There are many ways to tap into B2B sales as a B2C brand, depending on your products. Corporate gifts are one entry point.
In today's episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from a trio of entrepreneurs who bootstrapped their way to a $9 million business thanks in large part to their corporate gifting strategy.
Chelsea Moore, Jenni Olivero, and Sabena Suri are the co-founders of BOXFOX: pre-curated gift boxes for every milestone, with the option to build a 100% custom gift using their BUILD A BOXFOX platform.
Our B2C serves as a discovery platform for our corporate [arm]. If somebody works at Twitter, and they’re using us for personal reasons, and they see our corporate offerings, they’re gonna think about that.
Tune in to learn
- The most important thing to focus on to attract corporate buyers
- What is the corporate gifting market and how to determine if you have a product that can serve that market
- Why you should not focus on growth and what you should be obsessed with instead
- Store: BOXFOX
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: AfterPay, GiftShip (Shopify app), Avalara (Shopify app), InExpress
Felix: Today, we’re joined by Sabena, Chelsea, and Jenny from BOXFOX. BOXFOX sells pre-curated gift boxes for every milestone, or allows customers to build a 100 percent custom gift using their Build a BOXFOX platform, which started in 2014, and based at Hawthorne, California. Welcome, guys.
Chelsea: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Jenny: Thank you.
Sabena: Thank you.
Felix: Yeah. So we were just talking off air about how in just four years, you took 5000 in personal investments and built a nine million dollars in revenue business with zero dollars in outside capital. That’s amazing. First of all, what was the … Let’s say, what was the most important thing you felt like you spent that first 5000 dollars on?
Chelsea: God, thank you. This is Chelsea, CEO, and co-founder here. I think the first … the bulk of that initial investment went toward our first round of inventory, and the small array of web and hosting fees and business license fees. It was primarily inventory.
Jenny: Really, it was … This is Jenny, jumping in, also. The first batch of running our China boxes, where we manufactured the first Box Foxes.
Felix: Got it. Were you … You were investing in building up the inventory. Did you already have sales at that point? This sounds pretty far along in the business. You’re spending … you have 5000 dollars, you have spent the money on, but what was going on prior to even needing to buy the inventory?
Jenny: We came up with the idea for BOXFOX in December of 2013, and we were working a couple of nights a week on building our business plan and deciding our vision; what we wanted to do. For eight to 10 months leading up to actually needing that money, we were just setting the groundwork for the architecture of the back-end of the business.
Felix: Got it. I think that this is some situation a lot of entrepreneurs are in, where they have sometimes, a few days a week, to work on their business, whether it be because of a day job or they’re doing … maybe they run another business and this is something that they’re starting as well on the side. How do you keep the momentum going when you’re not … I’m sure the situation is different now, where you can just be obsessed and work on it full-time. When you are not doing that, you cannot dedicate that kind of time. How do you keep things rolling along to make sure that you’re not going to stall out at some point, and you’re actually making real progress?
Jenny: I think it’s really important to set goals for yourself and really be strict with yourself. For us, there was absolutely no hesitation that this is something we wanted to launch. It was no hesitation that this was something we were really serious about. We really committed ourselves to meeting two to four nights. Really, the benchmarks and dates where we had to achieve certain things by. It was really just putting our all into it from the beginning.
Sabena: Yeah, and … This is Sabena jumping in. I think to just treating the business like it’s an actual business before it’s a business. Really kind of holding yourself accountable to launch dates, deadlines, anything that is really gonna make the concept feel as legitimate as possible from the onset. I think that really helped us.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What were your backgrounds? Did you, either … any of you guys have experience starting a business prior to this?
Sabena: I think we were all entrepreneurial-minded. In college, Chelsea and Jenny had a spray-tanning business. I was really involved in a number of different internship opportunities as well as student government. We did a newspaper. We had an array of experiences, and Chelsea had a little bit of an e-commerce background at Brandy-Melville as well. Definitely entrepreneurial-minded, always looking for a new opportunity, but I think the main thing is we all had drive and hustle and a belief in this concept. That really, more than experience, it was what the perspective that we brought was.
Felix: Right. That certainly covers the grit that’s required to start a business, this entrepreneurial spirit, this ambition. I think that the other flip-side to this, which is a potential curse for entrepreneurs is that you get pulled in so many different directions. You see so many great ideas and you can pursue any of them. They all seem like they could become something. Did you guys have this kind of tugging along the way? Why was it that this idea was the one that you all had no hesitation, that it was what you all wanted to focus on, rather than spend your time working on something else?
Chelsea: I think for us, Jenny and I specifically, because I’ve known her since the beginning of college, always had different entrepreneurial ideas, different business ideas, “oh, we could do this! Oh, we could do that!” This was the first time that it felt like there was no way we couldn’t do it. It was really trusting our guts, that this was our next step in our path; which sounds really cheesy, but I always say fate is real. There’s a reason Sabena didn’t get the job in New York and ended up in the same office as me, and that we met, and then all three of us met, and we were able to launch BOXFOX. It felt like no obstacle could be too great to inhibit us from actually getting this off the ground. We were gonna do this no matter what.
