How To Start A Subscription Box: 7 Steps To Launch A Thriving Business
So you want to start a subscription box company. I bet you’ve come here with questions, and if so, you’re in the right spot! We’ve got answers, inspiration, and plenty of resources ready for you to check out. Keep reading to discover how you to find niche subscription box ideas that will turn heads, how to keep your company running like a well-oiled machine, and how to reach more customers and expand your business once you launch. Let’s get going!
Table of Contents
- Step 1: You Need An Interesting Subscription Box Idea To Succeed
- Step 2: Before You Start Planning In Earnest, Make A Business Plan
- Step 3: Consider How To Fund Your Subscription Box Business
- Step 4: Seek Out A Supplier For Your Subscription Box Service
- Step 5: Build Your Web Presence & Customer Service Channels
- Step 6: Build A Marketing Plan To Draw In Customers
- Step 7: Create A Strategy For Headache-Free Shipping & Fulfillment
- 5 Tips To Keep Your Subscription Box Business Growing
- Are You Ready To Launch Your Subscription Box Company?
Step 1: You Need An Interesting Subscription Box Idea To Succeed
How will you find that amazing idea to dazzle your would-be subscribers? In part, the foundation of a successful subscription box company is that extra something that sets you apart. Interestingly, one of the most successful boxes in the last few years started with a regular old hygiene product we all probably purchase. I’m thinking about what the Dollar Shave Club did with a simple self-care item: the razor. Their campaign used visual textures, packaging, and smart, fun messaging to connect with potential subscribers. While they initially marketed to men, their brand has grown to target both men and women. The idea is that people sign up to save on a razor (something everyone needs anyway) and soon enough they’re adding non-essentials to their box as well. While you might have more of a whimsical idea than just a plain razor, this company shows that anything is possible with the right planning and execution.
There are a lot of exciting possibilities out there, so get a notepad out, grab a refreshing beverage, and let’s explore how to create a very successful subscription box business.
14 Subscription Box Business Ideas To Get You Started
The sky is the limit when it comes to curating a subscription box. It’s true that subscription boxes are becoming a competitive market, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach a particular group with a new angle. As we saw with the Dollar Shave Club, sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that take off when coupled with a good message and imagery.
First, you’ll want to figure out your target audience and demographic and do the needed research on these folks. Will your box provide convenience, discovery, whimsy, and/or special interest? Here are some general ideas to help you narrow down the focus and come up with something unique for your subscribers:
- Gourmet foods, exotic snacks, coffee, tea, candy, etc.
- Pregnancy and baby
- Arts and crafts
- Gaming and “geek” interests
- Fitness and health
- Curated clothing and accessories
- Self-care and pampering
- Inspirational / encouraging
- Romantic gift-giving
- Beauty and grooming
- Kids’ toys
- Pet care and toy
- Home (plants, cleaning, candles, art)
If you are feeling inspired, keeping brainstorming those ideas and write them down — you’ll need them for the research and discovery steps coming up. Keep reading to find out what you need to know to expand your business or start a brand-new business based on the subscription box model.
Step 2: Before You Start Planning In Earnest, Make A Business Plan
A business plan acts as a blueprint for success. It keeps you on track, aligns your goals, and helps you cover the basics. You’ll also need a business plan should you seek out funding or investors for your subscription box endeavor. The most important person this business plan serves is you, however.
Of course, you’ll need to do some more preliminary research and get your ducks in a row before creating your plan, but it certainly does not have to be complicated. We suggest starting with a lean business plan, which is a one-page document that follows this basic structure:
- Business overview
- Target market
- Your competition
- Financial summary
- Marketing strategy
If you need a little more direction, check out our post, The How-To For One Page Business Plans
Research The Competition & Check Out Other Subscription Box Companies
As a part of your business plan, you’ll want to research the competition. The best way to start that is via a Google search. Go through the first few pages and click through the businesses there. The most important thing you can learn here is the average price point. You also can find product ideas there, but it’s more useful to identify what’s not in those boxes so that you can provide a unique angle.
Step 3: Consider How To Fund Your Subscription Box Business
There are several ways to go about funding expenses. You’ll need to consider a few things to help you assess what exactly you’ll need here.
- Will you be paying the full price for some or all items?
- Can you source wholesale to save costs?
