The evolution of a subscription service model

I’ve been watching NYC-based Birchbox for a while now: it’s a company founded by 2 smart ladies, and their CTO is Liz Crawford – which is pretty damn cool. But more that that, it’s the business itself that’s fascinating to me: a monthly subscription that sends you a neat box with luxury beauty samples and other sweet deals (like discount coupons to great brands) for an affordable $10/month. A service that actually makes a lot of sense. Their recent acquisition of a similar French service shows that it’s growing and has a lot of potential.


*Image from subscriptionboxes.com, not the actual September package I got

I am so far from your typical makeup junkie: to me the simpler the better, so I use just a few tried-and-true options (Estee lauder foundation, mascara, blush and a Clinique chubby stick). However, I’m always curious to see what my friends use, and if there’s anything that’s cool beyond Allure magazine’s top picks (some of them are just plain silly like Britney Spears fragrance – would anyone over 21 really use it?). Plus I was really intrigued to find out that there is a huge YouTube following of Birchbox, and as a result, it created some celebrities who are reviewers of monthly birchboxes. I had to try it for myself and see what it was all about.

So the first one arrived a couple of weeks ago, in this nice minimalistic packaging. The goodies inside the box included a nail polish (got lots of compliments on the color), awesome argan oil (love the scent), BB cream sample tube (pretty good), a couple of small items that I would use and forget (hair elastic and some weird colorful ziploc bag), and a $25 off coupon for Madewell. The verdict: B+, not bad at all! I already made use of everything (except the ziploc) and was pretty happy with quality and selection. More than that, I was so sure that the quality of stuff would be good, that I also sent another box as a gift to a friend. She didn’t get hers yet, but we were excited about trying stuff together and comparing results.

Looking at other subscription services that exist (and some perished), let’s try to understand what makes one a real success?

  • Magazines
    Probably the oldest service that is still widely used (despite predictions that no one will be subscribing), moving to digital from paper format. Why people like it: consistent delivery of curated content, news on a regular basis. The variety of publication allows consumers to subscribe to those that cater to their interests and hobbies

  • Netflix (and other online video subscriptions, like Hulu)
    Again, convenient delivery of content, with large selection of movies and shows. What I feel is lacking on both is curation of content. It might be hard to cater to all, as some like popular sitcoms and some brainy documentaries. This, however, can be easily addressed with a good recommendation engine that analyses content you liked in the past (exists on Netflix, not perfect)

  • Beer-of-the-month (and other food-item-of-the-month types)
    I think it’s a hard one to pull off. Why? Because after a certain point, it hits a plateue, as your shipments become predictable and less exciting or novel. Beer is beer, in January or October (well, perhaps, stronger in Oktober). It’s always good, but can’t really surprise me much with it.

  • Amazon’s Subscribe and Save
    Convenience, convenience, convenience. Those lucky NYC dwellers who live in buildings with a doorman enjoy the benefits of Amazon Prime and will never run mundance shopping chores again (soap, toothpaste, diapers and such). Not very exciting, but very practical. Wonder if it’s as popular outside of large metro areas. Do people in suburbs enjoy shopping for soap at Walmart?

  • Bluum
    It’s birchbox for moms. Good quality baby stuff sent to your door. Convenient and helpful in navigating new unfamiliar shopping area – baby stuff. Another cool factor – it could adjust to mom’s needs as her kid grows up, and send new items appropriate for kid’s age, staying relevant and useful.

  • Jack White’s fan vault
    Sean is a big fan, and he has a subscription to this very exclusive club. Every so often they will send some interesting items, like rare recordings, posters, tshirts and such. They also give fans early access to concert tickets. This is obviously not for everyone, but it’s really targeted to biggest fans of the artist.

So looks like the “it” factors for subscription services are:

  • Convenience
  • High-value curated content
  • Focusing on your target group and tailoring content to recipients (Madewell coupon was a good one, and shows the knowledge of preferred stores of my demo group)
  • Consistency in delivering satisfaction – keep surprising and delighting
  • Affordable price: you want your subscribers to feel like they get their money worth, plus get some extra goodness
  • Bonus point: packaging. Don’t underestimate the first impression. I now pay lots of attention on my gift wrapping, because great presentation makes even a simple gift seem so much more valuable.

And looks like Birchbox got it all right. I can see it becoming even better as it “learns” what products you liked best and tailoring boxes based on your preferences. Will it continue to grow into something that becomes a new model for a successful subscription service? I’d like to think so.

