In this episode, Julie Ball is going to walk us through how she created and scaled a successful subscription box business just for female entrepreneurs.
Julie talks about her Shark Tank audition experience and how being a Shark Tank reject actually helped her reach more people with her business.
We also talk about progress over perfection and how it can be life changing from the very beginning.
Some resources mentioned in this episode:
- You Are a Bad Ass at Making Money
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad
- Sparkle Hustle Grow
- Business Boutique
- Pitch, Publicity, Profit Media Class
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Successful Female Entrepreneurs: What We Need
I want to hear about how you started and how you grew, but first let’s talk about what you do It’s called Sparkle Hustle Grow, which has an amazing name and has the cutest branding and colors. I love it.
And let me tell you how I actually found out about Sparkle Hustle Grow. I am friends with Amy Landino, who is a YouTuber. She was in episode four of the podcast talking about using YouTube to grow your business and she has a book that was in your box and she shared it and I was like, ‘Whoa, Whoa, what is this box?’
Subscription Box for Female Entrepreneurs
Yes. We actually had her in a box the summer that was themed around video marketing, so just to give you your listeners some context of what the box is… It is a monthly subscription box and online community for female entrepreneurs, so every box is going to be based around a theme that’s going to help you with your business growth.
So, we include a book every month. We include access to an online training every month and then four to six items like chic office supplies, tech gadgets, stationary pens, that type of thing.
What makes us a little bit different than some of the other just typical subscription boxes of stuff is that we are super invested in personal development and just growing our knowledge base of how we run our business and then growing that community together. And so yeah, we included Amy’s book and it was a huge hit because it’s got massive amounts of great training for video blogging and just video marketing in general.
Starting a Subscription Box for Female Entrepreneurs
Back in 2011, I launched my first business called Grow Web Marketing. It was an all-female website design and development service. So, I had just left corporate America and um, I had my, my daughter McKenna, who is now seven, and I just had this mindset shift. I wanted to do my own thing.
So fast forward six years into running that business, it was very successful. We loved working with all these women entrepreneurs, but I was just getting a little bit lonely behind the screen and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was going on. I just know that I thrive in community and I didn’t feel like I had that.
I started looking for these communities online. I was finding a lot of Facebook groups and in particular, I found the Boss Mom group, which is another reason, another way, you and I got connected pretty much.
Um, so fast forward again to this moment in my career in my entrepreneurial career where I was just like, okay, ‘I’m getting bored behind the screen. I need to find something else that is going to fulfill this dichotomy, is going to create an income’. And so one, just by chance one day I was thinking about these subscription boxes because I subscribed to several subscription boxes.
I just love getting happy mail and it’s super fun because it’s this product discovery and it’s surprises. I love Stitch Fix and several others. So I, I looked around on CrateJoy. CrateJoy is this marketplace of subscription boxes. Think of like Etsy, but for subscription boxes and I’m looking for something that’s serving female entrepreneurs and I’m not really finding anything other than boxes for like self-care where there are bath bombs or sleep masks and lotions, things like that.
The Idea for Sparkle Hustle Grow
So that’s where the idea was born. I thought to myself if I put some items, some items in a box that serves the same audience that I’m already serving, this might be a good idea. I’m not sure yet, but it might be a good idea, so I literally looked back through my own finances as a woman business owner to see what I was spending my money on and I saw books, lots and lots of books, lots of online trainings probably, you know, half of which I didn’t make them all the way through because that’s what happens. And office supplies.
I’m one of those people that like to buy pretty pink bins or sparkly inspirational prints for my office. I do. I need something that’s going to inspire me. So I decided to put those three things into those three categories of items into the box, started asking colleagues about it and did a prelaunch and was able to sell.
Pre-Selling a Subscription Box for Female Entrepreneurs
I think I sold 42 in my presale, which gave me enough confidence and startup capital to really dive in and launch it as a real business.
Okay, let’s go into that. How did you prelaunch? Who did you prelaunch to? Yeah, so I pre-launched – it took me about six weeks to prelaunch where I created a one-page website, which was my landing page in exchange for giving me your email address.
You were entering to win a one-year subscription, which was a pretty big prize in hindsight. I probably didn’t need to make that large, but I wanted to, you know, go in with a bang, you know what I mean?
So I started creating my social media channels. I started talking about it genuinely in Facebook groups that had my ideal target audience because I am my target audience too. So it felt very genuine. When I would talk to people about it, I would ask my email list and my social media followers what they wanted to see in the box. They could, you know, make suggestions of books or make suggestions of items.
I would post a picture, for example, of two different items and I’d say this or that, make your vote and that type of thing… and really involving them in the decision-making process – got them emotionally invested in my business and they were primed to buy when I finally opened up that presale cart and the presale was literally just a one week sale to my followers, only to my email subscribers and it gave them first dibs.