Sabena: I think it’s really interesting, something that entrepreneurs who might have an inkling of an idea, but not be sure about it. Accepting that you have this initial idea, and then leaving it up to chance a little bit in terms of … we just kept having situations come up after we had this initial idea, that there needs to be this service. We had friends getting engaged. We had friends having babies. We had friends getting promoted; all these different types of scenarios. We kept saying, “Why isn’t there a solution for this elevated gifting moment?”
Sabena: It just kept coming to us in different ways. I think really great ideas will just continue to hit you over the head, and remind you that you need to be pursuing it. Once … we all have a million ideas a day, but it’s the one that keeps coming back to you is the right one.
Felix: I like that. I like that idea where … I like that thought process, where if you have a book of ideas, you’re saying “Don’t just try to look through them and measure them from one to the other and try to compare which one’s the best idea, just have it sit in the back of your mind and then pay attention to which one of these ideas runs into the most opportunities that come up in your life, where you feel ‘wow, this should become a reality’”.
Jenny: We really … we created BOXFOX from a problem that we were facing ourselves every week. Really, it was just a matter of: this problem is here, how can we solve it? Let’s jump into this.
Felix: Got it. What was the vision early on, when you all sat down and said, “Okay, let’s think about what BOXFOX is going to be over next,” four-five years from now?
Chelsea: The initial vision, honestly, put very simply, is we wanna be the go-to for gifting. That was always, however, that was gonna manifest itself. That is what we knew we wanted to be. That’s … five years in, it looks very different than we initially envisioned. We’re still proud of it, because we’ve only expanded on that original vision. We started out saying we wanna do pre-curated gift boxes around certain themes, like housewarming or new baby, birthday, all those different verticals. In June, after we launched in November, the following June we built “Build-a-BOXFOX” which allows you to pick and choose every product and make it 100 percent customized to the recipient. Then, about 3–4 months after that, we launched our corporate gifting arm, BOXFOX Concierge, our B2B side, because that was also a need on behalf of our clients.
Chelsea: I think that the important lesson there is, yes, have a vision, have your plan, but always be open to new opportunities whether you see the market trending in a certain way or consumer demand or just … any possibilities.
Chelsea: I think we really expanded what that looks like, and we’re excited to see where it goes in the future, too.
Felix: How do you know if an opportunity is worth pursuing, that maybe wasn’t a part of your original vision? What is the threshold, what was the filter that you run opportunities through today?
Chelsea: I think a lot of opportunities present themselves, now I feel we’re good at being discerning in the sense that we know how much effort it takes, for example, to have a month-long retail popup. You really have to weigh how much is this gonna cut into the effort and the labor and the people and the energy that we need to go towards our larger vision and our larger goals, versus whatever sort of payoff that potentially might have. In that case, it’s awareness. It’s being able to speak to customers in person. Different things like that. It’s a very loose formula of, “Is this moving us towards our vision, in a productive way, that isn’t going to completely throw us off track?”
Chelsea: There’s a lot of opportunities in the beginning that you wanna say “Yes” to everything, because you can, and they’re coming your way, but then you get to a certain point where you’re like, “Well, that’s not helping me. That’s helping the person who’s coming to me,” and being able to identify the difference and say “no”.
Jenny: Like Chelsea said, we were saying yes to absolutely everything in the beginning. Over time, we’re strengthening that muscle in terms of making decisions and what’s going to help us move the company forward. Only by saying yes to everything and then learning as we went did we strengthen our intuition.
Felix: Right, so it’s kind of … You have to learn this lesson the hard way, where you put in … you spread yourself too thin, and you realize that, as an early entrepreneur you think everything will happen twice as fast, and be half the cost, but then you realize through the years that everything … the reality of the cost of resources and capital and effort you put into something. Now you have a much stronger filter to determine if something is going to be worth the time, because you know the actual cost and the potential payoff. Can you give an example of something that maybe you would have said yes to early on, that now, because of the years of experience, you guys would say no to?
Chelsea: Yeah, I think a lot of people have approached us for trade partnerships. In the beginning, we might have bent over backwards to accommodate that, not really taking into account the costs and fees that go beyond the actual product themselves in terms of service and labor and marketing. In the beginning, we would’ve said … we said yes to a lot of those, and now I’m really, really, really strict with what we allow to be a partnership there.
Sabena: Yeah, and I think that goes for marketing partnerships as well, and really thinking about the BOXFOX brand whenever we partner with another brand, whether that … products that we’re carrying, marketing partnerships like I said, or what Chelsea was referring to, more of the trade with other brands.