- Can you approach local artists or specialty shops for unique and specially priced inclusions?
- Can you reach out to pitch suppliers for special pricing or free samples (more on this later)?
You can certainly do a combination of the above list. But whatever you decide, you’ll need to cover initial costs in marketing, setup, shipping, and inventory. Once you have an idea of what’s going in the box and your costs to fill it, then you can consider how you’ll go about funding the business.
Here are some options to consider:
- Borrow money with a startup loan.
- Use funds from advanced orders from subscribers.
- Utilize a business credit card.
Another approach is to start small and limit quantities initially so you can cover your own costs. By doing this you can reduce your financial risk, not to mention create some urgency in the sale thanks to limited inventory.
Should You Crowdfund Your Subscription Box?
You could think about crowdfunding your fledgling business idea. Crowdfunding certainly has its advantages, along with some unique challenges. For one, you’ll need to devote marketing dollars to outreach and exposure for your campaign. And with that, you’ll need to lead with a great story to stand out and get attention. The best part of all this strategy, however, is that if you get your backers to support your start-up costs, you can reduce your debt and gain supporters while you’re at it. This strategy would likely be best for unique, cause-related, and highly niche ideas, as you’ll have the most potential for excitement from your backers.
There are several types of crowdfunding and (even more platforms to choose from), but rewards-based crowdfunding is likely the most appropriate choice for your subscription box business. Interested in exploring this option for your business? For more ideas and information on crowdfunding, check out Crowdfunding for Startups: 8 Tips For Launching.
Step 4: Seek Out A Supplier For Your Subscription Box Service
You’ve got a few options on how you’ll actually fill your box. You could choose to purchase directly from a wholesale company, pay full-price, or use a combination of both. For some or all of your products, initiating a long-term relationship with a supplier becomes the smartest option.
You can start finding some amazing things for your subscription box by networking and establishing good relationships with vendors, suppliers, or artists. Those of you who focus on unique or one-of-a-kind items will particularly need to get relationships going with specialty shops, sellers at trade shows, local artists, and crafters. Etsy can be a wonderful source for contacting niche and specialty item sellers in all kinds of categories — not just handmade items. Many sellers would be more than happy to supply samples or a discount, and some may even be open to sharing in exchange for exposure.
If you end up creating a full website for yourself (more on that coming up), make it easy for vendors to get in touch with you through a dedicated page and instructions for how to submit a request. While you may not be fielding a lot of inquiries when you launch, get it set up so you’re ready to respond to those requests when they start pouring in.
Why You Need To Perfect Your Pitch Before You Talk To Suppliers
We recommend creating your one-page business plan (discussed in Step 2) before approaching suppliers. If you already have an email list or social following, lead with these resources; suppliers will be more than happy to work with you if additional exposure to their product is in the mix. Whether you’re asking for sample sizes or a discount, remember that transparency, a good plan, and confidence in your approach will go a long way in your pitch.
Step 5: Build Your Web Presence & Customer Service Channels
You can approach selling your subscription boxes online a few different ways:
- Hire a firm or freelancer to build a fully custom site.
- Integrate a shopping cart with an existing site.
- Choose an eCommerce platform including a site builder with website templates and a payment gateway all in one (e.g. Shopify, Read our review).
- Sell via social channels only with a Facebook Store or Instagram Shoppable posts.
If the website part makes you a bit nervous, I have some good news for you. It really has never been easier to sell online — with little to no experience or technical expertise — by going with a website builder. Some platforms even offer all-in-one solutions with payments (including recurring billing), website templates, and a plethora of integrations for easier shipping and tracking built right in, too!
Where To Find eCommerce-Friendly Website Builders
Because they are both feature-rich, easy to use, and provide a lot of room to scale, we recommend Shopify and Square to business owners who are starting from the ground up with little to no tech expertise. And for those that do have coding expertise, you’ll have customization tools at your disposal, too! What makes me most excited about Shopify is that it enables multi-channel selling across platforms, including Facebook stores, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Amazon. With these options, you can take advantage of more opportunities for growth while meeting potential customers where they’re hanging out anyway. And what I love is that everything including your inventory and reporting is all synced no matter where you sell!
