Setting up in London #1 – Savannah Sachs, Birchbox
Originally published as the "GM Insights" series created for London & Partners.
James has been interviewing the leaders of US Tech firms in London to discover their play books, share their insights on how to build networks, approach new challenges, and ultimately launch and grow in London’s tech scene.
Birchbox pioneered beauty box subscriptions and offer a personalised way to discover and shop for beauty online. With this unique model Birchbox has grown quickly and now has over 1 million subscribers globally.
Birchbox’s vision was always to be a global company. Founded in the US in 2010, they accelerated their international capabilities via the acquisition of Paris-based beauty box company Joliebox in 2012. With the acquisition, Birchbox immediately had established teams on the ground in the UK, France and Spain, de-risking their international expansion plans.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Birchbox UK’s Managing Director, Savannah Sachs, to learn more about the company and her story.
How did you join Birchbox?
Birchbox co-founders Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barnard met and started Birchbox while at Harvard Business School. I also studied there and met both of them when Birchbox featured as a case study in one of my classes. So that’s how I learned about and became inspired by the Birchbox vision. I joined first as an intern between my first and second years of school and then full time after graduation to lead our international brand partnership strategy in our NYC HQ.
How did you become the UK General Manager?
I spent a year in our NYC HQ and then came over to London. Originally the relocation was temporary, but I fell in love with London, the team and the role, so decided to stay. My focus was and remains on driving profitable growth, and we were able to hit profitability within 6 months. Now the UK is the fastest growing market globally, so it’s exciting to see the momentum we’ve been able to build here.
As a regional leader, how do you work with HQ?
At the local level we have responsibility for long term vision, business strategy, ongoing operations, and the market P&L. In our model the local teams have a high degree of autonomy and run independently of each other to allow us to best meet the needs of local customers. This also allows us to test and experiment in parallel across the various regions. Engineering is the only centralised team, based in New York. I have a Product Manager in London who works with Engineering to deliver our local needs.
A great example of a regional experiment being adopted globally is the redesign of our mobile site. 65% of our traffic is mobile, so we have to be mobile first in everything we do. The new design was piloted in the US and is now being rolled out in the UK and Spain to decrease load time and improve responsiveness.
As a B2C company, acting local is vital I assume?
Absolutely. Our local teams decide on the right subscription and ecommerce assortments for that market, have local marketing and social channels, produce content in local language and all creative in-house, we handle local currencies of course, and have our support teams in each region to provide excellent customer service. Being close to the customer and our ability to be agile and adapt is critical to our success.
How have you developed the culture in the UK operation?
We have a global culture but each office has a distinct feel. Here in London our team is positive and fun, incredibly collaborative, results-focused and determined – we call ourselves the dream team!
Globally we have four leadership principles that span across offices; 1) Our goal is Win Win Win – if we do right for our customers and our brand partners, then that will be right for Birchbox 2) Our team is One Team – close collaboration is critical in everything that we do 3) Our people are Doers – taking ownership, raising the bar, and defaulting to action 4) Our process is Grounded Inspiration – being creative and innovative while always informed by hard data.
We also measure employee happiness in each office twice a year via a culture pulse survey so each local leadership team can celebrate cultural strengths and continually improve any areas that need more attention given their team’s experience and needs.
You also had the complexity of inheriting a local team. How did you tackle that?
I asked a lot of questions, listened, and avoided imposing my opinion too early on. I am the only American in the UK team, so I really recognised that the people working in the local market are the experts on what our customers want.
One of the most exciting challenges of being a GM is the diversity of responsibilities. How do you prioritise?
Staying laser focused on outcomes – return on investment and driving profitable growth. We have established a culture where everyone is empowered to take initiative, be creative and solve problems so we can quickly prioritise and re-prioritise as needed. People’s time is just as precious as money, so we celebrate when people make a process more efficient or say “no” to projects that are low impact.
Which one or two things really moved the needle for you?
Social Media. We have seen rapid growth from both our organic and paid social strategy. 50% of demand comes from organic word of mouth, so first and foremost we focus on creating a product customers will be proud to share in their social communities and with their friends. Facebook is our top paid acquisition channel, so we manage that in-house and really prioritise it as a growth driver.
Continual A/B Testing – We have a rockstar Product Manager, and we are constantly tweaking the customer journey on our site to optimise our conversion. We have been able to close the typical gap you see between desktop and mobile conversion such that mobile now drives 55% of revenue, and this has contributed to our 125% year-on-year revenue growth in the UK.
We hear a lot about the ‘tech community’ in London – what was your experience of landing in the middle of it and building your network?
Our Engineering team is based in New York, but I have grown my network locally in retail and tech through speaking and attending conferences like Millennial 20-20 and Retail Week Buzz. Meeting other speakers and attendees has helped enormously with my personal network.
Finally, what are your plans for the next 12 months?
We are focused on driving triple digit growth again this year. We are thrilled to be signing amazing new brand partners such as Bobbi Brown, Bumble and Bumble, and Origins. Other key strategic projects include the launch of the new mobile site and rolling out a click and collect service. I am so excited to see the team continue to deliver amazing results and have fun along the way!