Jenny: To give a really granular example, too, in the beginning, we were doing a lot in the bridal space. We were working with a lot of brides for their Be-My-Bridesmaid gifts, and I was working with someone who was getting married in Louisiana, and she wanted to have a Magnolia motif. We agreed that we would incorporate hand-made paper Magnolia flowers in her boxes. That meant working with one of our employees and myself to make these paper flowers for this bride. It was beautiful, we had the time then, but in the end, we were not really going to be making money off of that.
Jenny: Just learning and figuring out when to say yes and no to certain things, and how to still offer so much personalization to our brides, to all of our customers, while still letting us streamline our operations and our business.
Felix: Sounds like a lot of getting creative, these days, where you want to only focus on things that can scale, but also still deliver on the original promise of the product, and in your case the customization and personalization that comes with these boxes.
Felix: When you are … When you think back about that very first time, where you all sat down to think up the vision, it sounded like evolution’s happened since then. Are there certain things that … can you point out if there are certain things that might’ve happened or opportunities that you might’ve pursued that you had no idea you guys would’ve pursued from the beginning?
Chelsea: When we first started, we didn’t even understand what it would mean to tap into corporate gifting. I think it became very clear very quickly that that was going to be a significant, if not dominant, part of our business and how we were going to scale to ten million plus level of a company. Really diving into the data and the analytics and the learnings and the research of what that industry meant, and how we can apply our philosophies from our B2C and consumer-facing side to that corporate scale.
Felix: Did this opportunity, this corporate gifting, did that just come up into your face? Did you have to put the effort in to try and identify a new market? How fleeting are these opportunities that came out for you, and they might come for other entrepreneurs? How do you know if you should be hunting opportunities versus just looking for them more passively?
Sabena: We were really fortunate in that we had a lot of corporate clients right from the get-go who would reach out to us, I think that just proved the use case beyond the consumer side. Showing that there is a market for elevated personal, meaningful, well-presented corporate gifts. Clients are seeking that out, and it didn’t really exist. We were lucky, and I think again staying the course, but being flexible is probably the best way any opportunity is gonna come to you as an entrepreneur. You can’t always plan for things, but you can definitely make sure you’re positioning yourself to be open to things. I think that’s something we did really well.
Jenny: The thing about corporate gifting, too, is: that was something we had always considered and thought about. The surprise was just how quickly it came knocking at our door.
Felix: These were corporate clients that were already using your products? Even though you weren’t necessarily marketing to them at the beginning?
Sabena: Yeah. I think they were getting creative with going on our site, trying to build professional looking gifts. We obviously have such a wide variety, so they were able to accomplish that. Then, we had them asking for more custom solutions, whether that was actual sourced products specifically for them or branding, things like that. Corporate clients that wanted a little bit more of a tailored approach.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: Between the time that you recognized this opportunity, what did you guys put in place? How quickly were you able to start shifting the gears, shifting the resources to service this new customer base that you believed would take you to the next level?
Jenny: That first Christmas, in 2015, that was the big year for corporate. We really realized I was working full-time at that point still, Sabena was working full-time. I was able to take a little bit of time off during the holidays to help support Chelsea, and the one or two employees and interns that we had. Really, that following quarter, that spring, I came full-time to BOXFOX and then Sabena followed shortly afterwards, and we realized, “okay, we really need to put more bandwidth here on the corporate side.” That’s gonna mean not just help with fulfillment and packing boxes. That’s gonna take a lot more strategy, a lot more operations, and more help from the three of us co-founders.
Felix: In the corporate gifting, what do you find that the clients … what do they typically care about, when it comes to purchasing products from you?
Sabena: I think they’re really looking for a nice balance of creativity and beautiful, aesthetically-driven products with functional products that actually meet their business objective. That is a line that we have perfected, I’d say. That’s really our approach. That’s what the ask is.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Are there certain challenges that you find are more prevalent or just exist in the corporate gifting market that just doesn’t exist, or are not as prevalent, in the more B2C market?
Chelsea: I think the biggest challenge is trying to bring personality to corporate gifting, ultimately. It’s been so conditioned for so many corporate clients to gift swag or gift a little bit more of the traditional branded coasters and mugs. It’s like, “How do we take that to a more elevated place, while still making sure that this gift feels like it’s coming from x company?”
Felix: Did you have to take a step back and re-evaluate the entire supply chain? Your vendors and all that. How much effort was required to service this new customer base?
Sabena: It definitely took a lot of our own research of different types of vendors, whether it’s customization vendors or just different suppliers. There was a little bit of supply-chain research, but at the same time it goes back to being flexible and adaptable. We figured it out quickly, we made an action plan and then went for it. There’s a little bit of a … we had that kind of drive to figure it out, and we did.
Felix: What features would you look for in a business or a product to determine if they have a business or product that can thrive in the same … in the corporate gifting market?
