Let’s get it straight: Birchbox is not a sampling company.
That may come as a surprise. The New York-based beauty firm is perhaps best known for its beautiful boxes of makeup samples that get delivered to customers every month. But Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox, is adamant that it’s about much more than that.
In recent months, the company, which is hoping to grab a larger bit of the $16 billion beauty market in the U.S., has put more of a focus on converting customers into buying full-size beauty products and becoming a beauty retailer, not a subscription box company. But don’t call this a pivot. Beauchamp joined the Glossy Podcast to argue that this was always in the plan: “We never set out to sell women boxes of samples. Or to be a subscription company.”
Edited highlights below.
Birchbox was an easy sell in some ways …
Beauchamp said that when she co-founded the company, there was already a “gaping hole” in the beauty space when it came to buying beauty products online. That made the sell easy. Plus, marketing dollars at big brands were already being spent on samples. The difference was that samples were being used as gifts for loyal customers instead of as assets for customer acquisition. “That was our pitch.”
… But a hard sell in others
Beauty and fashion startups can be hard for investors to understand. The difficulty of convincing venture capitalists who tend to be male about industry opportunities in spaces they’re not familiar with is very real, said Beauchamp: “We couldn’t use a narrative or a story. We had to be less about making a woman feel. We had to talk numbers.” Beauchamp said that she had to wake up to the reality of how hard it is to be a female entrepreneur. “It’s hard for [investors] to relate to this category because it feels so personal and emotional,” she said. “A lot of people would say, ‘My wife isn’t into that.’”
Pivoting without a pivot
Beauchamp said the idea for the company was always to get people to use the subscription boxes to first sample products and then to buy full-size makeup from Birchbox. But unfortunately, the box became a “symbol” for the company. Breaking out of the “subscription box company” mold was hard, she said. “[The box] is a part of who we are as a company. But we’re more.” She said consumer press and media didn’t help, either — so the company turned to its customers to spread the word, asking loyalists to refer people to full-size products. The company’s store helped, too. Beauchamp said it was a chance for customers to experience the company in a new way. (And also to see how many full-size makeup tubes it could sell.)
There is no subscription box bubble
Despite issues of scale and a proliferation of subscription box companies, Beauchamp said that the sub-box industry is fine. “I can’t even imagine a question about whether subscription is a sustainable business model,” she said. “We didn’t invent subscription. It’s been around for 100 years.” And the idea of it being a bubble misses the point: The question is whether subscription is used as a marketing vehicle to generate sales or if there is another goal — and that’s what businesses need to figure out. “Don’t think about whether sub boxes as an entity are relevant,” said Beauchamp.