You excitedly prepare to walk the aisles of your local beauty boutique or hit the beauty floor of your favorite department store, ready to shop. But, you are suddenly assaulted by a dizzying array of brands and colors, powders and creams, lotions and potions, spritzes and sprays. You find yourself overwhelmed by a sea of endless choices. You panic, grab the first lipstick you see (fingers crossed it won’t look hideous), and walk to the register in defeat. If only someone in the know could curate through all the beauty clutter for you, maybe you could have an easier means of discovering products that actually work for you and are worth the splurge. Enter Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, co-founders of the pioneering, online beauty subscription service and retailer, Birchbox. The Harvard Business School grads have made it their business to help women better navigate the world of high-end beauty products, 4-5 premium samples at a time.

Hayley and Katia’s Birchbox concept is genius in both its problem solving nature and its simplicity. For just $10 a month, Birchbox members receive a box filled with a selection of 4-5 beauty samples from top tier brands delivered right to their front door. The generously sized samples – just enough to keep you entertained for 30 days – include anything from skincare, makeup and fragrance to cult beauty tools, body and hair care products by well-known brands and emerging newcomers.

Birchbox Samples BoxWhat really seals the deal for us is that each monthly Birchbox sample assortment is put together especially for an individual recipient, based on a beauty profile that subscriber fills out. It’s a bite sized way for a woman to discover and try new products every month that are in the realm of what she is looking for with no real risk (you can opt out at any time and Birchboxes ship free). As we see it, whether you are a beauty product die-hard, a thrill seeker of the latest and the greatest, or someone who just needs a little direction in this area, spending $10 to get and try a different, custom batch of 4-5 luxe product samples each month is a bargain, not to mention a far better investment than dropping $15+ on one full sized lipstick in that experimental color you’ll probably never wear.

Once you’ve got your goodies in hand, you can go the Birchbox site to get tips, tricks and tutorials on how to get the most out of test driving your samples from a wealth of articles, expert interviews, and videos. When you are certain you love a sample you’ve tried, you can then purchase the full-size version directly from the Birchbox site. Every purchase earns you Birchbox Points you can put toward future purchases. Referring friends and filling out quick product feedback surveys get you points too.

If you want in, just be aware that Birchbox subscriptions are sold on a first come, first served basis. But, you can join their mailing list, and they’ll let you know when it’s your turn to sign up. Subscriptions are released regularly, so hopefully you won’t have to wait too long.

The Roots Of Birchbox

The story of Birchbox is as impressive as the ground-breaking concept. Hayley and Katia met at Harvard Business School. They came up with the idea for Birchbox in late 2009 as they were headed into their last semester. Out of all the business ideas they could have pursued, why beauty and why online? They noticed that the beauty product industry was seriously behind the times on the online retail side. But, they also recognized that there was good reason for this 2.0 lag… it’s very challenging to develop an online business for beauty, because of its intrinsic touch, try and feel nature.

Birchbox PackagingThe “try and buy” concept of Birchbox addressed the touchy feely consumer requirement. But, what it also did from a business perspective was leverage beauty brands’ samples that they were already creating and get them in the hands of a more qualified consumer. So, it was a win-win idea: customers could test out a handful of new products, via sampling at home, for a small initial, out-of-pocket investment; after samples were tried and loved, major beauty brands could then benefit from full size purchases of their products. As Katia explained in an August 2011 interview with Mashable, “Creating an efficient marketplace was the vision, but focusing on delight for the customer, as well. So efficiency plus surprise and delight – we were excited by the intersection of both.”

To make this work and get it off the ground, Hayley and Katia needed credibility and buy-in from the best of the best beauty brands. Not an easy task for two business school students, but a challenge the industrious young women surmounted with a grassroots effort. They cold emailed a list of beauty brand CEOs with the bold subject line “reimagining beauty retail online”. Rather than ask for thousands of samples outright, they concisely explained that they had a great idea they were testing during their last semester of business school and wanted CEO X’s expert feedback. Emailing from their .edu Harvard addresses, certainly must have helped in positioning the inquiry as a genuine request for help as opposed to a gimmicky pitch. The brands on their target list were extremely receptive and yeses came in very soon after that. Birchbox was ready to launch.

According to a June 2011 Inc. article, “Birchbox launched in September 2010, with 660 members, recruited through word of mouth. An initial e-mail to 40 friends for a beta test in March 2010 generated a waiting list of some 3,000.” The company hit its year three goal for subscribers in month seven of their launch. That type of full throttle, start-up momentum combined with Hayley and Katia’s unique approach to online beauty retailing got the attention of venture capitalists and earned them a seed investment of $1.4 million in October 2010, followed by a series A round of $10.5 million in August of 2011.

Birchbox LogoBirchbox continues to change the face of the beauty retail industry and is now planning a new subscription offering targeted at men.

In case you have not been keeping track of dates… this company is ONLY A YEAR AND A HALF OLD. What an incredible success story. Way to go ladies!

More About Birchbox Co-Founders, Hayley and Katia

Hayley Barna: Hayley is a New Yorker with a degree in economics from Harvard University. Hayley worked in strategy consulting at Bain & Company and then Christie’s in Hong Kong. She moved on to Harvard Business School, where she spent her MBA summer learning the ropes of ecommerce and product management at Fascinated by consumer behavior and a proud techie, she is excited to be starting a business that involves both sides of her personality – geek and chic.

Katia Beauchamp: Katia is a proud West Texan who migrated north to attend Vassar College. After three years working in structured finance and commercial real estate, Katia saw Harvard Business School as an opportunity to leverage her finance fundamentals into a career in entrepreneurship. Her love for all things beauty (bolstered by a college internship at Estee Lauder) and her natural talent for sales and negotiation make her the perfect industry liaison for Birchbox.