And so that’s how I launched and that was two years ago. This month in October 2016 is when we sent our first boxes.
Driving Traffic to Presell
Now creating the landing page – once it was created, how did you drive traffic to it?
I barely used any Facebook ads. I used a few but mostly through those Facebook groups that I was part of.
I was a part of the Boss Moms group and a few others that, um, that was local and at the time that was what was driving the traffic when, because it was new. It was a new concept too. So people were really excited about it.
And it’s so funny because you know, I flashed all these pictures of beautiful office supplies or cool tech gadgets and what we found was that people joined for the stuff, but then they stick around for the community.
Building a Community of Female Entrepreneurs
So a couple months in I started putting a lot more effort into building this community around the box where we could discuss the books together as a book study. We could talk about the online trainings and they could weigh in on business decisions and that’s when it really started taking off. And that was the right around month four, I launched a referral program and really dove into building my own online community rather than relying on other communities.
And that’s when the snowball effect really came into play. And that coincidentally was the same month that I went to the first Boss Mom retreat. And I truly believed that going to in-person events and getting that face time with people. Not only your colleagues in your online friends but also your target audience are so crucial for the future success of your business.
Meeting Other Female Entrepreneurs at Events
I could not agree more and I didn’t just start going to events until I hired my first business coach, which actually came out of an event. The first event I went to was with against somebody who does something very similar to what I do. Lisa Simone Richards. I interview her in episode seven about turning PR into publicity and she said, ‘oh my business coach, her business coach is having an event in Orlando, why don’t you meet me there because she was from Canada and I’m in South Florida and I ended up hiring that person as a coach and I have gone to countless events.’
You and I first met in person at the Boss Mom retreat just this fall and I could not agree more that you definitely have to get in front of people and talk to people and you learn from them as well. I mean, you can go in thinking, ‘oh, I’m here to promote my business and you know, promote my stuff’, but you actually meet some pretty cool people that you, you want to be friends with and you actually start working together, which is awesome.
What was it about that event and other events that you think helped you build Sparkle, Hustle, Grow a little bit more?
I think a lot of it has to do with visibility. You have to show up to be seen, so when you’re out there and you’re talking to people in real life, they just get more emotionally invested in you.
I’m a really good listener in those types of environment, so I just pulled so much information from these women, like I would ask them a lot of questions and actually listen to what they were saying and then pivot my business based off of these trends that I was hearing.
Many of us run online businesses and it really removes that personal factor from it. Just getting that in-person time to actually hug someone to or to shake their hand or to support them and allow others to support you. I think that’s what it comes down to and those people that I met at that first event became subscribers, became supporters. They became guest experts where I brought them in and they were showcased for their talents and you know, I’ve purchased books off of so many of them, so I think building that in-person relationship can.
Getting in a Subscription Box as a Brand
What if you already are a successful female entrepreneur and you want to get in the box to get more visibility?
We’re always looking for new books, new trainings to feature and we have a website, SparkleHustleGrow.com. We have a form. If you go to the footer, you can submit your product or your course there and what I would suggest is for people to reach out directly to me, I’m on social media or you can follow Sparkle Hustle Grow on Facebook or Instagram and message us through the channels.
Building the relationship is the best way to do it. The people that just send us an email and say, ‘hey, I just found out about you. Can I put my x-y-z in your box?’ And it that’s, there’s nothing warm about that.
I really valued building those relationships and I believe in making collaboration’s a win-win. So if I’m going to include your book, how are you going to promote it to your audience as well? So you’ve got to make it a win/win no matter what. And that’s, that’s what I aim for with all of my collaborations.
It’s like the same thing as pitching the media, like don’t just reach out and only think about what’s in it for you, but how is it going to be a win/win.
Starting a Subscription Box Business
I’m in the service-based business, so that’s an easy thing to start. I just use my time and expertise, but when you’re in the product based business, you have like stuff and there are more expenses and in my mind, it’s a little scarier.
When I started Sparkle Hustle Grow, it was completely a side hustle and I was still using my web firm as my full-time income and I really didn’t have a budget to start Sparkle Hustle Grow.
I used my credit card to register the business and to buy my domain name and the way that you can fund a product based business, specifically a subscription box business, and you have to remember a subscription box business, for the most part, is very cyclical.
So for me, I batch ship all of my subscriber’s boxes one day of every month and then the rest of the days of the month they can. They’re either buying the current box or the next box.
So to get that upfront capital that I needed to buy my custom boxes to buy the first month products, that’s where that presale came into play. They, the people who purchased my box in that presale, we’re going to wait between 45 and 60 days to get their first product. Kind of like a Kickstarter.