Jenny: I think it’s more about, like Sabena said, about what the corporate ask is. To break down what that might be, I like to use the example of: early on, we did a conference for [Lilly Lemon 00:19:43] that was in Palm Springs, in the desert. They were doing a Yoga mindfulness retreat, and they wanted to create a box that was mindfulness, wellness nuanced with also incorporating some of the local Palm Springs vibe. From there, our sales team would work with a bunch of different products and vendors, some that we carry, and some that might be a little bit more localized, to curate something that would respond and answer their ask.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: This sounds like a much longer sales cycle, and also, procurement cycle when it comes to the corporate climb. How long are we talking about, between the time that you’re beginning to start to work with a new client? How long does it take? How much preparation does it take to provide them with that very first level service that you guys are giving to them?
Sabena: We actually have perfected our process, and it’s not too long of lead time. We usually are able to turn around a proposal within five business days or less. Then, in terms of actually shipping out a gifting suite, we say between two to four weeks, depending on quantity and what else we have in the pipeline, but we were very quick as a company, and I think that’s something we really pride ourselves on. A high level of service and attention to detail, but also that expediency.
Felix: Is this type of client … are they hard to … are they RFP based, where they’re signing a bunch of RFPs to different companies?
Chelsea: I would say it’s a mix. Sometimes they just know they wanna work with us, and it’s that straightforward because we really do offer something niche. There are definitely other companies; they have other options, so I’m sure there’s a balance of both.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: Great, so, when you are … when you are sitting down to set up the system, you mentioned you guys have really refined it, can you tell us about that? What was the process to refining the entire fulfillment process that you guys have today? What was it like from the very beginning? What kind of change have you made along the way to improve that?
Jenny: I think it’s something that, just like our business, we were constantly evolving. I’m our chief operations officer, and that meant in the beginning, me rearranging shelves in our apartment and trying to create more space for inventory. Eventually, we moved into our first warehouse, now we’re luckily in our third, much bigger space, which has given us a lot more opportunity to rearrange and perfect systems for the flow that we need to. It was really just about, how are we going to be able to create enough space for us to create these beautiful boxes?
Jenny: Also, to be able to quickly clean it all up, to get all of the boxes out in time for the post office, and … I don’t know. With a lot of change and a lot of rearranging, we just made it work.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Felix: When you launched, did you launch with both a pre-curated gift box and the customization? Or just one or the other?
Jenny: We originally launched with just six pre-curated boxes; our original vision was to have our build-a-FOXBOX platform, but that was going to take a little bit more capital to hire a developer to be able to create that. We used our first six to eight months of sales, from our pre-curated gifts, to help fund our Build-A-BOXFOX platform.
Felix: Are the customers different, when it comes to more of the B2C customers? Are they different types of customers that would buy a pre-curated box versus customizing their own?
Chelsea: It’s a different type of customer sometimes, and it sometimes is driven by a different use-case. We’ve seen, for example, pre-curated boxes are purchased in higher percentages during busier gift-driven seasonal spikes, so with Christmas you’ve got a customer who’s gotta dole out 40+ gifts across different levels of relationships, and you’re gonna see them purchasing more pre-packed and trusting our expertly curated process. When there’s more time to be spent, then they lean more on the customizable Build-A-BOXFOX platform. It’s really driven, I think, by use case.
Jenny: Yeah, our built to pre-packed ratio is normally 80 20, but during our peak holiday seasons of end-of-year Christmas, Valentines Day, Mothers Day, where we’re also launching certain pre-packed collections, then that will skew all the way up to 40 percept pre-packed 60 percent built.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: How are the corporate customers and consumer customers finding out about you for the first time, is that … is it different between the two?
Chelsea: Between corporate and B2C?
Felix: B2C, exactly. Yeah.
Chelsea: I think our B2C serves as a discovery platform for our corporate, in a way, in a sense that, if somebody works at Twitter, and they’re using us for their personal reasons, and they see something about our corporate offerings, they’re gonna think about that. It’s gonna be top-of-mind when they’re approached at work with a specific project.
Jenny: Or all of a sudden you get something in the mail, a birthday gift, and you work at Visa, and then you realize, “Oh, my gosh. This is so cute. I wonder if we could create something for my sales team,” and then all of a sudden then, you’re the recipient of a box, now you wanna send a box. There’s a little bit of virality in both B2B and B2C. B2B obviously, because it’s a larger scale, there’s a little bit more there.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: So your consumers are feeding the corporate gifting pipeline, so if you focus on serving the consumers, you can all of a sudden build a new customer base if that type of product makes sense in the corporate gifting use-case?
Sabena: Yeah, absolutely. I think the larger lesson there, for any entrepreneur, is always putting your best foot forward and putting the best products you can out there. You never know how a use-case is gonna evolve. We’re obviously always having attention to detail, keeping things very personal and elevated, making our site really clear and easy to use. Those things have always made us an attractive option, no matter what the use-case is.