Whether you’re looking for just a shopping cart integration or a full all-in-one platform, I recommend checking out The Best eCommerce Platforms For Your Small Business as you can compare options side-by-side and get a lot more information regarding what to look for to match what you need.
I will leave one final thought in regards to eCommerce website builders — take advantage of any trial periods or demos to give yourself time to play around and explore your possibilities.
Why Your Choice Of Payment Processor Matters
Your payment processor is how you’ll actually accept payments, so this is an important business consideration. If you’re a fledgling entrepreneur, you’ll likely find yourself below the monthly volume of what many traditional payment processors serve.
Third-party processors like Square, PayPal, and Stripe (the backend processor of Shopify) make it possible for smaller businesses to start taking payments, and they provide an exhaustive set of (oftentimes free) tools to help you manage your business. This convenience comes at a cost however: an increased risk of account freezes if you have an uptick in chargebacks or your account is considered higher risk.
Regardless of what type of merchant account you go with, however, you will have this risk, unfortunately. That’s why we recommend arming yourself with knowledge. Check out How To Keep Your Payment Processor From Holding Funds Or Terminating Your Account.
So what should you look for in a merchant account? Here is what you can keep in mind as you research companies:
- Product Features: What comes with the account? Are there any beneficial add-on services like email marketing? Reporting tools?
- Recurrent Billing: Allowing your customers to save and automatically be charged is a must!
- ACH: Automatic bank transfers can lower your processing costs, and it’s another payment method to offer your customers.
- Forms of Payment: Some payment flows like Shopify Payments let you easily add PayPal and digital wallets to your checkout.
- Card Automatic Updating: This feature can prevent billing issues and ensures you don’t have to chase someone down for updating billing information if their card expires or gets replaced.
- Check The Contract: Always read your contract! We recommend merchants avoid long-term contracts as they are often also laced with lots of fees.
- Customer Service: It’s important to get the help you need when you need it. Companies that have several active customer service channels and generous customer service hours are a must for the eCommerce subscription box business.
Check out some of our top picks in payment gateways for online payment processing in our post The Best Payment Gateways For Online Payment Processing.
Solving The Customer Service Question
The customer service issue can also happily be solved with the right eCommerce platform, too. For instance, many web builders, like Wix, for instance, now include chatbots that allow you to communicate in real-time to field any incoming questions. Some companies direct their customers to send any order issues or inquiries via Facebook Messenger. If you’ve linked a Facebook business account with Shopify, for example, you can take advantage of order tracking as well. Of course, there are always reliable phone and email options. Whatever you decide, make it clear how your customers can contact you, along with the expected response time.
Regardless of customer service channels you ultimately choose, we suggest making it easy for your subscribers to alter their box or skip a month. Enabling them to easily skip a month may feel like losing a sale, but you’ll likely retain them for longer (and keep them less frustrated).
Step 6: Build A Marketing Plan To Draw In Customers
Getting a marketing plan down on paper is an absolute must, but it doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it sounds. The subscription box biz is a bit competitive at the moment, and that’s where being savvy and making the most of the opportunities you already have can go a long way.
Social Media Marketing For Your Subscription Box
Social media can work wonders to establish your brand and get people excited. Follow the strategies below:
- Start Posting Regularly: If you already have followers on social, you’re at an advantage, but if you don’t, consider building your following by posting regular content, tagging larger accounts, and networking.
- Test A Paid Social Ad: If you’re up to it, I recommend testing a sponsored post or two to get people excited during your pre-launch focus and beyond. Facebook advertising is a very cheap way ($20-30 bucks) to get in front of potentially thousands of people, and your ad will go to Instagram automatically, too. It’s also easy to target your campaign (even down to niche interests).
- Excite With a Giveaway: A giveaway is a tried-and-true method of increasing your footprint with every post! Ask your followers to tag friends, share, and direct them to your site to sign up with an email. You increase your reach exponentially while building an email list of people who are interested in you. It’s a win-win.
- Tap Into Influencer Marketing: Whether you have a lot of followers or not, an inexpensive way to boost your brand is through influencer marketing. By offering your box to an established YouTube personality in exchange for a shout-out or review on their page, you can reach potentially thousands with your brand name. Influencers will likely be happy about to devote some screen-time to your sub box, as it’s not always easy coming up with fresh content.
