Subscription Box Basics with Julie Ball

Behind the Scenes with Abby of Smartass and Sass

March 15, 2021 Julie Ball Episode 65
Subscription Box Basics with Julie Ball
Behind the Scenes with Abby of Smartass and Sass
Chapters
Subscription Box Basics with Julie Ball
Behind the Scenes with Abby of Smartass and Sass
Mar 15, 2021 Episode 65
Julie Ball

#065 - In this episode, Julie is joined by a very special friend, Abby Bartholomew, the co-founder and the HBIC of Smartass and Sass subscription box.

Tune in to hear about Abby's launch story, tips in scaling your subscription box business, and the value of having a peer-led mastermind.

Summary:

  • Introduction of Abby, and Smart and Sass (00:01:37)
  • Launch Story (00:04:59)
  • The biggest challenge in starting Smart and Sass and how she overcame it (00:11:01)
  • Most impactful marketing tactics (00:16:39)
  • Favorite thing about being in the subscription industry (00:19:25)
  • Advice to new and aspiring subscription box owners (00:22:01)
  • Impact of having a peer-led mastermind (00:25:46)

Links:

https://www.sparklehustlegrow.com
https://smartassandsass.com
https://facebook.com/smartassandsass
https://instagram.com/smartassandsass
https://pinterest.com/smartassandsass
https://twitter.com/smartassandsass

Show Notes Transcript

#065 - In this episode, Julie is joined by a very special friend, Abby Bartholomew, the co-founder and the HBIC of Smartass and Sass subscription box.

Tune in to hear about Abby's launch story, tips in scaling your subscription box business, and the value of having a peer-led mastermind.

Summary:

  • Introduction of Abby, and Smart and Sass (00:01:37)
  • Launch Story (00:04:59)
  • The biggest challenge in starting Smart and Sass and how she overcame it (00:11:01)
  • Most impactful marketing tactics (00:16:39)
  • Favorite thing about being in the subscription industry (00:19:25)
  • Advice to new and aspiring subscription box owners (00:22:01)
  • Impact of having a peer-led mastermind (00:25:46)

Links:

https://www.sparklehustlegrow.com
https://smartassandsass.com
https://facebook.com/smartassandsass
https://instagram.com/smartassandsass
https://pinterest.com/smartassandsass
https://twitter.com/smartassandsass

Julie:

So you want to launch a subscription box and don't know where to start? Girl, you are in the right place. I'm Julie Ball, a subscription box coach and your host here at Subscription Box Basics, a podcast for new and aspiring subscription box entrepreneurs that want to avoid overwhelm. So grab a coffee, some pen and paper and let's have some fun! Hey, everybody! Welcome back to Subscription Box Basics. I'm Julie Ball, your host. And today I have a very special friend on the podcast. She is a colleague of mine. She runs a successful subscription box company. We've actually met in person, which is kind of unusual in these days I felt like, and she is in my peer led mastermind, which we will dive into. So I would like you to meet my friend, Abby Bartholomew. She is the co-founder and HBIC. If you don't know what that means, go Google it. The HBIC of Smartass and Sass subscription company. Hey Abby!

Abby:

Hello. Thanks for having me.

Julie:

Yeah, I'm excited. I have enjoyed getting to know you over the last few years. And , we actually met in person a couple of times. We were at the Sub Summit together.

Abby:

Yeah.

Julie:

You came to the Sparkle Hustle Grow Work Hard, Play Hard retreat in Mexico. So we've had pool parties together. We've had a lot, so, but thank you so much for coming on the podcast to talk shop with me. A lot of people will be meeting you for the first time. So let's start out by giving a little bit of background about yourself.

Abby:

Yeah, sure. So I guess my ,, professional background is mostly in, or my education anyway is in advertising, marketing, communications. My first real job was at an advertising agency. After that I worked at a company that was acquired by IBM. I worked in like project and operations management, so kind of the technical side of things. So that sort of before I was an official entrepreneur , but in 2015, I co-created an escape room with my, one of my besties on.