Felix: What would you say is the most effective marketing strategy these days, to get the consumers to try the product for the first time?
Chelsea: I think, for us, we really relied on word of mouth in the beginning, and aggressively reaching out to every single person we’d ever met in our entire lives to kickstart and get things going. For us, I think, now, we employ a bunch of different things to get people through the door for the first time. What I like to pride ourselves is a non-desperate way.
Chelsea: We offer free shipping deals, 10 percent off deals for signing up for our emails, and things like that. Really, our focus this year, is on turning those one-time buyers into two plus time buyers, so a lot of investment is going into all of the people who have already purchased from us one time. We are really excited because retention is a really big priority for us. We are launching our first ever loyalty program in the next couple of weeks. We think it’s pretty great.
Felix: You started off by reaching out to your network. What was that like? What were you asking, because I think this is also a sticking point for a lot of entrepreneurs where they don’t have any customers yet, but of course they have friends and family, a network they can tap. They don’t … is it possible to go about it gracefully? What are you doing exactly when you go to your network to garner business, essentially, for something you’ve created?
Chelsea: I think for us we got to hide under the veil of the fact that we were 22 when we launched. We very earnestly, and very genuinely emailed everyone we had ever met, like, “hey, we’re doing things differently; we didn’t go down the same socially accepted path as you, or the rest of our peers, to law school and business school, or consulting firms. We are going to sidestep that and we are launching this business that doesn’t previously exist. We think that we have great taste and great know-how and great work ethic, so we think you should try it out and support us.”
Chelsea: That really worked, in the beginning, for us. We launched right before Christmas of 2014, and to us, being an apartment-based, three people business, did pretty well for ourselves. We’ve been continuing to grow from there. In my past experiences at Brandy-Melville, I really learned what you could do with word-of-mouth and just coming to the altar of marketing a little bit more genuinely and earnestly, not so growth-obsessed. We’re focused on offering a product and a service that people really need, and we hone in on the data and the right types of products, streamlining the services and shortening the shipping time; making sure that it’s really a wonderful experience for our customers and their recipients.
Chelsea: That’s all we can do. I think that there’s all this growth-hacking and all this overcompensation for a lot of companies, but it’s because they think their product is subpar.
Felix: That is a good point. You’re saying, rather than be so obsessed with the top or the bottom line, if you just focus on serving your customers, and use … I think you mentioned, using data to determine what direction to go in to serve those customers, the rest will fall into place.
Chelsea: Yeah, and I think, we’re self-funded. We didn’t have to answer to a giant amount of money that needed to be returned, where I feel like a lot of companies have to meet certain metrics. We, for the first two years, tripled, and last year doubled, and plan on doubling plus again this year, we’re building a company. We’re growing at our own pace. We’re bettering and bettering and bettering our products and our offerings; that’s all we can do.
Felix: Do you remember what it was like, or remember the time where you all of a sudden we're getting sales more from strangers than your own network? What do you think made that switch happen?
Chelsea: I don’t know what made that switch happen. I think some customers, in that specific timeframe, are the types of people who were looking for something different and were looking for something that was what we were offering, which was a new way, a new approach to gifting in a more purposeful, personalized way. I think we’re able … it was 2014–2015, I think they were able to find us a little bit easier. The saturation across Pinterest and Instagram and Twitter wasn’t as overwhelming as it is now. Thank God for those people, because I think that’s what I think kicked off a lot of our growth back then.
Chelsea: Yeah, I definitely remember, I’d be home alone, waiting for Sabena and Jenny to come home from their full-time jobs, and packing up the ten orders a day or whatever that we’d be getting, it would be just such a labor of love. I’d carry three at a time down the apartment stairs to the trunk of my car, and drive to the best post office. Walk in, take three trips, because I’m weak, and … it was a special time.
Jenny: It was. We’re very fortunate that it was very early on, but there were days where we were like, “Alright, we got 10 orders every day this week,” and we just tried to keep fueling that momentum. All of a sudden, it was 20, then it was 100, and then it was 400.
Felix: Did you ever … Sounds like obviously, in the big picture, things kept trending upward. Were there ever days, weeks, or months, where things just trickled down to nothing, or it felt like things went backwards? How did you guys react to that, if it happened?
Sabena: I don’t feel like we’ve ever felt it go backwards, knock on wood. I don’t think it’s ever felt like that.
Jenny: There was only one case, and that was during the election. It was a little bit of a weird time, but it wasn’t-
Sabena: -Backwards. I think that there’s certain life or global events that affect e-commerce sales for everybody, and I remember election day 2016 and inauguration day 2017 were two days where I just felt like there was no site traffic. Nobody was purchasing for leisure. It’s an interesting insight, that a lot of our friends that work at other retailers and e-commerce stores shared with us. It was a very … only buying the essentials type of days.