Funding a Subscription Box Business
You know when you do a Kickstarter, you are preselling everything and the people know the backers. No, they’re not going to get their product until you actually launched, which might be 60 days, 90 days. So when I did that presale, they knew they were going to be waiting a little bit longer to get their product, but they were getting a better deal. They were getting a special product for being one of the founding members and through those 40 some sales I was able to generate about $1,500 in revenue before I even launched to the public.
And then I use that money to buy those products to order those custom boxes. And then while those founding members, those presale orders were waiting, I sent a handwritten card and a $5 Starbucks card saying, ‘while you’re waiting for your box, here’s coffee on me. Thank you so much for your support’. And that ended up being on social media everywhere. So that started growing my following and that was kind of like where the referrals started coming in because a lot of people don’t treat their business like that anymore on that personal level.
So that’s the way I funded my business and that’s how I coach other subscription box owners or aspiring subscription box owners to launch their business because so many of them are in the state or in the same place that you don’t have a budget to launch. I recommend a presale.
Investing in Your Subscription Box Business
I work with people who aren’t making any money and they’re so afraid to spend money because they’re not making any money. And I tell them that’s a sign you need to spend money – you need to pay for the knowledge, for the service, for the product. You need to spend money to get started sometimes.
So how hard was that for you? I know when I started with my first business coach, I put $15,000 on a credit card because I didn’t have it laying around. It’s not easy. It is scary. How did you move past that and since you are also helping other people start their own subscription boxes, how do you help them move past that fear of really getting started in investing?
I love that question because for the first six months I’d never really thought about it.
I just kept pushing forward because I knew I wanted to do it and I felt encouraged. I was scared but I was just doing it scared.
So I worked at mine. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to do it scared. It is scary. So.
But at one point when the money was getting a little bit larger as far as my investments in the boxes and the products, that type and the advertising, I realized I needed to do some money mindset work and it all started for me with Jen Cinsero’s book. You are a Bad Ass at Making Money. And anytime I got scared or anytime I felt that I was feeling down about it, I have it on audiobook and I have a copy of it and I’ll just, you know, just this morning I put a little bit of it on, um, on the audiobook while I was taking my shower just because it helps me get my mindset right.
I went through some exercises through some money kind of training. And just putting that time and effort into that mindset made a huge difference for me. I got past the fear. It still creeps up on me, don’t get me wrong. So that’s when I have to go back and redo some of that training.
But in the cycle that I run with the subscription box, I go into each month in debt because I’ve purchased those products 30, 60, sometimes even 90 days out before I even get a penny from my customers. And so it was crucial for me to, to get comfortable with that cycle, but also just to not fear to spend money to make money.
Books to Help With Your Money Mindset
I love that. And you, you talk about you’re a Bad Ass at Making Money. I really liked Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
Yes. My husband just bought that book. Actually, I need to dive into it.
That is another great book because you really have to deal with money mindset, not just when you’re starting a business, but like you just said, like all through it, because there is going to be a point in your business where you need to spend money to make money and it doesn’t always have to be that way, but especially when it comes to scaling, whether spending money is paying people on your team, buying more product, whatever it is. So, I’m glad you mentioned that in those two books.
A Shark Tank Fail… That Turned into a Win
I also want to talk about a fun experience for you and how you also grew a little bit just by taking people a little behind the scenes when you tried out for Shark Tank and how your Shark Tank fail was actually a win disguise.
For some reason, people just resonate when I tell them I’m a Shark Tank reject. They just love it.
So last year I tried out for Shark Tank at an open casting call in Charlotte, North Carolina and I waited in line about seven and a half hours in, on the concrete in downtown Charlotte in the Carolina sun for just about two and a half minutes with an associate producer.
And it was just emotionally exhausting and it was exhilarating at the same time because what I was doing was taking that opportunity to give people a behind the scenes look, you know. I took pictures of the big, long lines and I took pictures of me waiting and meeting new friends and you know, highlighting other people’s ideas on my social media. And while I made it to round two, I didn’t get past there. I didn’t actually make it on the show.
I was able to get people interested because I was a local gal running a small town business that was going for it.
I think people like to see other people step out of their comfort zone and you get to follow along. They just loved that.
And then what I did was while that was happening, I reached out to the local TV affiliate that aired Shark Tank and told them, ‘hey guys, I’m right down the road. And I just tried out for Shark Tank. I can’t tell you if I made it or not because I signed my life away on a contract, but I’m allowed to talk about that’.
You know that makes me so proud that you did that!
I honestly, I did not have a relationship with this TV station prior to this. I got on their website. I found the correct email to send it to and I wrote a fun email about my Shark Tank experience so far. And then I let them know that I was available to talk about it. They showed up. They said literally, can we come to your house today? I was so not prepared.