Julie:

So that's your first. Yes, First adult business. I did a lot of like freelance and stuff when I was, when I was younger. But yeah, so that was my first business and we still have that running here. And then , in 2016 , my other bestie Kim and I started Smartass and Sass. So here we are. I love it. That you have started two businesses with best friends. That is so fun. We'll have to dive into that a little bit later, but before we do that, tell everyone what Smartass and Sass is.

Abby:

Yeah , so it's a subscription box obviously , and we send monthly sarcastic items. So there are things like , we have t-shirts. We do mugs and tote bags , things like that are sort of unofficial slogan is that it's a subscription for Sass holes. So you know, a lot of sarcasm, definitely some profanity , but yeah, we just like to, we like to make people laugh. So...

Julie:

Yeah, I know a lot of people who get this box you've been really successful in delighting those customers. And so one of the questions I always ask is, you know, specifically who do you serve and what problem do you solve with it? And so I'll be interested to hear what problem that you kind of carved out that you solve with your sassy subscription, right ?

Abby:

Yeah. Yeah. So our audience overall is, you know, ranges. It's, I'd say 98% female, definitely mostly female , and anywhere from like 25 to 60, as far as age, mostly in like the 35 to 50 range , and as far as the problem we solve, I think , for most of our subscribers, it's a way to treat themselves. We definitely have a lot of gift purchases, but it's just a way to treat themselves and to make themselves laugh and support small businesses. We, we like to work with artists and smaller brands as much as we can. And so I think that's something that people enjoy as well, kind of discovering those new brands and being able to support them. But then also having that, you know, funny like mug that they get to take to work every day , just keeping them, keeping them laughing. I guess we say that you know, we say it on our products so that you don't have to.

Julie:

I like that. And I'm kind of seeing a trend here with your first businesses as an escape room and this box is kind of like, you can escape some reality.

Abby:

Right?

Julie:

I like that. Okay. So tell us your launch story. I know we featured you in Subscription Box Basics, the book, and you told a little bit about your launch story, how you and your bestie came up with the idea and you had this , common love of four letter words and how that translated into a business. So tell us a little bit about your launch story and you know, when that was, how you kind of queued things up for success. And so I'd love to hear about that.

Abby:

Yeah. So in 2016, Kim and I had, so Kim and I have been friends for since first grade , and we got it in our heads that we wanted to start a business together. And so, you know , we were talking about what that could be, what that would look like , and I had started reading more about subscription boxes. I mean, at that point there were quite a few big names around, especially , so we talked more about that. We were really intrigued by like the recurring revenue model. And so when we started thinking about, you know, what, what would we want that to look like? We're like, okay, we want to , we want to hit on a couple things. We want it to be something that we were personally passionate about. Cause they feel like it's hard to throw yourself into something that you don't care about.

Julie:

I would agree.

Abby:

We wanted to, you know, find something that didn't exist already in the market. , and obviously we wanted it to be something that people would want to get in the mail on a regular basis. So , we just started thinking about products that we like to buy. And , some of the vendors that we still use today were people that we both personally bought from , you know, years ago. But as we started digging where like, "Oh, they have a huge fan base of, you know , people who like their funny, sarcastic profane products." So that's kind of how we got the idea. , we, at the end of 2016, decided to do a crowdfunding campaign , just to sort of validate our idea, but also get us a little bit of that startup money for our first official month. Yeah , so at the time, I don't know if this is still true, but at the time , Kickstarter wouldn't let you create a campaign if you didn't yourself create all the products and Indiegogo. So that's why we chose Indiegogo. Indiegogo also had an option where you could either reach your goal and they take, you know , this percentage, or you could choose the option where even if you don't reach your goal, they still get a cut. So that was why we picked them. And it works, it worked well and we definitely felt like it validated our idea . So we , you know, did all the fulfillment for that. And then our sort of soft launch was February of 2017. And we actually only had 17 subscribers our first month. It was, we were pretty tiny, but just, you know, trying to figure things out, figure out logistics.

Julie:

Tell me about more about that Indiegogo. Was it one of those things where you're just trying to raise the funds and you have different levels of rewards?

