The guest of the July session of Startup Grind Melbourne was Sarah Hamilton, CEO of Bellabox, who engaged a roomful of entrepreneurs and dreamers in a very lively ‘fireside chat’ hosted by Chris Joannou. Sarah and her twin sister Emily launched their beauty subscription business in 2011, which has now become a leader in the Asia Pacific with over 40,000 monthly subscribers. Bellabox introduces customers to new brands of beauty products through their home delivered subscription box each month. If a customer really likes a product, they can then buy it from their online store. This helps customers to try new products before making a bigger purchase and companies get to test the response within a target market without having to go through a full launch.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family in Melbourne, Sarah chartered her life’s course through a degree in finance and accounting to an international corporate career at innovative companies both in London and New York. She worked as Finance Manager for the fashion magazine Dazed and Confused in London and later at the Spin Magazine in New York. Whilst living in New York, she was immersed in the startup culture which later inspired her to create Bellabox upon her return home to Australia.
Here are 6 great insights from her successful entrepreneurial journey
As children, Sarah and Emily were always inspired by their father to do something above and beyond a traditional 9 to 5 job. This encouraged them to be entrepreneurial from an early age with their first venture being selling Christmas trees. Her travel and work experiences through London and New York was her way of seeking new opportunities and learning from the best in the fields of beauty, fashion, marketing and editing. Her understanding of finance came to her advantage in bringing in a quantitative perspective and effectively understanding which business strategies were working and which were not.
After she came back to Australia, she found the culture much more risk averse than in the UK and US since there was a greater expectation to work in a large corporation than venture out into the startup world. But Sarah had a steadfast entrepreneurial mindset and taking the risk of starting a company was not something that bothered her at all. Moreover, her sister Emily had been a very successful marketer in the mobile and social media space. So between the two of them, they found the perfect match of skills to shake up the beauty industry with their innovative subscription box concept.
Given that Bellabox is a subscription business that introduces customers to new brands and products, there was a tremendous need for a robust marketing strategy in order to drive growth. In their early days, Sarah and Emily found it hard to get exposure in the top magazines. Instead they leveraged the power of Facebook and blogs to get the word out and build a community around their brand. They found Facebook to be the single most powerful marketing tool. Now with the rise of Instagram, they have over 40,000 faithful followers and is proving to yet another medium for effective customer engagement.
Sarah stresses on the mantra ‘content is king’. Creating great content for consumers is something Bellabox has put at the top of their priority. They are constantly trying different approaches in marketing their products and also strictly monitor the analytics around conversions to measure the effectiveness of their strategies.
Bellabox has secured over $7M of funding from venture capitalists. There are many prominent backers such as Squarepeg Ventures, Allure Media and Apex Capital Ventures. So how did Sarah impress these investors to come onboard? Sarah credits that to her and Emily’s passion for their work and their constant willingness to learn and grow. After their initial few presentations, they were able to get a lot of feedback and mentoring from investors who were willing to invest in the new and growing area of subscription businesses and this helped them to come with the perfect pitch.
Interestingly enough, having a calm attitude and adding humour to one’s presentation can go a long way. Sarah recounts how she brought along her beloved bulldog Thompson to a pitch and he helped build rapport with investors by resting his head on their lap. It was a beautiful and unique gesture and differentiated Sarah as someone who was interested in a genuine partnership with her backers.
Thanks to the driving forces of Sarah in Melbourne and Emily in Singapore, Bellabox was able to register two digit growth quarter on quarter over a period in which much of the world economy was going through a post financial crisis slowdown. How did she manage to stay ahead of her competition in a very saturated market like beauty products?
Sarah credits that to her team’s emphasis on excellent customer service. They provide equal emphasis on the brands they market and the customer community they service each month. Their curated offering of premium brands, custom packaging and great social media engagement have helped them to stay well ahead of their competitors.
Bellabox has had an Asian focus from the very beginning having been based in Singapore and Australia at the same time. Now they are in the process of ramping up their growth plans in China where the consumer demand for premium products is on the rise. Bellabox is currently fulfilling subscription box orders through Australia Post which helps Australian retailers access the Chinese market very efficiently.
Understanding the motivations driving the Chinese consumer was very important. For example, in the retail sector the ‘daigou’ or personal shoppers who help to buy products from Australian supermarkets for friends and family back home are driven by the Chinese need for high quality and genuine products in a nation where the counterfeit industry is rife. Understanding this trend meant Sarah had to emphasise the authenticity of her packaging by keeping the look and feel very Australian and having all labels in English.
Keeping the balance
With her partner Jamie, two kids and bulldog, Sarah juggles a very busy family life alongside her high powered CEO role at Bellabox. For Sarah, having a clear separation between home and work is crucial to her wellbeing. She and her partner are always at home in the evenings to spend mealtimes with their children and to put them to bed. They incorporate random fun activities into their daily routine such as celebrating the coming of the weekend. And she makes sure to be in bed by 10 every night!
Bellabox has gone from strength to strength using the fascinating new trend of subscription boxes and the application of sheer ingenuity, dedication and sound business strategy. Sarah’s story is a great inspiration to all Australian entrepreneurs looking to take their business idea to the next level. Being committed towards growth and excellence while keeping a balanced and positive attitude have been the keys to her success which everyone can emulate.