After I got off the phone and agreed to them coming to my home office, which was in my sunroom, it was not this fancy office. Um, I had to get my husband. I’m like, clean the house. I got a shower. They’re coming in three hours. And it was great and it’s so fun because um, the, the story aired that next day and I was able to share that then with my email list and I was able to promote that on my social media and it gave me almost this little bit of street cred that I didn’t have prior to and it just.
It gave me more visibility and it was easy.
It’s so much easier than people think and people think they need to have this big brand and they need to be making money to get media coverage. And really, you just had a cool story, like, we’ve all heard of Shark Tank, but we don’t know the process of it. And you did and you talked about it and you were a local person. You weren’t somebody who traveled hours to be there. So that’s pretty cool.
And if they ever wanted to do a followup, you would just call them. You would say, ‘hey, you already know me. You already did this story. Let’s do a follow up’. They would be much more interested.
Absolutely. And it’s so funny because still to this day, I mean it’s, it’s been a year, year and a half, and I still have people randomly reach out to me, say, ‘Hey, are you allowed to target talk about Shark Tank yet?’
I’m like, ‘yeah, I didn’t make it, but this is what happened’. And so people remember that type of thing.
Learning How to Start a Subscription Box Business
If people are on the fence about making a product or even a subscription box, let’s go there because subscription boxes are very trendy, they’re very popular and you actually help people start a subscription box business. So just give us a couple of tips, a couple of strategies on what they need to do to get started with a subscription box business.
Know Your Market
I coach others in SubscriptionBoxBootcamp.com and some of the things that I hear myself saying over and over again is – you need to know your market. It is a very saturated market, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for more.
What I mean by that is you just got to niche down, so I’ll give you a quick example. If you want to do a subscription box for coffee and tea, there are hundreds of those types of subscription boxes, but if you just niche down and say that your coffee and tea subscription boxes for new moms or it’s for teachers or a very specific audience, that is where you’re going to find success and where you can start your research.
The best place to start is either Google or CrateJoy. CrateJoy.com is that marketplace of subscription boxes so you can see what already exists and where there might be gaps in the marketplace. So that’s what I tell everyone to start searching there to kind of get a feel for the landscape.
Make Your Box More Unique
And then what I tell my coaching students is if you have an idea and it’s already been done, that’s okay. Just make yours unique. Go to your competitor’s listings or their websites, read their reviews, see what people love to see, what people didn’t love about that, and then make yours even better. Make it unique and solve their problems.
So those are some of the things that I tell them upfront. And then to start, one of the most important things again is to. You have to create that landing page so you can build your email list because if Facebook goes down tomorrow, you still have your email list and you still have a group of people that are emotionally invested in your product, they’re primed to buy and they’re yours.
And so building that email list is so super important before you launch your product. And then once it’s launched, you continue to nurture it. Just like with if you’re a service based provider. I would be saying the same things that you need to have an email list and you need to nurture them.
So those are some of the topics that we talk about in prelaunch in the boot camp, but we dive much farther into them.
Pros and Cons of Running a Subscription Box Business
PRO: Product Curation
What is the favorite part of running a subscription box business?
My favorite part is the product curation. So part of receiving a subscription box in most cases is product discovery. You are going to be exposed to products that you might not find locally, you might not even find online or that are brand new products. And so I think it is not only the most fun but the most time-consuming part of my job but is reaching out to those vendors, finding my guest experts.
I’m researching new books I’m reading, I usually I’m reading between three and four books at any given time, just vetting them for future boxes and what’s the most fun is when that vendor or that author wants to get involved and activate the feature on their end as well. And so that’s where my marketing brain just gets super excited about like where we can take this and what kind of giveaway we can do and what kind of value we can bring to our collective audience. I love that.
CON: Money Mindset
Now tell me what the worst part is.
I think the worst part is that money mindset. As I mentioned before, at this level I have around 1,300 subscribers at this point. To get that quantity of product in when I need it, I have to buy my product usually around 60 days out. Sometimes even 90, depending on where it’s coming from… and going into each month that much in the whole is very scary and again I had to do that money mindset work, but what’s fun with the way my business is run is everybody gets their boxes shipped on the same day, but everybody also renews their, their subscriptions on the same day, so on the 30th of each month renewals run. So then I know in my mind that on the 30th there’s good around the 31st or the first of the month there’s going to be money in the bank again.
And so I think that’s the worst part, but it’s just a matter of understanding and getting comfortable with it. That’s very cool. And then the box is to go month to month. It’s $39.95. And then as you buy more months at a time, you save a little bit. If you buy an annual subscription, you get an entire month for free and it is noncommittal. So if you want to skip a month you can cancel at any time.
Best Business Expense
So what I really, really think is neat and unique about Sparkle Hustle Grow is that it is truly a business expense so you can write it off. You’ve got to talk to your accountant about the right way to do that, but it’s office supplies, it’s online training, it’s books… and so we like to call it the best business expense ever.