, I fell in love with the business of beauty. At 19, I met Leonard and Evelyn Launder, and other executives with whom we now partner. I was struck by the passion of the Estee Lauder employees and for the beauty industry. I distinctly remember realizing that this industry was special and unique, and that it wasn’t the norm for people to feel so connected to what they did for work. I now recognize why this was the case; the Lauders and their executives put energy into their culture and they had a reciprocal passion for their people. Additionally, the beauty industry has unique and fascinating dynamics with a wide appeal. It doesn’t typically follow macro consumer trends in terms of the overall economy and the strength of the business (inelastic demand!). There are very healthy margins and a seemingly endless ability to reinvent and shift demand. Clearly, my internship experience had a lasting impression.
After starting my career in real estate finance, I went to business school thinking about shifting industries. Luckily, six months before graduation, Hayley and I had the idea for Birchbox. Seven years later, I still feel somewhat new to the party, but also truly embraced by this industry and grateful to so many of the insiders that have supported us from the beginning.
Work-life balance is now a buzz phrase. Why do you think everyone is so focused on finding a balance? And what has that meant to you throughout your journey?
My personal perspective is that this concept is becoming less and less relevant in its traditional meaning. Traditionally, work and life were stark extremes where the expectation was little overlap. Today, there is a lot more awareness in the value of having more blurred lines in these two areas that allow for a person to feel connected to their whole self. I am grateful to care so much about my work that it is something I want to spend time thinking through. I am stimulated by the challenges and motivated throughout my days, not just during specific hours. That said, I also believe it is critical to disconnect from work and have space to develop in other areas of interest. From experience, this allows us to bring more energy and a fresh perspective, but it doesn’t always need to happen during specific times of the day or week. I have learned the value in taking 10 minutes during the work day to meditate, or 20 minutes to walk outside and appreciate the world outside of our bubble. I also have experienced wanting to have meetings on a weekend to speak to a colleague or mentor about the company. There is no perfect work-life ratio but it is important to feel connected to who you are and what brings out your energy and motivation for life.
Talk a bit about the transition into a brick-and-mortar space. What was the full strategy behind that move? And how did you know you were ready?
We opened our first brick-and-mortar store in Soho, New York in July 2014. It was never our original plan to go the brick-and-mortar route, but as we learned more about our customer and her shopping habits, we realized we could add value to her beauty experience in the offline world. We experimented with pop-ups and saw how excited and engaged our customers were. They were hungry to experience the Birchbox brand in a tangible way, and it helped them understand the full scope of our value proposition. When we opened our permanent location in Soho, we thought carefully about how to create a new, unique type of retail experience for women who typically haven't enjoyed shopping for beauty. For example, we merchandise everything by category (hair, makeup, skincare, etc.) instead of by brand, which is a more approachable, efficient way for our customer to discover new products. We just opened a store in Paris, so we’re thrilled to be able to connect with our French customers a deeper way too.
And your expansion into Birchbox Man in 2012? Did you find it challenging to shift from a brand focused on selling to women, to a brand focusing on men and women?
Back in 2011, our female customers told us they wanted a Birchbox experience for the men in their life, so we tested a limited-edition gift box filled with men’s grooming products and lifestyle accessories. It sold out in less than three days. We thought it would just be women purchasing for men, but it wasn’t. It turns out guys were buying it for themselves too. With that customer insight, we put the wheels in motion to launch a men’s vertical and debuted BirchboxMan four months later in April 2012. We’re grounded in discovery, so just like with our women’s product, our try-before-you-buy sampling model is all about helping men upgrade their routines. However, there are some important differences. For example, we knew that men were less likely to talk about grooming products so we added lifestyle to the subscription to help with the vitality. We continue to test and iterate on the product for men, but believe that there is a big opportunity to serve this very different and underserved consumer base.
Over Birchbox’s lifetime, you’ve raised 71.9M. Did you ever feel at a disadvantage because you were two female founders pitching a product built for women?
It's a challenge to pitch a female-oriented business to mostly male investors who don't inherently relate to the value proposition and pain points you're working to solve. When we first started Birchbox, it took many no's before we heard our first yes. In part, we learned to better represent the opportunity, and eventually found investors who did appreciate the total addressable market, as well as relate to the human value proposition that we saw. I do believe that more gender diversity for investors will help female-focused and female-run businesses access capital more effectively.
"I believe that more gender diversity for investors will help female-run businesses access capital more effectively."
Were you selective when it came to choosing investors? Or was it all about collecting capital?
We decided pretty early to raise capital once we tested the concept. We launched a beta in business school to understand whether it was a viable model, whether the unit economics were sufficient, etc. We met with dozens of investors, some independent and some institutional. Ultimately, we chose individuals (largely venture capitalists) who we connected with the opportunity and believed in it’s massive potential. We are so appreciative for their individual contribution to our business as well as recognizing that they could grow their investment with the business.
Any decision that you’ve made that you'd change if you got a do-over?
No. Of course, there have been mistakes along the way! My firm belief is that it is much more valuable to be naive than try to anticipate or know every pitfall or weakness. First, you can’t really “know” until you experience the hard. It shapes you and constantly sets a new standard for challenges you tackle. Second, putting one foot in front of the other is more digestible than expending energy on every impending challenge. Take things in stride as you do with every aspect of tackling an opportunity.