Abby:

Yep . And so what we did without that campaign was we had levels for the subscription itself. So like just one box , three months and six months. And then we like manually transfer those people into the subscription system. But then we also did one-off kind of curated boxes, like we had a bride box. And , what other ones did we have ? We had a cooking like a saucy chef, I think is what we called that one. And , what other specialty ones? Those are, those are the only two that come to mind. Well, we had, we had one that was , like extra profanity , so we had a couple of those specialty boxes and then like the subscription levels too. So they, you know, it helped us get that, that funding, but then they also got product out of it.

Julie:

Very cool. Okay. So you launched in January with your 17 subscribers. How did you, what were your next steps? Like what, how did you get that ball rolling?

Abby:

Yeah. So we started out on the Cratejoy. I mean, we're still today on Cratejoy's platform and , especially in a year, like one and two , Cratejoy's marketplace was huge for us. I think in those first few years we averaged like 65% of our subscriber base came from the marketplace.

Julie:

Wow.

Abby:

Yeah. And we, so I think in addition to just the general exposure of being on that marketplace ,, you know, when you work with them in that way, they have a lot of PR efforts and stuff. And so we got featured that first year, we got featured in , Instyle and BuzzFeed and , so they got us a lot of good exposure that I think just helped us, you know, get our footing.

Julie:

Yeah, I remember when I first started in 2016, my early stages of 2017, I was getting featured a lot in Cratejoy marketplace things too. And I get people that ask me all the time, like, how do you get featured? And I know that it has to do with, you know , how well your, your marketplace listing is set up. So videos and images and descriptions and how well that converts, but also, I don't know if you knew this, you can just email their marketing team and pitch yourself. I believe that email address is [email protected] And so, yeah, so say that there's like a sassy holiday coming up and you're like, okay, we have something to say about this. Like you can send them a quick email pitch. I've done it a couple of times and like brought to them , brought to mind that like, Hey, it's women's entrepreneurship day or whatever for Sparkle Hustle Grow. And so they're always looking for exciting things to share with their audience. So yeah. Quick tip.

Abby:

That's awesome. I didn't know that.

Julie:

Yeah. Okay. So what were some of the big challenges you had and like again, how did you get that momentum roll and now after, you know, just other than the marketplace.

Abby:

Yeah. So I think in our first year, one of our bigger challenges was clarifying like who we are and what we do. One of the things that sort of came with that is that we, we figured out that sarcasm isn't necessarily universal. Like not everybody laughs at the same things. And yeah , so we sort of had to loosely define like what that means to us. And so really that just, I guess how that expressed itself is in all of our messaging and marketing. So one of the things was like , well we did, we did a bunch of surveys with our subscribers asking questions about like the things they like, the things they don't like. One of the things we were really sort of cautious about in the beginning was like, how much profanity are you comfortable with? And so in one of our first big surveys, we asked that question and , 75% of subscribers were like, give it, give me all the four letter words.

Julie:

Bring it.

Abby:

And so we're like, okay, cause we had thought about, you know , kind of branching and having a separate subscription, but we're like, "Oh, well, most of them want that." And so part of, I think year one was just figuring out or more clearly defining our niche, I guess, and what , what that looks like. And I think what came out of that , so in addition to the surveys, we also felt like we wanted a more direct line of communication with customers. So I think it was at the very end of year one, we decided to launch a subscriber only Facebook group. And part of it was to offer them like exclusive discounts and exclusive products and stuff like that. But it also gave us a more direct way of doing like one-off questions so we could say like, "Hey, we're thinking about doing, you know, we're , we're looking for a product for our March box. Do you guys want a Fanny pack or do you want to , you know, pool bag or neither?"

Julie:

I'll take the Fanny pack please?

Abby:

Right? So that's been really helpful and like phrasing phrasing too . Cause sometimes we get stuck on like, you know, it's at the end of the day, sometimes it's hard to know if subscribers , like if something's going to be a hit or not. So it just gives us that, that platform to say, "Hey, do you guys like this?" And we did, they've told us time and time again that they love , they love being involved. Like they love seeing, you know, like answering that poll question and then two months later seeing the outcome.

Julie:

Yes, and we did the same thing. It makes them more loyal, you know, when they buy into it and they're helping make the decisions, it's twofold . Like they get really excited about it, but it also takes the weight off of our shoulders as the business owner to make that.