Sabena: That’s interesting, and I bet you the same could be said if you … if we had similar data for any sort of big, terrible life events or instances that happen.
Felix: Right, that makes sense. That’s an interesting insight, though.
Sabena: It was never like, “oh, no! We’re gonna go bankrupt because nobody is buying gifts this one day,” it went back to normal the next day. It was an interesting little insight.
Felix: Let’s talk about bootstrapping. We mentioned early-on that you’ve grown to nearly a ten million dollar business, with zero outside capital by bootstrapping. What did you feel like you all did right when it came to bootstrapping? What do you feel you did right as a company, that is, with bootstrapping?
Chelsea: I think for us, and I think Jenny and Sabena would agree with me, we just didn’t spend money that didn’t need to be spent. We didn’t spend money on growth-hacking. We were in an apartment for two years. Two plus years. We negotiated pretty great real-estate options when we did need to move out of the apartment, only hired when we absolutely needed to, and we just don’t spend money on stupid things.
Felix: How do you … what’s the filter today to determine if, maybe it’s different today, now that there’s no more instability, more success with the business. As you approach these problems, how do you determine if it’s worth paying to solve the problem or not?
Chelsea: What’s an example of a problem that you’re referring to?
Felix: I’m just saying, you mentioned hiring, for example. How do you know that it is, “Hey, this is a problem that we have that we need to hire for,” rather than just doing whatever you were doing before?
Chelsea: Oh, yeah, that makes sense. For us, it was a conscious decision. I remember us being at a crossroads of, “do we hire a publicist” or “do we hire a sales development representative” and it really was quote-unquote the biggest problem we had come to. The biggest fork in the road. We ended up just saying, “we can make it work, let’s hire both. I think they’re both gonna bring the same amount of ROI, and it’s time. We can’t do both of those jobs anymore.” We were focused on operations and marketing and growth in other ways.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: What about the opposite side, where, while you’re going through the step of bootstrapping, what are some lessons that you’ve learned, that you want to make sure other entrepreneurs learn about the bootstrapping process, that maybe you learned the hard way?
Chelsea: It might feel sometimes like you’re falling way behind all these other companies, but you have no idea what is going under the veil of other companies. There could be companies that seem like every influencer on planet Earth is talking about them, and they’re so hyped up, but you have no idea what their sales are. You have no idea what their production-supply chain is. They could be the worst vendor-run warehouse in the world, they could have horrible customer service, they could not be hitting their numbers. It’s really important not to compare yourself to others. I think that it’s okay to swallow your pride in the beginning.
Chelsea: Yeah, we were younger. In the first two and a half years, we were living in our apartment with an inventory-based business. It is bananas. I look back at that; that is absolute bananas…and a young dog and…it’s crazy, and all these people you know, they wanna have their store on Abbot Kenny and they wanna have their popups at the Grove and they wanna have all this hyped stuff, but it’s really a matter of, “No. Is your business functioning? Is your customer being serviced in the best possible way? Are you growing at the rate you wanna grow at?”
Chelsea: Those are the things that really matter.
Jenny: And in that regard, that’s exactly what we did. We put our head down and we worked-worked-worked. We put our blinders up, and we focused on what we were doing, what we could control, that helped us grow our business.
Felix: Was there ever a point where you all looked at each other like, “okay, we are successful now.” Not that you would ever fully take the foot off the gas pedal, but now you can at least take a breather. Did you ever feel that way during this rise up, over the last five years?
Chelsea: I feel like a year ago is the first time we finally were able to take a breath. Obviously, the goal is to always be on the ascent, and not to fall complacent. Complacency is the enemy of growth.
Sabena: I think, really, it was also a matter of hiring people that were smarter than us and that we could delegate things to do. That has helped us realize that we can grow this business, and put certain tasks in the hands of others as well, and really entrust them. That’s been a ship for us, probably, over the past year and a half. It’s been amazing because we really … everybody we’ve brought in has brought so much enthusiasm, passion, their own ideas, and we’re really creating a culture we’re proud of, and we’re all working towards the same vision.
Jenny: That just … to Sabena’s point, having more people eliminating more of the battle nicks, everything was just falling on our shoulders. We as founders still feel immense pressure for everything, no matter what. It still helps to relieve some of that, and like Chelsea was saying, last summer was really the first time in four years that we felt we could breathe. We felt the shared responsibility. We all care so much. The other thing, too, is last fall we actually were part of Forbes’ 30-under–30 Class of 2019, so we’re really excited about that. That was a huge milestone for us, and something that we were working really aggressively towards.
Felix: That’s amazing, that kind of validation. It gives you entrepreneurs … “we are so hard on ourselves,” because you wanna keep pushing yourselves, but it’s definitely very rewarding when you get the validation from other people, saying that you guys are doing an amazing job. That’s definitely a great testament to where you guys have brought the business to.
