In The Path, we spotlight different women making a difference in the beauty, fashion, and medical aesthetics industries. Here, Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp shares her road to success.
Even if you’ve never signed up for one yourself, there’s a high probability that you have a friend or family member who has subscribed to a beauty box. She receives a small package each month, stuffed with sample-size haircare, skincare, and makeup products. There are seemingly dozens of companies offering these “try before you buy” boxes, but you have one brand in particular to thank for the trend: Birchbox. The company was founded in 2010 by Harvard Business School grads and industry disruptors, Katia Beauchamp and her friend and co-founder, Hayley Barna.
Beauty wasn’t a natural business path for Beauchamp — in fact, she had no prior experience with the industry at all. The CEO’s foray into entrepreneurship was born out of dissatisfaction with her previous career in commercial real estate investment banking. After a diploma from Harvard Business School and eight years of hard work, she’s created a global beauty business with more than a million subscribers.
Here, Beauchamp shares what sparked the idea for Birchbox, her best advice for those starting their own businesses, and why she’s not a fan of getting manicures at a salon — plus, her own low-maintenance approach to beauty.
Spotlyte: How did you get started?
Katia Beauchamp: At first, I decided I wanted to be in finance. I felt that it would give me financial stability. After graduating from Vassar, I began my career in commercial real estate investment banking. I was doing well, but didn’t feel fulfilled, so I decided to go to business school not really knowing exactly what would come of it. When I arrived at Harvard, I had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. I didn’t even really have a good sense of what entrepreneurship was.
Spotlyte: What made you want to shift your career trajectory to beauty entrepreneurship?
KB: I didn’t really know that I wanted to be in beauty, but I did know that I wanted a job that balanced my creativity with analytical skills and gave me more ownership of my work. During my first year at Harvard, I took an entrepreneurship class and I immediately was drawn to that as a career. I became really fixated on the idea of seeing what I was capable of, and [the entrepreneur] experience because it feels like a life worth living, a career worth fighting for.
Spotlyte: How did you come up with the idea for Birchbox?
KB: About six months away from graduation, my friend and I decided that we were going to write a business plan together before we graduated. It really started with the internet — how it's almost infinite in terms of choice. That makes the proliferation of choice a huge barrier to buying. Then the second thing was trial. People said that they would only buy prestige beauty if they could touch it and feel it and smell it and experience it. Obviously, you can't do that on the internet.
We said, “we have to overcome these two problems." But we actually didn't write a business plan [for Birchbox] — we immediately came up with the idea. We got so excited that we went into "Let's test it. Let's operate the business,” mode. We launched in 2010, after we felt like we had enough traction and data points. Of course, we were extremely naïve, but that's how we started.
Spotlyte: Why do you think Birchbox stood out in such a saturated beauty industry?
KB: When we started in 2010, we had a very simple insight and a very simple motivation, but the basic idea of five personalized beauty samples a month has definitely deepened over time. We did market research. We wanted to learn a little bit more about the market because none of us who worked in Birchbox had a [previous] career in beauty.
We learned that the beauty industry focuses on a customer who loves beauty and is obsessed with it. In many ways, that makes sense — she spends so much more on beauty because it's her passion. And while she spends more dollars on it, she actually represents a tiny percentage of the market. That’s when we looked at who our customer was. We had a different customer: the average woman who was buying beauty, but is not obsessed with it. Within a year, she was almost doubling her spend in beauty.
Spotlyte: What challenges did you face while growing the brand?
KB: Once we realized who our customer was — the casual beauty consumer — it took a lot of discipline not to feed into who the rest of the internet and everybody in beauty was focusing on. Everybody is so focused on the beauty obsessed — the influencer, the bloggers, the vloggers — and we had to stand our ground and say, “we are not going to be that.” We are going to be a brand, a retailer, and a destination that is comfortable for the women who don't want to consume that content for fun, and to give them a space where their ideals are represented and their questions are answered. That's been the biggest challenge — and shift in our philosophy — in our positioning and in our thinking as a company.
Spotlyte: Birchbox has its eighth anniversary coming up, and I’m sure you’ve learned a lot over the years. What advice would you give to somebody who's building a brand in 2018?
KB: This may sound like a simple idea, but I think that this can be overlooked in building product for consumers. You have to really challenge yourself to say, "Is this really adding value?" Because if [it’s not], I think you'll have huge challenges in front of you . . . And at the end of the day, there's going to be somebody else who is always thinking about how they can give that same delight. You really just have to be mindful that that's the game and it's always changing.
Spotlyte: What’s your overall beauty philosophy?
KB: Invest in a good foundation of things, and then you don't have to work as hard to keep it up. You don't have to do dramatic things at some point and you don't have to cover it up on a daily basis. Great skin — healthy skin — is something I really care about. I have learned so much about it since starting Birchbox. I think my skin is better today than it was when I started. I was so much younger.
Spotlyte: On that note, can you tell us about your beauty routine?
KB: Yes, of course! I just don't want to spend my morning on my beauty routine. I want to be with my family and have those moments before we start our busy day. So I tend to keep things pretty low-maintenance with my hair and makeup, but I do focus on skincare. I start with cleansing, which I think is obviously a really important step. I love oil cleansers, like this one from [ comfort zone ] because they don’t overly strip your skin of its natural oils. I also love exfoliators, and I think chemical exfoliators are the best. I use the Dr. Dennis Gross® peel pads or Sunday Riley® Good Genes. After that, I use a hydrating mist, preferably one with hyaluronic acid, then a serum for face and eyes, a moisturizer, and if it’s at night, a sleeping mask or an oil — just depends on how hot it is.
Sometimes I wear little to no makeup, but I usually do a BB cream, or the tinted moisturizer from Jouer Cosmetics® [Luminizing Moisture Tint], a bit of concealer under my eyes from RMS Beauty®, and then brows, bottom liner, and blush. I love a good rosy cheek — it makes me look so much younger, and more spirit-y. My favorites are from Benefit, Milk Makeup, and Tata Harper.
Spotlyte: What about hair care?
KB: Hair is my favorite category. I think I'm considered low-maintenance because of how little I wash my hair. I wash my hair probably twice a week at most with either Oribe or amika, then sleep on it wet. I style it in the morning with a flat iron to give it a bit of wave, and then I rely on dry shampoo for the next few days. It saves so much time. My favorite is the R+Co BADLANDS Dry Shampoo Paste, since I like my hair looking obviously less pristine and sort of piece-y.
Spotlyte: What other beauty-related treatments do you do?
KB: For facials, I go to Skin Laundry® for a 15-minute facial with a laser. I also usually have eyelash extensions, which I love and live by. It saves me so much time. I feel like I can wear way less makeup. For nails, I like natural nails, just healthy, well-kept and filed, but I don't like nail polish. I really believe that every woman would feel so much better if she didn't have to have an hour of her life held hostage by drying fingernail polish.
Spotlyte: What’s your stance on medical aesthetics?
KB: I don't use any medical aesthetics at this point, but I’m not opposed to it. I think you can do whatever you feel good about.
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