Email Marketing For Your Subscription Box
If you already have an established business or a robust email list, email marketing is a great way to promote your subscription box service. Email is still one of the cheapest and easiest ways to advertise new products and services. I love that Square offers this as an add-on service for only $15/month and includes analytics, templates, and targeting.
Don’t have a list? Consider reaching out to another local business and paying a small fee for a shout-out in their next newsletter. Make sure you create an email form on your site to make it easy for people to show their interest in your box. You could even use a credit card number to reserve a spot for a limited quantity of boxes before you’ve even launched! Fanning the flames of FOMO (fear of missing out) is never a bad idea in marketing.
To get the most bang for your buck when it comes to emails, check out How To Create A Successful Email Marketing Strategy (all skill levels).
Step 7: Create A Strategy For Headache-Free Shipping & Fulfillment
There are two major pathways to take with shipping and fulfillment: doing it yourself or outsourcing fulfillment. Of course, the size of your operation and your budget are factors, as well as logistical and space considerations.
Creating a strategy that gets your boxes out on time is key, but you are probably looking for the lowest possible overhead and tools that can help you save time. There are a plethora of integrations that work with Shopify and other eCommerce platforms to make it easy to print labels and ship from your home.
When it comes to costs, your shipping fees can vary widely depending on what’s in your box, size, and materials you need. In your planning stages, do research on which carriers are most economical and if it’s best to use multiple carriers. Most importantly, when it comes to packing up your goodies and shipping out your subscription box, keeping everything protected and beautiful (not to mention eco-friendly) goes a long way in customer retention. The truth is that when you’re starting out, you’re building your reputation one box at a time.
Thankfully, we have a library of comprehensive and easy-to-digest resources to help you find the right solutions and make the best choices for your business. For answers to questions about shipping and fulfillment, check out our posts, 8 Hacks For Saving On Shipping Costs and Learn To Delegate: What It Means To Outsource Your eCommerce Fulfillment.
5 Tips To Keep Your Subscription Box Business Growing
- Create Referral Campaigns: Make the time-tested and powerful technique of word-of-mouth advertising work for you through a referral campaign. All you need to do is incentivize current subscribers to refer your box to their friends and family. Whether that’s through a bonus box or a few extra treats in their next shipment, those who successfully recruit friends and family to your brand deserve some celebration!
- Stellar Customer Service: Nothing creates a solid reputation better than stellar customer service. To be the best, it’s not just about answering inquiries or solving problems, it’s about being proactive and listening to your current customers. Send them an email and ask them how they like their box, make amends right away for any issues (even if they weren’t your fault), and generally bring a “service with a smile” approach. Turning a customer into a brand ambassador is the ultimate sign of customer loyalty, and providing excellent care is how you’ll accomplish it.
- Check Your Reports & Recognize Trends: Whatever eCommerce platform you go with, take advantage of any and all reporting and insights. Is there a certain geographical area that stands out? A peak time of year for sales growth? What is your “deadzone” in terms of new signups? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you target marketing and encourage growth through marketing when you need it most.
- Identify Opportunities & Always Be Closing: Knowing what your customers love most about your boxes and looking at your sales reports gives you key insights into what items to purchase for upcoming boxes and new opportunities for growth. Once you have established customers, consider offering related or additional products that you know they’ll get excited about (because you’ve done your research). Remember Dollar Shave Club’s expansion from just the humble razor to a full line of personal care products? You want that potential growth for your business, too! Whether that’s through expanding into a new niche, identifying a new under-served market, or just boosting your sales with your current subscribers, always be closing!
- Understand Cash Flow & Plan Ahead: Absolutely essential for any small business, including your subscription box company, is knowing your cash flow. You’ll need to figure out your cash flow so that you can make better decisions about your finances. To do this, you must understand how to create a cash flow statement, which breaks down your operating cash flow, cash flow of investments, financial activities, and net cash flow. We make this easier to understand and show you what tools can help in our post, How To Calculate & Analyze Business Cash Flow.
Are You Ready To Launch Your Subscription Box Company?
Launching a successful subscription box service requires some smart legwork, including researching your potential customers, curating irresistible products, buzz-building advertising, and structuring a plan of action. With the right eCommerce tools and a well-thought-out business plan, you can whittle down what feels like a giant, overwhelming project into something that’s more manageable.