Birchbox: opening new paths for beauty & e-commerce

Birchbox = ‘the smartest way to shop for beauty and grooming products.’ We're opening up its secrets to success.

Birchbox banner

Birchbox: a success in redefining beauty

  • Since its founding in 2010, Birchbox has experienced significant success innovating consumers’ behaviors with beauty  and e-commerce.
    • Birchbox is estimated to serve over a million customers, earning $170 million annually. The ‘discovery commerce’ beauty company has raised $70 million+ in venture funding, boasting an estimated valuation of $485 million.[1]
    • Organizationally, the company has grown to 150 employees, while maintaining a positive reputation as an ambitious, ‘work hard, play hard’ culture that is attracting top talent such as ex-Sephora (Philippe Pinatel) and Apple (Ben Fay) execs for recent retail expansion.[2][3]
    • The two co-founders (HBS MBAs ’10) Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna have impressed investors (e.g., Viking Global) as well as young female entrepreneurs.[4]

  • Birchbox is poised for greater growth – largely due to constantly assessing its business/operating models’ alignment with its vision – even amidst increasing competition. It boldly aspires to reach more of the 44 million US consumers in a $465 billion dollar global beauty industry.[5]


The idea – enabling ‘beauty discovery’ via redefined ‘sampling’


  • It was an image women were used to: Sephora, a beauty retail powerhouse, and their ‘free samples’ with purchase; reps pushing perfume samples. Samples were relatively low cost ways retailers attempted to convert consumers. However, there was limited ‘customization’ of samples, resulting in greater ‘waste’ (i.e., ROI estimates show over $100 million lost on unused samples)[6]
  • Enter Birchbox. The business model turned the previously tired ‘samples’ business on its head. The company centers on a subscription-based service that delivers a ‘box’ monthly (i.e., $10/month for women; $20/month for men), with samples curated for the subscribers’ ‘Beauty Profile.’[7] The belief is that with unique, customized samples, consumers are delighted with ‘discovery’ and trial of products, with relatively low commitment, and thus more likely to convert to full-sized purchases (which they can buy on Birchbox’s site).
    • The vision: to serve those who ‘enjoy using the best products’ but ‘don’t want to work too hard to find them,’
    • For whom: young woman/man 25-39 who loves beauty but ‘isn’t the MAC girl’ (i.e., not someone well-versed in the universe of products out there, right for her/him).[8],[9]

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 10.46.26 PM

  • Revenue & distribution channels: Initially, Birchbox relied on subscription fees and e-commerce to drive revenue. However, Birchbox has entered brick & mortar retailing – with its flagship store in NYC to better serve its mission and establish competitive advantage.
  • Data & high quality service: both online and offline activity ultimately drive data and comparative advantage via network effects (i.e., more subscribers, more brands, more data)


How it works – aligning vision with business/operating models

  • The business model hinges on three key operating model elements: a) solid infrastructure of beauty product suppliers (e.g., both ‘indie and customer-favorite’ brands) & hooks to keep demand, b) content to encourage product trial-ability, and c) supporting organization.
    • The brands/products: partners are required to provide samples and sell full-sized products via Birchbox. Though this was a difficult term to ‘sell’ to partners initially, the founders’ commitment to this has paid off (e.g., 50% of subscription consumers purchase full-sized product on Birchbox, where credit card info is already stored, and represents 30% of company’s revenue). [10]
      • Partners are willing to collaborate given evidence of increased awareness/sales after being featured (e.g., for niche luxury brands –custom-perfume company Harvey Prince has grown 400% since partnering in 2010). [10]
      • Birchbox exclusives (e.g., partners co-brand products that are exclusively distributed on Birchbox’s site)
      • Subscribers earn 10% on every purchase made on Birchbox’s site (e.g., via Birchbox Points and Aces loyalty program)
    • The content: there is heavy attention given to ‘media’ – i.e., contextualized selling of products via YouTube clips, Pinterest of more than 1 million followers. Birchbox’s site also features:
      • 3 million+ customer reviews help in decision making process and customer satisfaction
      • Expert articles and videos for featured products

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 4.43.08 PM

  • The organization: the founders first focused on only two things – directly tied to business model and how they structured the org:
    • Get the brands to feature (i.e., Partnerships)
    • Get consumers the products and make sure every customer gets a response (i.e., Customer Service/Fulfillment)
  • As typical of start-ups of Birchbox’s tenure, there have been shifts in operating model recently to better support the growing vision
    • Opening of retail stores (trial and immediate gratification). In addition to its NYC flagship, it has a shop in D.C. where visitors can “BYOB” (Build Your Own Birchbox) and receive makeup services [11]

Birchbox store

  • Change in top team: In August 2015, Barna stepped down as co-CEO when it became clear that long-term success (and ability to keep a clear vision and message) required a single CEO.
  • Category expansion (e.g., men. food) – Birchbox Man launched in 2012; there are rumors that more categories may be on horizon, similar to Gilt’s expansion (e.g., Gilt Home).[12]
  • Global operations (e.g., operations in the UK, France, Spain, Canada, and Belgium)

Brands spend money to connect with consumers, and consumers want the best product. We were asking both sides to change their behavior and it has really amazed us how willing they were.  — Katia Beauchamp







[6] Interview panel with Katia Beauchamp (November 9, 2015)



[9] Interview panel with Katia Beauchamp (November 9, 2015)



[12] Fireside chat with Hayley Barna (November 17, 2015)


Barry’s Bootcamp: The Hardest and Most Effective Workout in the World


Yoox: The Internet of Luxury

Student comments on Birchbox: opening new paths for beauty & e-commerce

  1. Thanks for an interesting post, MC! Birch Box does seem to be the pioneer in the beauty product subscription category, and we see a lot of followers today.

    My question is regarding the sustainability of the beauty product subscription model. Perhaps I’m not the target clientele for Birch Box, but I find it hard to picture anyone who would stay in the subscription base for a long time? Especially if Birch Box fulfills its promise of introducing great products consumers. Once the consumer finds the perfect product for him/herself, there shouldn’t be a reason to continue the subscription, right? Perhaps the company already saw that, which is why they have “Birchbox exclusive” products to keep these consumers in the ecosystem.

  2. Thanks for the extremely valuable insights, MC. I can definitely see why partnering with Birchbox would be an ideal way to increase mass brand adoption for a smaller brand but how does a partnership benefit a customer-favorite brand who has already established its own retail network (Chanel, etc.)? You touched upon numerous recent iterations in the Company’s operating model – are these reactions to increased competition from subscription-based competitors like Ipsy and GlossyBox? What is the genesis behind the foray in to competitive categories which are already dominated by specialists (Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s, Gilt Home, One King’s Lane)?

  3. This is a company I’ve never heard of and it seems like a lot of companies with similar models are popping up (like Dollar Shave Club). One of the things that I like about their model is that no matter how many subscribers they have, there is not a lot of need for expansion in terms of employees and warehouse space. It seems like they can scale very quickly without costs increasing at a proportional rate, which makes their model very promising. I am curious to see what other categories they introduce in the future.

Leave a comment