Abby:

And we found it to be really helpful too, with just like the, you know, like more boring communications of like we our January box had some delays. And so we communicated over email of course, but like inboxes are so full these days. And so we shared in the Facebook group , and they, so many of them just comment that they appreciate how transparent we are and how much we communicate. So I think that's been, that was , you know, a huge problem, but then a great fix for us.

Julie:

Yeah. And you have thousands of subscribers. So I imagine that that Facebook group is probably pretty active.

Abby:

Yeah. Yeah. It's crazy.

Julie:

Do you have a community manager or something like that to help you manage it?

Abby:

Yep . Our customer experience manager does like all of the inbox stuff and all of that and yeah, it does get pretty intense, especially like shipping time of the month.

Julie:

Yeah. We definitely use it in very similar manners as far as like asking this or that for , you know, a poll on a product or communicating information, really important information. We love to post a sneak peek two days before renewal day. Yeah . And letting them know reminding them we are , we come from the, the , I know some people disagree with this, but , we love to remind people that there's going to be, they're going to be charged in two days or whatever.

Abby:

Right.

Julie:

As a consumer, I would want to have the reminder. So that's why we do it. And I know that some box owners, they don't do that renewal reminder because their numbers might be higher because people forget about it and they won't, they won't take action and cancel or skip or anything. But we love that. We love that moment where we can be like, look you guys next week, next month is going to be amazing. Here's the theme. Here's a sneak peek. And let us know if you need help managing your account. And I feel like that extra level of customer service helps them really be more loyal, but also that improves their experience, you know.

Abby:

Yep . We do the same thing. And I think for all the same reasons, because yeah, as a customer, I want to be aware of when a renewal's coming, but like, so we all have , our boxes are themed and we do a spoiler too . And then that way , I think it keeps our churn lower because we're also really transparent on like how you can just skip that month because then, you know, maybe next month is more of a hit.

Julie:

Yeah. What do you feel like is one of your most impactful marketing tactics right now? Cause you've experienced some pretty fast growth and some like large scale growth over the past year or two.

Abby:

Yeah. Hmm . That's a good question. I mean, so before like middle of 2020, we, as far as marketing, we're just doing like Facebook ads , and email campaigns and sort of like turning on and off that faucet when we, you know , needed the growth , but then middle of 2020, we started working with an affiliate partner and I think that's been really big for us. We just, a few months ago actually switched to a different partner. Like we kind of started out as an entry level and now we are , we're working with sort of a mid tier partner if you want to call them that. But , and I think that's been really huge for us because they get us exposure on huge platforms. Like this is official now, so I can share it, but like we have a partnership with Scary Mommy coming up that is like just crazy and so exciting. So yeah, I think that has been big for us and we're getting a lot of traction through them because they just have contacts that we don't have.

Julie:

Of course. Yeah. It's who you know, and I talk about that sometimes where I feel like I can get to two degrees outside of my network. Like I can reach my friends and family and then I can ask them to share. But then when it comes to getting beyond that, that's where I feel like we need these extra partners, whether that it looks like Facebook ads or Pinterest or affiliates, I think that's where you plug those in. And what I found in , in the growth over the past few years is that I'll grow, grow, grow, and then I'll hit a plateau for a couple of months and that light bulb goes off. It's like, okay, it's time to fill in the , you know, fill in a new gap. Like where what's the next thing, is it a referral program or is it, or Facebook ads or whatever. And I, I have gone through several of those plateaus. I , I probably hit one once a year where it's like, you have to level up, but it sounds like you kind of did that with the affiliate program where you leveled up to the next kind of exposure level,

Abby:

Right. Yeah. Yeah. I definitely think that was our, you know, within the last 12 months has been the biggest influence in our growth.

Julie:

And you guys had a pretty strong Q4 right? With the holidays?

Abby:

Yeah gifting is always a big time of year for us, but it was an extra ,, like I think we ended the year with double the subscribers we started with and the biggest growth was definitely like November, December. Yeah. It was good.

Julie:

This market is hot subscription boxes. It's such a win-win for business owners and for consumers. So, okay. So what's one of your favorite things about working in the subscription box industry?

