7 Secrets to Starting a Business from Birchbox's Katia Beauchamp
The co-founder of the cult subscription service shares wisdom that every aspiring entrepreneur should hear.
Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna were six months away from graduation at Harvard Business School when they hatched a plan to give the struggling online beauty business a makeover. “We thought it would be a great experience to write a business plan together,” Katia says. “We started thinking about different ideas and categories that we personally cared about—we noticed that nobody was doing anything with beauty online. It was a massive industry and the lack of online representation felt really bizarre.”
Upon further digging, the pair discovered that the beauty industry was struggling online to be anything beyond a replenishment vehicle—the traditional expectation was that to fall in love with a product, you needed to first see it and test it and try it. “We wanted to figure out how to give the internet texture, and create the magic of shopping for beauty that can exist offline, online.” A good friend and beauty editor was the final piece of the puzzle. “We decided we could give every woman a beauty editor best friend—someone who knew you, knew the category and could make sense of everything for you. Give you things that you’d actually want to try.” The idea was gold, but the execution was essential.
Neither Katia nor Hayley had experience in the beauty space, but what they lacked in connections they made up for with passion and perseverance. The payoff? Birchbox. A cult favorite subscription service with more than one-million monthly subscribers. We asked Katia to share her advice on developing a new business model and starting a company, fresh out of business school.
1. Share your idea
I wanted to keep our great idea a secret until we launched, but the reality is that it’s so hard to actually launch something, privacy isn’t the concern. Getting early insight from your customers is such an important part of the process. Test people’s willingness to pay. This information is invaluable before you decide if this is something you want to pursue.
2. Embrace cold calls
We emailed a handful of brands that we felt were really exciting to consumers. We kept the ask super simple. We just told them the idea and asked them to spend five minutes with us on the phone to hear about how we were going to re-imagine the beauty industry online.
3. Be open to learning and be influenced by the industry
We had thought through things, but we kept an open mind. We were flexible and we asked these beauty executives to teach us what we didn’t know.
4. Over deliver
We promised to keep our informational meetings short, and we did. We entered into them extremely prepared for all different kinds of questions. If we said we were going to do something, we did it. As a result, we started off with a great reputation.
5. Look for real feedback
We knew that our friends and family would support us unconditionally, so instead of reaching out to them, we contacted people we knew with big networks. We sent them an email and said: Don’t sign up, but forward this email to your network so that we can get some real users to try out this experience. From there, people got excited and started talking about us and we pretty quickly amassed a waitlist of 1,000 potential subscribers.
6. Be willing to fly a little blind
We didn’t have all the information when we launched, but we had enough information. Still, we faced lots of early obstacles. Interestingly, we experienced explosive growth that we hadn’t planned for and it presented some major operational challenges. Because we were gathering samples, we went from being too small to be interesting to being too big to talk to unless we were talking a year out in advance. We had to be flexible. We started personalizing our boxes and sending different samples to different individuals. It worked out.
7. The secret sauce: Optimism, naiveté and perseverance
One of the biggest contributing factors to our success is that we’ve always maintained the unbridled belief that Birchbox can and should and must exist. When you’re so sure you can do something, you end up learning how to create your own reality really quickly and you build organizations that think that way. It’s one of the most magical parts of starting a company and seeing it scale. I get to watch our organization create its own reality every day.