I spoke to Mollie Chen, one of the co-founders of Birchbox, as she described life in a start-up that went into warp drive in its very first year.
In 2010, Chen and her two business partners Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp launched Birchbox, with Chen handling the editorial and creative aspects of the business. If you are not familiar, Birchbox is a subscription service that sends women (and now, men) a monthly assortment of cosmetics and beauty products to sample.
Chen told me about how she transitioned from being a beauty editor for Condé Nast to a start-up entrepreneur.
A trend takes off
Chen and her co-founders intended to capitalize on a gap in the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry. They realized for most women, discovering and trying out beauty products was an expensive process of trial and error. When Birchbox hit the online beauty world, they didn't just close that gap--they sealed it shut.
As Chen recalls, "We found the perfect product, market, and fit." In 2010, after YouTube beauty star Ingrid Nilsen of Glamourazzi posted a rave review about Birchbox the company experienced explosive growth in subscribers.
Nilsen started a trend, as thousands of fans posted reviews, online comments and videos about their Birchbox experience. To put it in perspective, one popular mascara has been reviewed 30,137 times on the company's website.
The company has grown exponentially, from 600 subscribers in 2010 to more than a million subscribers in six countries today, according to Birchbox.
The popularity came largely from word of mouth. "Women were trying the products and sharing their thoughts with their friends and moms," recalls Chen.
While acknowledging that startups are "organized chaos," Chen reminds entrepreneurs that they need to stay self-motivated and keep everybody inspired along the journey, which can be difficult at times.
"You don't always recognize success when you are in it," Chen remarks. "We were hitting crazy milestones in the beginning and we were also running as fast as we could to keep up. To me, growing so fast was the scariest part of building the business. Some people thrive with all that white space, but I just wanted to have the concept down, without so much uncertainty."
Chen describes the creative freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur as both a blessing and a curse. "It's liberating to realize that problems that arise in start-ups are your problems, you created them--and you can fix them too."
The joy of sharing
What Birchbox had tapped into could be called the joy of sharing. Chen describes the company's customers as "beauty curious." As she describes it: "People either loved the products or absolutely hated them. Either way, they wanted to tell us. We used that information to constantly adapt our offerings in real-time."
Many companies view social media as just another way to push out messages, but it's also an opportunity for a two-way conversation with customers. Birchbox's strategy stressed social listening and quickly took it to the next level with a sophisticated algorithm to determine which products were best suited to specific customer segments.
"We used every avenue to help our customers understand why they got something in their box," said Chen. "From follow-up emails to feedback forms -- we wanted to know what worked and what didn't. The goal was to make sure there were no dead-ends from a customer experience standpoint."
Embrace the craziness
Even if what you're selling isn't unique or breakthrough, Chen suggests you look for something that makes your company truly different and create content that tells that story.
"Ask yourself, what do people really love about you or your brand? That's the key to creating content that will help people understand your brand, and make them talk about it," she says.
Birchbox's rapid growth is the kind of problem most entrepreneurs would love to have. With intelligent customer segmentation, astute social listening, and engaged influencers to tell your story--entrepreneurs in B2C and B2B companies can win.
"You are going to remember this as the most exciting time of your life, so appreciate the craziness," says Chen.