Abby:

Hmm . I like that it is , because it is a relatively new industry. I mean, subscriptions aren't, right? Like there's always been like cable service and stuff like that, but like physical products is a relatively new thing to subscribe to. And so I feel like our industry is kind of always evolving and changing and getting better and there are more like, you know, services and the, in the market. And so I think that it's cool to be in such an evolving market, but then like you're also a change maker because, you know , so I think that's the thing I like most about it.

Julie:

Yeah. It's my favorite industry by far. And you have kind of a corporate background and I have a corporate background. So I think, and I think that my background moving through the ranks of corporate America. I felt very boxed in, I didn't feel like a change maker at all, but everything, all the different jobs that I did in that 10 year time span helps me become a better business owner.

Abby:

Right. Right. And I think I also really liked that our in our industry, even though it's been around for however many years, it's ,, there's, there's still opportunity for smaller boxes and any kind of niche. Like , my friend Anne got us for Christmas, got my husband and I a box called Wee box like W E E and it's all Scottish themed stuff.

Julie:

Oh my goodness.

Abby:

We went to Scotland on our honeymoon, but it's just as like such a small little, you know, niche and like I'm , we're expecting in April and there's a subscription box I'm looking at that is , you know, like every two months of the first year you get a new box for your baby. It just is crazy how, you know, specific you can get. But there, there are people out there who want it.

Julie:

Yeah. I love that. You're so right about the niches. Like I really believe you've probably heard me say before that you gotta like niche down niche down and niche down again because there is room for more in the industry. It is a hot industry and there are a lot of boxes out there, but if you just carve out something that you solve a problem for a very specific audience, there's room for you. And so I come from that abundance mindset. And so I love those, those ideas that you had, the Wee box. That's so cool. I've never heard of that one. I'm definitely gonna look that one up.

Abby:

Yeah.

Julie:

So, okay. So what's everyone listening. They're either new or aspiring subscription box business owners. What is one piece of advice you can give them maybe something that you learned the hard way?

Abby:

Yeah, I think ,, the biggest piece of advice I would have is to listen to your customers, but to listen critically because I think , you know, you can get, I mean, like I was talking about our Facebook group has been one of the biggest , biggest things for us in sort of defining what we're about and all of that. And it's given us ideas for changes to make and feedback on what we're doing. It gives you insight to your target audience, all of those great things. I think you have to be critical though, because at the end of the day, like you just have to be able to take it all with a grain of salt, I guess, like , because sometimes you're going to get feedback that either is just like, you know, one person's opinion or so you did that. I guess that's my advice is , find a good way of getting feedback from your customers or having like an open dialogue if you can. But then just, you know, also know that at the end of the day, your it's your business , but yeah, I think that can help you make informed decisions , and help you grow, help you scale.

Julie:

I think that's great advice. I keep hearing a trend of this and we do this as well that people are, you know, when I'm interviewing people, they're saying, I asked my audience this, or I surveyed my audience. And I think that is so important to tap into that. And you're right. One response might be the all caps, yelling, angry customer that hurts you deep in your heart.

Abby:

Yeah.

Julie:

They're the outlier. And then if they're not representing what everybody feels or even like a segment of your audience feels, then don't pivot just because of one person.

Abby:

Right.

Julie:

And that's easier said than done, because I know when I see things when someone's really angry and they're very vocal about it, that that can be really hurtful, but what you really need to do is look for those trends.

Abby:

Exactly . Yeah, and we had, I mean, it makes me think of back in like, I think we only had the Facebook group for a few months , so it was 2017, but we had a box that was a total flop. Like , we just had a couple of products that were lower quality than what we would have wanted and, you know, people see through that. But, and so the Facebook group , was pretty outspoken about it.

Julie:

I've been there. Yeah.

Abby:

Yeah. But, you know, even though that was difficult, I mean, at that point I was managing the back and forth and it's so hard because it's your, it's your business baby. And it, you know, but at the end of the day it was feedback we needed to hear , and so we, you know , took that to heart and really like made sure that the quality of the next box and obviously going forward is better. And again, it's like people then the next month , and the month after that saw those changes and felt like they were, you know , having an impact. So yeah .