Felix: You mentioned putting people into place, people that are smarter than you, put them into place; it allows you to focus elsewhere, focus on more bigger-picture growth. How big is the team today?
Jenny: We have 25 employees today, so … we will scale up during the holidays, but our current team right now is 25 people.
Felix: Got it.
Felix: Where do you like to go to, to hire employees?
Chelsea: In the beginning, to be honest, it was friends of friends of friends. Trying to dip into our own network of trusts. Now, at this point, we leverage different communities to get the word out. We use create-cultivate. We use indeed. We use LinkedIn. Open positions are always listed on our website on our careers page, and we welcome any and all resumes at all times.
Felix: How do you onboard employees once they join the company?
Jenny: We have a little employee handbook, we do a tour, a round of Starbucks, and … we’re very family-oriented here. We’re very welcoming, and so we will do lots of fun little … fun little things like that.
Chelsea: We have a standardized training process, depending on whether we’re hiring somebody for fulfillment or production, marketing, sales, each team has a standardized process, which we’ve perfected over the years.
Felix: What do you think has been the hardest role to hire for so far?
Chelsea: That’s a great question. I think … we’re currently hiring salespeople. That’s been challenging, not that we don’t have great applicants, I think it’s just trying to figure out that balance of people with experience and then also people with passion for the company and the product, what we do. Really trying to find a good culture fit has been interesting. Maybe growing the sales team has been the biggest challenge and opportunity.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You mentioned that one of the drivers of sales and growth is with the weekly newsletter you put out called “The Foxtail”.
Felix: What … you share what goes into that newsletter?
Chelsea: Yeah, it’s a curation of content from our blog, that highlights everything from curation and stuff behind the scenes. Big updates here, in terms of new collections or events we attended. Philanthropic things our employees are doing … we send out the Foxtail newsletter, we made a commitment, in the beginning, to send an update to our customers every single Friday till the end of time, just as an anchor touchpoint. We obviously do other email marketing and merchandising emails, but that’s the one every week that’s really from us, from the heart, and meant to give an inside look at what we’re up to here at BOXFOX.
Sabena: It really has built a sense of community. We really get so much positive feedback from our customers, just on … they love to be kept in the loop of what’s going on behind the scenes, as well as what the inspiration behind different curations and products. We really try to bring that extra level of insight and knowledge to our customers. It’s really kept them plugged into the brand.
Felix: I guess this probably also helps with the goal of getting more repeat buyers, and higher retention rates, by staying in contact-communication with your customers. You mentioned earlier that the loyalty program is something that you’re launching to also help with this. Can you explain more about how the program works?
Chelsea: Yeah! We really just wanted something that was simple, luxurious, effective, and gave cash and rewards back to our most loyal customers, enable them to gift themselves, not just to other that they’re gifting constantly; An opportunity to channel any and all feedback they have directly to our team. There’s gonna be an aspect that will be a direct line of communication, from our best and most loyal customers. We’re really excited about that.
Felix: Awesome. I wanna talk a little about the site, the online store. You mentioned earlier that you hired a developer for the Build-A-BOXFOX platform. What about the rest of the site? Was that done also with a developer, or did you use a theme? Talk to us about how you created the site.
Chelsea: In the beginning, we were really simple. We wanted to have the most simple, clean, product-focused site when we launched. We actually have a good friend who designed it at the kitchen table with us over the course of six months. About two years in, we wanted to take our insides and upgrade it. We worked with a friend and developer, but really, most of the design work comes from the three of us, and very detailed wireframes, and very hands-on feedback.
Chelsea: Now, we work closely, our developer from the … who built the Build-A-BOXFOX with us is our on-retainer developer, James Irke from [Bug Market 00:44:47], he’s a Shopify expert, and he’s wonderful. He helps us with absolutely everything at this point.
Felix: You mentioned that you want a product-focused site. What else is important?
Chelsea: I just feel like … we all just feel like e-commerce is overwhelming. You go on websites and they’re buggy and people don’t think about them necessarily the same way they do when you walk into a Brick-and-Mortar, and it’s merchandised so perfectly and cleanly and color-coordinated. That drives purchases. The same level of attention to detail and cleanliness and minimalism needs to be applied to your website. Your website is your digital store; I know that sounds obvious, but just a reminder to all the people out there!
Chelsea: You see companies like Nordstrom, even over the last five years, who have tried so hard to streamline and simplify the huge amounts of inventory and marketing that they offer on the website, and it’s all about simplicity. People wanna know with their UX, they’re getting there, they’re clicking on what they need, they’re being driven to where they need to go. We just try to simplify-simplify-simplify-simplify, the same … You’re writing, you should always be editing your writing, we edit our design.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You mentioned from the very first design, you had insights that it would take and integrate to redesigning this site. What were some things that you learned during the first few years, that you wanted to make sure you implemented into the new design?
