Birchbox co-founder KATIA BEAUCHAMP may have created the subscription beauty box, but she’s far from boxed in.

It seems hard to believe that there was a time when none of us knew what a subscription beauty box was, considering how ubiquitous the idea has become. But less than five years ago, the concept was a novelty. In September 2010, best friends and Harvard business-school students Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna launched Birchbox, a monthly subscription service that delivers a curated box of beauty products to your door. Since the initial launch, the brand has expanded to include a men’s box (see our Aug. 15, 2013, “Itinerary” story, “Man-made”), an online magazine complete with editorial inspiration and how-to videos, and an online store filled with a diverse collection of beauty and lifestyle products. As Beauchamp is quick to explain, it was never only about the box, but rather modernizing the consumer’s beauty-shopping experience.

AMERICAN WAY: Is it true that Birchbox was a business-school project?
KATIA BEAUCHAMP: Yes. Hayley and I were MBA students together at Harvard, and we were supposed to write a business plan. But we just skipped the plan and went straight into beta testing, then we graduated and launched the business.

AW: What had been your career trajectory prior to this idea?
KB: Before business school, I was in corporate real estate and I was considering going back into finance. Neither Hayley nor I planned on being entrepreneurs, but once we had the idea, we couldn’t imagine not bringing it to fruition.

AW: How did you come up with the idea of a ­subscription-based box of beauty-product samples?

Birchbox’s monthly beauty subscriptions start at $10. To sign up or to peruse the company’s online beauty store, visit

KB: There were a couple of different inspiration points. We saw that there was a lot of focus on ­consumer Internet [at that time] but no focus on beauty. The only thing people were doing was re-buying what they knew, but we wanted to create that “aha” moment and inspire consumers to purchase beauty products for the first time. Additionally, Hayley’s best friend was a Condé Nast beauty editor and was always giving her new beauty products tailored specifically to her skin needs. We thought, “What woman wouldn’t love to have a beauty-editor best friend recommending products to her?” We wanted to become that expert friend for every woman.

AW: How do you feel about the fact that so many other companies have copied your concept now?
KB: It’s flattering, but we had mixed emotions [at] first. You always worry you aren’t moving fast enough. But no one else is doing what we’re doing. We’re not in the business of sampling. We’re really focused on how you discover, and helping you buy. 

AW: How do you decide which brands to include in your boxes?
KB: Our merchandisers look at every brand that comes in the door and go to trade shows all over the world … and we pitch brands as well. Ultimately, everything must be prestige and fit our customer. But it also comes down to something intangible. How did we feel when we tested it?

AW: Has your concept changed at all in the past four years?
KB: We haven’t had a major shift; we just achieved the scale much faster than we ever thought. We pitched a five-year number and hit that in seven months, so we realized we could be more aggressive. But our plan has always been to change the way women discover beauty products, and that’s what we’re doing.

Tried and True
Sure, Birchbox is in the business of discovering new products, but what are the must-haves that Beauchamp finds herself going back to time and time again?

“I’m obsessed with brows, and this is a gel formula with just a little tint,
so it’s impossible to mess up.”

“I openly believe in dirty hair and love this dry shampoo. It has a great lavender scent, and I love how it disperses.”

“When I don’t wear this, people ask me if I’m sick. I put it on like a moisturizer, and immediately you look so healthy [and fresh].”
“When I met the founder of Clarisonic, he said the device stimulates circulation and helps your skin stay looking young, and I was sold. I use it every morning.”
“This stays on all day; it’s really black, and it’s not clumpy.”