Julie:

Yeah. We've, we've definitely had some of those months and we've made some changes based off of that. Sometimes I wish though Abby that people would be a little nicer about things.

Abby:

Yeah. Sometimes, sometimes I think people forget, especially when we're talking over the internet that they're like humans on the other side.

Julie:

Yeah. And that we are a small business with big hearts and we're not doing anything intentional to hurt someone or to disappoint them.

Abby:

Right.

Julie:

And so, yeah, it's, I really need it . One of my first hires was someone to manage my customer service inbox because it was too hard for me on an emotional level to those and respond all the time. So yeah. But anyhow, I wanted to talk before we wrap it up, I wanted to talk real quick about this peer-led mastermind that we do. And I think it's so impactful for us. So if you guys didn't know, I'm in a small group mastermind with Abby , other people that are in the group are Betsy Wilde from We Craft box and my box bestie, Jessica Principe from All Girls Shave Club. And the four of us are all in very similar levels of our business. We're all very much open books and we want to help other women entrepreneurs. So we just decided on a whim one day I was like, let's just all jump on a call together. And when we did, we're like, "Oh, this is good." Like not only does it fill a bucket for , for me at least like as an extrovert, Abby , I know you're an introvert, but you show up. And I love that. It like is this social thing, but we also help each other out in solving problems. So we'll , we'll jump on our call. We meet every other week for about an hour, if we can keep it to an hour. And we talk about what's working in our business, we talk about our goals. We help troubleshoot problems, or, you know, just, you know, one time we shared, like, what's your Facebook ad that's working best right now. Or, you know, what do you do in this situation? And if you guys don't already have something like that, I highly recommend that you find some box besties that you can count on. Even if you just meet with them once a month, it just gives you a sounding board, find the people that are right around the same level as you or above so that you can learn from them. And Jessica and I were just talking about it the other day. We're like we should do a podcast episode on how to find your box bestie and like why you need one and more about these peer-led masterminds. Granted, you know, I'm a coach and I run things like that. You can definitely do some of these things on your own and have a huge impact on your business.

Abby:

Yeah. Yeah. I think it's been so great. I mean, obviously there are those conversations that we have about very specific business things, but then, yeah, it's just nice to have colleagues in your industry, but like sometimes we talk about personal stuff too, or kind of that gray area of like business and personal. So yeah, I think it's been...

Julie:

How you're expecting a baby. And we're saying, how are you preparing for your maternity leave and how can we support you in that and stuff? So if you don't already have one, you guys need to get into that. There's so many Facebook groups right now for subscription box entrepreneurs that are very good and generous. And you can, you can just network just like you would network at an event. And when you find some people that you really click with, then invite them to a coffee chat on a zoom call and see what happens. Yeah. Cool. Okay. So Abby, if someone wants to subscribe or follow you or what you're doing, where can they find you online? Where are you hanging out?

Abby:

So we're on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, all of those are at SmartassandSass . And then our website is smartassandsass .com . We do have a special discount code for listeners. So if you want to get 25% off either your first subscription or your first shop order , just use code SBB25 and you can order either of those.

Julie:

Hot dang, thank for that 25% off. Right on! Well, I'm sure that we'll have some people checking it out. It's a super fun box. I know you offer a couple of different versions too, like with a t-shirt and without, so , you know, there's all kinds of options. And if you are just wanting to like check it out, go to the shop, you guys have some really, really fun items in there. I know you do a lot of custom items that are made specifically for your brand , and maybe we can have you on another podcast and we can talk about what that even looks like. I know you and I have talked a lot about custom brand or custom product for your brand a lot. And I know people want to know that information.

Abby:

Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

Julie:

Awesome. Well, Abby, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. It's so much fun. I just really just want to give you so much gratitude. I love our friendship and our little peer-led mastermind and you are building an empire.

Abby:

We both are.

Julie:

That's the plan, right? Yeah. So, all right guys, go check it out smartandsass .com . Follow her on all the social media places. Thank you so much for joining us today and we'll see you in the next episode.

Speaker 3:

[inaudible] .