Sabena: I think one is thinking about what kind of brand story we wanted to tell through the website. We thought a lot about how we can have our color palette, you know, the colors of the website, our fonts, did a little bit of a brand refresh before even implementing it onto the website. Also, just messaging. What are the points we really wanna hit? How do we wanna communicate our service and our value prop very quickly and concisely as soon as you get on the website?
Sabena: Chelsea spoke a little bit to merchandising. How do we wanna merchandise, given that we can hit so many different types of occasions and verticals? We try to keep things as simple as possible, while still offering all of … everything that we wanted to, so I guess the biggest insights were telling the right brand story, merchandising in a clear way, and having the best, cleanest UX possible.
Felix: I like to hear how it says, right beneath the fold, it’s about how it works. “Need a gift? Keep it personal. We’ll handle the rest.”
Felix: I think that clearly highlights the value that you’re providing. How did you know that that was the kind of thing you needed to mention when it came to explaining how this all works?
Sabena: As e-commerce shoppers ourselves, avid online shoppers, we had seen so many websites that had not done this well, honestly. You go on a website, there’s a vague photo of somebody holding a flower, and you’re not quite sure what the website is selling, or why they exist. You have to do your own digging as a customer. I think we had also seen websites that clearly explained the value prop very quickly, and what’s really interesting about our company is we are a products company, but really we’re offering a service. The service is gonna exist regardless of what products are gonna be behind it. Any time you’re a service-based company, you really have to hit people with the value prop right away.
Sabena: That was an insight we had early on, and I think people have responded really well to it. We took a really long time to think about the language we were using on that little box below the fold, because … again, you’re really explaining the entire company in a short little blurb. It’s worked well for us, I think.
Felix: Does the value prop come from inside the company, or did your customers tell you? How do you … as someone out there, just thinking, I wanna be able to concentrate all of my value prop down into something I put on my site. Where do they begin to look? Do they look inside themselves? The company? Or, do they look out to customers for that information?
Sabena: It can be a combination. Definitely, coming up with why … your reason for being, and what you offer, is really important, but then having customers react is always a good thing. There are ways to survey them or ways to get some reaction. I think ours was an organic combination of both, because we had already launched, and we revamped the site, so there was an opportunity to think about what questions we were getting from customers, and what might not have been as clear on the first version of our site, for that 2.0 version.
Felix: Got it. Are there any apps that you use on the site, that are on the site, Shopify apps, or outside the site, that you rely on to run the business?
Sabena: We have a couple different apps. I’ll speak to the first one, Build-A-BOXFOX is an app that we designed, that we use privately, and is not available to the public. We designed it from scratch. That’s, y’know, essentially our own custom, proprietary algorithm … Sizing algorithm-drive bundling-type app.
Jenny: There’s a few others. We’re really excited, before this holiday season last year, we introduced AfterPay to help our customers split payments into four parts. We were really excited about that. That was launched in tandem with another app called GiftShip, which would allow our customers to ship gifts to multiple addresses, and we, up until then, hadn’t found a solution that would allow the multiple addresses and also still to be compatible with different sales taxes in different states. That was huge because that would all of a sudden allow all of our customers to send two or three or eight different gifts all in one single order-
Felix: Do all their shopping in one. One time.
Jenny: Exactly. It’s a really simple solution for us on the back-end with Shopify and the order queue as well. Those two things were monumental for us, going into the holiday season. We use Avalara for sales tax. We use InXpress for international shipping. International shipping was something that we definitely wanted to go after, and to this day now we’ve shipped to over 40 countries, but it was kind of a challenge. We’ve used ShipOut, we used YackIt, we used all these different apps. For whatever reason, they just weren’t working perfectly, so for now we are very happy with InXpress.
Felix: Awesome. Thank you so much, Sabena, Chelsea, and Jenny. Shopboxfox.com is the website; for each of you, what do you think needs to happen this year for you to consider 2019 to be a success?
Sabena: That’s a great question. I think for me, personally, this is Sabena … just growing our B-to-B business and really hiring an awesome sales team that we feel really, really good about, or, I should say expanding our current existing awesome sales team. Servicing our corporate clients; that’s a lot of my focus, and I’m excited to see that side of the business grow.
Chelsea: Yeah, and I think that the three of us … I won’t go into the very private details of what the three of us put on a goal manifestation list at the end of 2018, but we have a list of 10 things that we wanna achieve by our fifth birthday, which is November seventh, which is basically the end of the year. If we are able to hit all of those, I would consider this to be a really successful year. We’re really well on track for that, so-
Jenny: Honestly, it’s just about sending more boxes to more people. All of a sudden, that many more people know about us. They’re using our service, and that’s what we care about. We care about helping our customers to be there when we can’t actually be there, for all of life’s different occasions.
Felix: Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your experience.
Jenny: Thank you for having us!
Sabena: This was awesome, we really appreciate speaking with you today.