Last week, on International Women’s Day, I sat down with one of the most inspiring women working in the beauty industry right now: Birchbox co-founder and CEO, Katia Beauchamp. Katia was visiting London from her home in New York to celebrate the fact that Birchbox UK have just hit a milestone number of subscribers, and as a result have become the UK’s number one beauty box. It’s another big triumph for the company that Katia co-founded in 2010, whilst studying at Harvard Business School. And here she kindly shares the lessons she’s learnt along the way. Prepare to be inspired…
Where did your passion for beauty come from? Were you obsessed with makeup as a teenager?
I wasn’t really interested in beauty when I was growing up. It just wasn’t on my radar. But I interned at Estée Lauder when I was 19, and instantly fell in love with the business of beauty. It’s such a fascinating industry because there are really high profit margins, it’s countercyclical to the economy and there’s no discounting.
At the time I considered pursuing a career in beauty, but I went into finance instead, knowing it would give me complete financial independence. Then, after a few years, I applied to business school and planned to step into the beauty industry. But it turned out I couldn’t get a job. I was at Harvard Business School and every brand I spoke to was like, “Yeah, get in line. We have all the top business schools applying and everyone else has beauty experience.”
When did you get the idea for Birchbox? And how did the business come together?
About six months before graduation my co-founder, Hayley Barna, and I came up with the idea for Birchbox. Initially our intent was, “We’re going to graduate from business school, so let’s write a business plan.” That was the goal: write a plan. And when we saw this amazing opportunity waiting in beauty we just couldn’t settle. We couldn’t sleep. We were so excited because we saw that in 2010 less than 3% of beauty was purchased on the internet, and it was the only category that wasn’t changing its trajectory.
The internet was not designed to sell beauty beyond replenishment. It can’t give you the touch or the try; but the internet is really fast and it’s great at personalisation. So we came up with the idea to share five products a month – along with content that explains why they’re special and how to use them – then make the shopping process really seamless from there.
We never set out to start a subscription company, we were always thinking about how we could build the beauty e-commerce company of the future. The subscription box just made a ton of sense because we knew we had to make the discovery element enjoyable.
What was that first year of business like?
It was exciting, but miserable. Within seven months we hit our five year plan. It was complete insanity. We were really unprepared. We weren’t prepared from a leadership perspective, from a hiring perspective, from a capital perspective, from a business plan perspective. Birchbox grew so fast, but the consumer demand was there before the brands really understood it. So that first year was really hard. We were working every hour of the day trying to get brands on board.
What does your typical workday look like? If such a thing even exists…
It changes day-to-day. And it’s also changed a lot over the last seven years. In the early days I was never in the office, I was closing every brand and every partnership. I didn’t see the team ever. And now I spend about 50% of my time in the office and 50% out in meetings. There are definitely still a lot of external parts of my job, like the board, financing the company and PR. But I have more time to think now, so I can look at what’s happening in technology and the world as a whole and then apply it to our plan for Birchbox.
I always try to get through my emails at night, because I don’t like to be that person who’s constantly tapping away at their phone during the day. It really makes any relationship you’re building – whether it’s with your team or an external contact – feel less special. So I’ve learnt to be disciplined about the time I spend on email.
How do you like to unwind after a long day?
I have twin boys who are turning three at the end of May, and I get to unwind with them every day. They’re the most delightful humans. When I come home they treat me like a celebrity, it’s so sweet. You would think that I’d just won the Best Actress award at the Oscars by their reaction. When I step through the door they’re like, “Mommy!!” It’s always such an exciting, special moment in my day.
Obviously I don’t get to spend all day with them, and that’s not something I regret because I love having my career and own sense of self. But it does mean that I’m very protective about the time I do have with them. I only fully switch off from work when I’m with my boys, and I feel like they do wonders for me because having that time where I’m so focused on them gives me a mental break from work. And that downtime actually allows me to bring even more energy to what I do at Birchbox.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your 9 to 5?
We’re very focused on a customer who’s not obsessed with beauty, and has felt ignored or underserved by the beauty industry in the past. Our vision at Birchbox is to be powerfully relevant to this consumer, so we constantly have to evolve and reinvent our product. I always say, our current business model should never define the company, because the world is changing so quickly and we constantly have to adapt. Being able to identify what’s coming next – and then build an organisation that embraces that change and executes on it – is a big challenge. But, at the same time, it’s so stimulating because there’s always something to do.
And, on the flip side, what’s the best perk of your job?
It’s 100% the team. It’s so surreal to see how excited people are to get a job at Birchbox. And I get to watch their lives unfold, which is amazing. Often I see someone get engaged, married and pregnant. And, running parallel to that, they’re also going from their first job to managing an intern, then building a team, and in some cases running a huge department. Savannah, the head of Birchbox UK, started as an intern at Birchbox. So, for me, the biggest joy comes from watching the team progress and being a part of other women’s career stories.
Which other women working in the industry inspire you?
Women in the beauty industry are surprisingly hard to find. But Estée Lauder actually have a lot of women in leadership positions; and as a company they’ve always been so good to me. Jane Lauder (Clinique Global Brand President), Jane Hertzmark Hudis (Estée Lauder Group President) and Rhonda Vetere (Estée Lauder Chief Technology Ofﬁcer) are all such inspiring women. They empower their teams and allow people to take the ball and run with it. As a trio I think they exemplify the idea of women helping to move barriers for other women.
And, finally, what’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
I feel like the answer is changing all the time, to be honest. In the early days the best piece of advice I received was from an adviser who had started a couple of e-commerce and media companies. At the time I was pitching Birchbox to brands and hearing “no” a lot. I wasn’t becoming discouraged, but I do remember talking to him about it and he said, “Don’t accept no from someone who can’t say yes.” And I think that is such a profound statement.
First of all it means you should think carefully about who you’re speaking to. Do they even have the authority to say yes? And, if not, are you empowering them with the right information so that they’re equipped to go and advocate for you? You have to help people say yes to you.