Building a Bigger Birchbox

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Founded in 2010, Birchbox is a leading beauty and grooming retailer, offering an efficient, personalized way to discover and shop for new products. It redefined the e-commerce experience by pairing a monthly subscription of samples with a curated online shop featuring more than 800 best-in-class brands. In the five years since its launch, Birchbox has added a men’s vertical, expanded internationally, opened a retail store in Soho and grown to more than one million subscribers. The company is expanding quickly, and with quick growth comes the usual growing pains.

“Culture for us is not so different than any other high-growth startup, in that you have inflection points based roughly on number of people in the org, but also how the org has developed and who the leaders are,” says Nicole Fealey, Director of People Operations and Performance at Birchbox.

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In the last year, Birchbox has added roughly 100 people to the company making the employee count around 400, globally, including both full and part timers. There are 230 people based in New York City.

In the beginning there was a lot of bootstrapping -- people were generalists when it came to their work -- but as the company grows, they are hiring more specialists. Some tenured hires may feel their duties changing as they no longer needed to do many different jobs. Fealey says while employees may not be aware it’s happening, HR can see it, and working with team leaders, make decisions to fix it. But the company needs to stay focused on their culture and goals as they scale.

“Each piece of the organization has a little bit of an internal culture,” says Fealey. “Tech is a little bit different than the merchant team and the customer operations team. So we have an overarching umbrella culture I would say is very customer-centric. People comment all the time that our office is a very friendly and collaborative place. People feel a very smart intellect when they come into the building. That’s the container, but we have values and leadership principles and then distinct team cultures within it. We work hard to balance all of it.”

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Fealey cites the Culture Amp surveys as an important part in keeping all those elements of culture on track as they grow, especially heatmap reports.  

“Heatmaps saved my life,” she says. They showed me the granularity of our culture so much quicker than running pivot tables or manually sifting.”

Birchbox holds a company-wide, full dashboard results meeting in the fall and spring each year. Pulse surveys are distributed throughout the year and results are surfaced to team leads. Team leads look at survey results of their individual teams, then go back to their next layer and share the results, discuss and decide what they want to drive.

Fealey says it is important to make sure they act on the survey results. Right now she says the biggest action the company is taking involves growing leadership as they scale.

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“The challenges are the challenges of scale and leadership, getting the right talent in at the right time as you’re growing -- that sort of chicken and egg problem -- you’ve got people who are super passionate about your business and they’ve been working really hard at it, but now you need the scalable leader -- the person who understands you’ve got to stop doing some of those things or innovate on your current process. The reality is that it’s really important to have home-grown talent AND industry experts that are energized by our vision. Which, I think, is the number one challenge that we have, and a lot of startups have, getting people to reevaluate doing business as usual. That worked then, it’s not working now, how do we change that up?”

The company has a new COO, Philippe Pinatel, whom Fealey believes will be largely helpful in keeping scaling and culture top of mind as they grow. And their culture is the major reason people seek work at Birchbox.

“Two things stick out about our culture. Believe it or not, our target customer isn't the beauty aficionado, instead, Birchbox resonates with a more casual beauty consumer who is dramatically underserved by the industry,” says Fealey.  “She wants to look great and have the best products, but she doesn't want to spend the time figuring it out for herself. The majority of our employees share that same approach to beauty. We represent our customer and you can feel it when you work here. It’s a comfortable home. And two, learning opportunities are another big thing that draws people here. We’ve had people who started in management positions and are now running the UK. Accelerated growth paths for really smart people.”

In addition, Birchbox offers 100% paid health benefits for each employee and the employee’s dependants.  

“We have a lot of support for working families here,” she says. “It’s the basic human stuff that everybody talks about and when you actually have managers that get it and can live it, then it starts snowballing itself.”

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Looking to the future, the company will use information and data gathered from the surveys to continue growing their strengths and also to overcome hurdles.

“It would have been easy to assume that in a lean startup world the resource problem was not having enough people,” says Fealey. “But the story the team told through Culture Amp (surveys) is that they wanted better tools and processes. They wanted to be proud of the way we do things and to pull up and do things more efficiently. Scaling meant that we had outgrown some manual processes and we had not caught up to that reality. So it caused our leaders to create an internal tools team that prioritized building processes and software that would alleviate some of that manual labor and bring us into the next growth phase. We will see over the next six months (as new tools roll out) if we can up enablement scores and make good on that feedback.”

So, during a state of growth, what’s the most important thing to keep in mind?

“Staying true to who we are and how we support our internal team as we do our customers,” says Fealey.

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Culture Amp helps you make your company a better place to work. By making it easy to collect, understand and act on employee feedback, we enable HR leaders to make better decisions, demonstrate impact, and turn company culture into a competitive edge.

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