March 13, 2019
Joining us on the Marketing Mix Podcast is Sabena Suri, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at BOXFOX. Sabena discusses trends in e-commerce, the importance of a personalized online experience and fulfilling a gap in the marketplace. Listed in Forbes 30 under 30, Sabena shares her top tips for women starting a business.
Jeff Ragovin: Congrats on making the Forbes 30 under 30 this past year! Can you talk our listeners through the mission behind BOXFOX?
Sabena Suri: BOXFOX is an ecommerce gifting company. We sell pre-curated gift boxes as well as the ability to build your own gifts using the “Build-a-BOXFOX” tool. We also do a lot of corporate gifting for clients. We started at the end of 2014, and are now in year five right now. It’s been a huge growth year for us. It’s been a really interesting journey, from starting at a kitchen table in Venice to being able to grow the company to 25 people in counting right now. It’s a very exciting time, and it’s been a whirlwind.
Jeff Ragovin: From a space where there’s so many buying options out there, where did the idea come from?
Sabena Suri: As so many great ideas do, this came out of personal experience. In 2014, we had a good friend who was in the hospital. I was 23 at the time and my co-founders were 22. We wanted to send her a care package that was elevated and modern and that had items she would actually use to heal- maybe a journal, some socks, or a book- something that really allowed us to be there for her when we couldn't be there for her physically. We wanted to send something really personal and beautiful and that reflected the relationship. We Googled, we looked everywhere, and when we couldn't find anything, we realized that this is something that that needs to exist.
Of course these experiences happened a couple of more times that year, whether it was a friend getting married or getting a new job. We realized there was a huge opportunity to create something that people would actually use. From the very beginning, the intention was letting the sender customize the box to their recipient and mimic the personalized experience that you would have had offline
Jeff Ragovin: When you're thinking about your strategy, are you focused on marketing to very specific target audiences?
Sabena Suri: We think a lot about target segments because a single audience usually experiences commonalities in terms of life stage and what they’re experiencing. For example, 18 to 22 year olds are going to be sending gifts for a 21st birthday. Focusing on that correlation between life stage and target audience is definitely one of our strategies. We also get really specific about seasonality- the holidays are huge for us, whether that’s Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or the holidays in December. We do a lot of personalized marketing during those time periods as well.
Jeff Ragovin: How are you recruiting such an interesting range of products?
Sabena Suri: We asked the question, what kind of products would we want to actually gift ourselves? When we first started, we had a list of dream brand partners that we wanted to work with and it was definitely a process trying to get them onboard and understanding our vision. We were a nobody, so they had to take a little bit of a risk. That was the initial process that focused on really proving our concept. From there we've definitely evolved that philosophy and tried to bring in more smaller up and coming brands. We all travel, personally and professionally, and we've brought back really cool brands from Australia, Mexico, India, etc. We're always looking for new brands and products. It’s a fun job, and somebody’s got to do it.
Jeff Ragovin: What were some of the strategies that helped you get your name out there in the early stages?
Sabena Suri: From a marketing standpoint, we have this inherently viral business. Every transaction is two way between the sender and the recipient, so we have a built-in system of word-of-mouth, which is amazing. When it comes to other strategies that we’ve employed, we always wanted to act like a small company. That kind of mentality makes it all about high-touch customer service. We've never outsourced it. We don't even outsource our fulfilment, so everything happens in house and it allows us to get really personal with every customer interaction as well as the ability to act very quickly to problem-solve and stay very close to the product. I'd say that's what differentiates us. What we're most passionate about is making sure we don’t grow too quickly and are able to provide the level of experience to our customers that keeps them coming back knowing that they can count on us to be their go-to for gifting.
Jeff Ragovin: Are there any specific marketing trends that you see as being the most prevalent for the company?
Sabena Suri: Definitely predictive technology and data driven personalization. It's super relevant for us because we're able to understand the needs of our customers from their perspective: who’s important in your life, who do you want to be there for? This makes our product very contextually relevant to them by serving them the right recommendations at the right time. Our vision is to be the go-to for gifting because we are able to be a true partner- allowing customers to be a better friend, partner, or sibling. I’m always thinking about how we can gather that data and then actually execute on it from a marketing product experience.
Something else that I’m really passionate about is how we can bring the e-commerce experience to the real world. That was the opposite case five or seven years ago. Everything was going online and now I think we’re seeing a shift towards very strategic retail experiences that go beyond a traditional brick and mortar store to make the brand come to life. We’ve done a few popups in L.A., and I would love to see us move towards the East Coast and some other places in the US to see how customers respond to our concept when it’s taken into the real world.
Jeff Ragovin: If you had unlimited funds, what kind of brick and mortar model would you utilize?
Sabena Suri: It’s definitely my dream to have a permanent store in L.A. We get asked about it all the time. It's such a cool concept for people to actually be able to engage with this on a real level. We've done a few popups in L.A. with that kind of concept in mind. I would love to have a permanent store, where people can come in and build a totally custom git and be able to take it home that day.
Jeff Ragovin: Any top tips for women wanting to start a business in 2019?
Sabena Suri: Being a woman is so central to my experience as an entrepreneur. When we started, myself and my two co-founders always felt like we had two aspects that we were up against: being female, and being under 25. But that never stopped us, because we just really knew that BOXFOX was a great idea. One of the biggest issues we constantly ran into was people thinking we just had a “cute, female” idea, that was often written off. Our real goal was in trying to show that this concept was actually scalable, could be really relevant to people's personal and professional lives, and can make a huge impact. It wasn't just a concept that was being created for the sake of starting a company, but was actually solving a real need in the market.
In terms of that, I would say that my number one tip is really understanding your reasons why. If you are creating a company that you truly believe in and believe needs to exist, just focus on that when walking into any meeting. That kind of confidence and understanding is contagious and people really respond well to it.
Something that’s not often talked about as much with being a female entrepreneur is this awesome intuition that we have as women. It’s a gut instinct that can lead to choosing the right co-founder, partnering with a VC or making product decisions. We have this sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and I think we need to start embracing that as women and really understanding its strength. That can work alongside rational thinking, so it’s always worked well for me. Those are probably my two biggest tips- understanding that I have this great female intuition and using that to be the best entrepreneur possible.
Jeff Ragovin: If you were to have a Sabena BOXFOX, what would be in it?
Sabena Suri: We actually have so many different products that you can build 2.5 billion different combinations of gifts! My personal favorites are our beaker glass water bottle, and our Voluspa blond tobacco candles. I also love Pinch Provisions emergency kit- it’s a little kit with a bunch of essential that I always have in my car. And because I have a major sweet tooth, I would definitely have a Compartes chocolate bar. There’s a tiramisu flavour that’s amazing. Maybe throw in a Sugarfina Peach Bellini for good measure, and that would probably be my curation.
Jeff Ragovin: What keeps you up at night, and what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Sabena Suri: What gets me out of bed is definitely the fact that this is a company I believe can actually really impact people's lives, both personally and professionally. We live in such a digitally driven age that the idea that we can send tangible gifts that make such an impact on people's relationships just drives everything that I do- both on the e-commerce consumer side as well as the B2B side.
What keeps me up at night is definitely the flip side of that coin, in terms of remaining on top of our game for delivering on making an impact. That’s making sure we're staying ahead of the competition, always innovating, providing the best solutions for our customers for gifting, and thinking about the balance between serving loyal customers and always providing a differentiated experience, while all at the same time, remaining true to who we are as a company. I try to remember the BOXFOX foundation, and why we started in the first place.
Jeff Ragovin: Thank you for joining the Marketing Mix Podcast.
Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes