Startup Stories: Birchbox—Discover Beauty and Grooming Products

This is a picture of our second beta box. For our first shipment we used glue to secure the samples. That went horribly! We iterated and changed the packaging to include tissue paper and wrapped packages. It worked much better and contributed to the feeling of Birchbox being a "gift" you can buy for yourself.

What if you could get hand-picked beauty, grooming and lifestyle products delivered to your house for just $10 a month? Save time, get recommendations, lots of choice? Well you can thanks to Birchbox, the startup that is doing nothing short of redefining the retail process. From TIME to Marie Claire to ADWEEK to Us Weekly, everyone seems to be interested in Birchbox. To give you the inside scoop on how Birchbox got it’s start, here’s co-founder and co-CEO Hayley Barna:

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 6.59.39 AMBirchbox is the result of so many influences – everything from life experiences to classwork. In part, the muse behind the business idea is my friendship with Mollie Chen (now the Editorial Director at Birchbox). We lived together in NYC after college and she would bring home high-end beauty samples from the editor’s closet at the magazine she worked for. My co-founder Katia noticed I always had the newest and best products, despite never shopping for them, and in that was the kernel of our business idea. We set out to build a service that helped consumers discover new products in the same way their best friend would provide recommendations.

The first thing we did to gain traction was talk to everyone we possibly could about our idea. We were the opposite of “stealth”. Since we were in school at the time we reached out to professors, students, alumni to pressure test our ideas and get advice for how to get started.

Our first office was my on campus apartment at Harvard Business School. Katia and I set up shop there building the first few hundred Birchboxes ourselves. We were fueled by lots of dumplings and reality TV. We’d drag deliveries to the post office in big blue IKEA bags.

Now, three years later, we just moved into a new office in NYC (our 4th! we keep outgrowing them!) and it couldn’t be more different. We’re on a high floor in a fancy office building. But we’ve kept the startup touches… lots of bright colors and playful accents. Everything from hula hoops to chalkboard walls.

Birchbox was beta tested while Katia and I were students at Harvard Business School. The startup community in Boston was hugely helpful! We entered a business plan competition and received lots of valuable feedback from local entrepreneurs and VCs. Since launching the business in NYC we’ve really enjoyed being a part of the growing startup scene here as well. There is a great network of CEOs who we can reach out to who are confronted with some of the same challenges and opportunities we are. It’s great to be able to pick up the phone and chat with someone who has that shared experience.

This is a picture of our second beta box. For our first shipment we used glue to secure the samples. That went horribly! We iterated and changed the packaging to include tissue paper and wrapped packages. It worked much better and contributed to the feeling of Birchbox being a "gift" you can buy for yourself.

This is a picture of our second beta box. For our first shipment we used glue to secure the samples. That went horribly! We iterated and changed the packaging to include tissue paper and wrapped packages. It worked much better and contributed to the feeling of Birchbox being a “gift” you can buy for yourself.

We used these in our first pitch meetings to prospective beauty brand partners for our beta test. We had a blast putting them together and they really helped illustrate the concept during our meetings.

Every day has its ups and down. Startup life is truly a roller coaster! It’s hard to pick out specific moments. I think one of the toughest phases was during our initial fundraising meetings before we launched. We were pounding the pavement selling our vision for a discovery ecommerce service. We made the scary decision to stop taking meetings for awhile to ensure we were 100% focused on the product and a successful launch. Luckily that strategy panned out as we had strong initial traction at launch and the tides really turned with fundraising simultaneously. Some of the highest highs have been related to consumer feedback… seeing tweets, watching YouTube videos and reading emails about how Birchbox has surprised and delighted a customer is definitely the most rewarding part of building Birchbox.

Katia and I really rely on each other as co-founders, business partners and friends. We inspire each other to be better at our jobs, to tackle big challenges, and to stay committed to the vision behind Birchbox. I learn so much from her every day.

My father has also been a hero during the process of building Birchbox. Not only has he been incredibly supportive but he’s taught me the lesson of focus. With early stage businesses it’s tempting to follow many paths but there is the risk of drowning in opportunity. His experience building a business over many decades has made it clear it’s important to have clarity in value proposition and to make sure all actions reinforce that vision.

Yes, we’re definitely maintaining a startup culture as we get larger! Even though we’ve grown a ton since launching we’ve still only accomplished a small portion of our big vision. For that reason we still feel like we’re starting up. We maintain the culture through our hiring process, transparent management style and commitment to testing and experimenting with our product. We think our newest employees provide a ton of value by questioning the status quo, asking questions and helping us push our thinking.

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3 comments

  1. I loved this little peak behind the scenes of birchbox and it left me wanting to know more. I would love to see a follow up on these type of pieces that discusses some aspects of starting up a company in depth. I’m always curious about the process of going from “nothing” to something that has a thriving customer base. How did you get those first customers? How did you grow that base? Any plans to expand beyond the box?

    1. Hey Kate, glad you liked the piece. I’ll look into following up with these types of questions for future stories in this series!

      C

  2. I agree with Kate, it would be great to learn more about their growth process. Birchbox has a great reputation and product/service, but many startups have great products and never become well-known. Where did the first customers come from and how long did it take to know they had more than just a great idea/product?

    With four offices in three years, they’re on a track we’d all love to know more about! Great article Chris.

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