Q&A: Birchbox's CTO on the beauty secrets of scaling a global startup

The journey for that shiny box under the tree often starts with decisions made in the IT office.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO---Now that the tricks and the treats are out of the way, for many it’s time to start thinking about those pretty packages destined to sit underneath the tree.


The journey for mail-ordered shiny boxes often starts with decisions made in the IT office. 

Birchbox, a monthly subscription service for wellness and lifestyle products, serves as a prime example of a startup that seems to understand both consumer and information technology demands.

Since launching in September 2010, the New York-based company has grown to net roughly 400,000 active and paying monthly subscribers, delivering hair, skin, makeup and more fashion-forward goods from more than 500 brands.

That’s actually a short window of time to grow that fast from scratch. With a gorgeous digital storefront and a bevy of social media channels frequently in motion, Birchbox makes it look easier said than done.

The beauty secret here might be one that is familiar with many in the enterprise technology space: careful, well-paced scaling.

I sat down recently with Birchbox’s chief technology officer, Liz Crawford, to find out how Birchbox is tackling the back-end infrastructure issues and making them work to ensure the right parcels arrive in subscribers’ mailboxes each month.

"We’ve grown very rapidly. We have been very careful to scale the infrastructure," Crawford admitted. "One of the things that’s great about a subscription model is that your growth is relatively predictable."

Crawford’s primary responsibility is the tech team, which she specified consists of all issues engineering, data science and user experience. Worldwide, Birchbox’s IT team consists of approximately 30 people — 40 when counting contractors. The total pool includes two employees with job roles dedicated entirely to data science and more than a dozen software engineers.

“The byproduct of Birchbox is housed within the tech team,” said Crawford. “But it’s the role of product to know what customers, and the business overall, needs. They play an active part in making sure we’re aligned with other business stakeholders."

To end users, she remarked that the “most obvious thing” that Birchbox does is the website. It is here where consumers can sign up for the monthly service, which delivers samples of health, beauty, wellness, and lifestyle products for both men and women from both well-known and emerging brands. Examples run the gamut from simple stuff like sunscreen to more high-end (or even obscure) items such as Jonathan Adler iPhone docks and “beard elixir.”

But users don’t actually pick out individual items on a monthly basis. Rather, these boxes are carefully curated based upon one of the most valuable assets in e-commerce: data. That data is comprised of virtually everything relevant to the customer: grooming, skin tone, hair, demographics, age, income, and then some.

Crawford explained that these data points have to accomplish many tasks at once, including (but not limited to) constructing hard constraints about what Birchbox can and cannot send to a particular person, ensuring that the customer never gets the same things twice, and also ensuring that the customer’s box isn’t over saturated with the same types of products from month to month.

If a customer likes a certain sample, then he or she can easily buy the full-size version of that product (as well as other merchandise) through Birchbox’s online store.

Birchbox has shipped more than five million boxes as of August 2013.

To get all of this up and running, Birchbox has sampled a number of schemes itself when it comes to building the infrastructure to support the complete shopping and shipping process.

"The byproduct of Birchbox is housed within the tech team," said Crawford. "But it’s the role of product to know what customers, and the business overall, needs."

Birchbox was originally developed on the e-commerce platform Magento, now owned by eBay. Crawford noted it has since been modified by Birchbox’s internal team. 

"We’ve grown very rapidly. We have been very careful to scale the infrastructure,” Crawford admitted. "One of the things that’s great about a subscription model is that your growth is relatively predictable.”

Crawford specified that Birchbox’s team has written the subscription system themselves, but the company uses an external platform for billing in the United States and its markets in the European Union given that storing credit card data is costly to develop in order to adhere to stricter levels of government compliance.

Still, there have been a few platform hiccups, which especially popped up as Birchbox expanded overseas. Birchbox now serves customers in the United Kingdom, Spain, and most recently France through the 2012 acquisition of Paris-based Joliebox — which Crawford quipped was essentially a “loving copycat” of its New York City counterpart.

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    "When we acquired Joliebox, obviously we were not all on the same platform,” Crawford remarked. "As we do that, that leads to restructuring on our team. One of the things we’re trying to work out is how to structure our team.”

    Those structuring questions go all the way to the top these days as each company is forced to decide for itself how much the CTO is responsible for versus the chief information officer, chief marketing officer, or even newer titles such as chief digital officer.

    Crawford speculated that at a larger company, some of her responsibilities would likely be tasked to a CIO. But within a smaller company, such as Birchbox, she reaffirmed that IT is squarely hers, adding that at this stage such a system works well -- at least for the time being. 

    “In five to 10 years, I don’t know how effective it would be to have all those things combined,” Crawford wondered.

    Not surprisingly, aside from further international expansion, mobile is the next big ticket item on Birchbox’s agenda. The site just launched its first native mobile app in October, albeit for the iPhone only.

    When I asked her why not Android yet given its dominance over both the domestic and global market share, Crawford responded that Google’s mobile OS does not make up half of Birchbox’s market share yet, so it doesn’t make sense to tackle a more ambitious mobile launch right now. 

    There isn’t a native iPad version either yet. Nevertheless, Crawford asserted that the site already works well on the iPad through mobile browsers. Suggesting a mixture of patience matched with careful planning once again, Crawford posited that if an iPad native version were to come about, it should come with its own unique experience.

    "That’s just my personal opinion," she smiled. 

    Images via Birchbox

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