What other products or services will make a great candidate for a regular subscription?

Let Jack be Jack (White)

Just got back from a Jack White concert (Sean’s a fan and we go to every show). It was a very memorable concert indeed. Partly because it’s Jack White (and he’s pretty brilliant), but mostly because of the outrage that has shaken the Radio City crowd because he did not come out for an encore set.

Let’s talk about expectations. 99% of people who came to see the concert came with an expectation that it was going to be a pretty standard thing: an opening act, then half hour break/setup, then the main headlining act, 10 minute break, an encore. And the fact that their expectations were not met caused massive disappointment, booing, tweets like “I’m going to delete all your music from itunes”, and forum flame wars.

Now, everyone came to the show because they like the performer. I think we’d all agree with that statement. Then, everyone should have enjoyed an hour long set from the said performer. Correct? Why then, after being supposedly robbed of another 15–20 minutes of additional singing, everyone is suddenly angry, outraged, disappointed and depressed. Are you people kidding me???

If you are a true fan, you would have enjoyed that full hour (which was a good show), then after learning that it was over (for whatever reason), went home and chilled. Some might say that ticket prices were high and after paying $80+ for it, they expected a lot more. Then my question is – if you really like the artist, and bought the ticket for that price, wouldn’t you just be glad to give that money as a reward for the art? (I agree that scalping is a big ugly issue with ticket buying, but that’s a separate topic). And also, if you appreciate art/music, you would try and understand that it’s hard for people to be “on” all the time. It did seem that the energy was slightly off today, as Jack shouted something about people being quiet and eating popcorn and taking photos when they were asked not to do it.

I am not really writing this as a defense argument, more of an observation of your average person with high expectations. It’s easy to whine and complain and throw an angry cry into Twitter and “boo” when you’re a part of a crowd. How about you go home and make art and create your own following, and then deliver your best performance every single time you’re on stage? I bet it’s not going to be as easy.

Movie about sheep in Kazakhstan: Tulpan

Speaking of sheep today… I just remembered a great film where flocks of sheep play an important part in one man’s life.

The film is called Tulpan, it’s about my home country, Kazakhstan. It is beautifully made and well worth seeing:

  • Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival*
  • Kazakhstan’s 2009 Academy Awards official submission for the Foreign-Language Film category
  • Winner, Best Feature Film, at the 2008 Montreal Festival of New Cinema

*Source: Wikipedia

A fun fact: my aunt actually went to school with the director of this movie! How cool is that?

Sheep in the park

Did you know there were sheep in Bryant park yesterday? Sorry, should have put this note up yesterday, so you could at least go look at them.

They were merino sheep:

*Images from nydailynews.com

I really liked the fact that the sheep were there to promote buying of sweaters, so I bought this sweater from Madewell:

Today it’s raining in NYC, so I asked Sean if the sheep were still there.

Me: i reckon the sheeps are not there today?

Sean:
don’t believe so
they’d be soggy

Me:
yea
you’d have to wring them
provide galoshes
and ponchoes…

And at that point I had to google “sheep in poncho” and look what I found:

How can I get this awesome thing? So I can look happy and content even in the rain:

Mongoexport error: “too many positional options”

Had a quick task where I needed to export results of a mongo query into a CSV file.

Mongoexport command comes in very handy in this case.

I constructed my query:

mongoexport -h myhost.mongolab.com:PORT -d mydb -u myusername -p mypassword 
-c coll_name -q {tag:/mytagname/,count:{$gte:10}} -f tag,tag_date,count 
--csv -o test.csv

And when I ran it, got this error “too many positional options”

Some google groups suggest that you need to remove the space between -p and password, but it was actually fixed in the latest version.

The problem was caused by the lack quotes around my query – they need to be there. So the correct one looks like this:

mongoexport -h myhost.mongolab.com:PORT -d mydb -u myusername -p mypassword
-c coll_name -q '{tag:/mytagname/,count:{$gte:10}}' -f tag,tag_date,count 
--csv -o test.csv

Also, “-f” values (for field names) need to be comma-separated, no spaces.

Born in USSR

Thereâ??s was internet or phone connection in the office this morning. And while most of people around are whining that they are bored, I was thankful for this unscheduled break, because it let me take this time, open up Byword and write.

Iâ??ve been writing less this past week because I got sucked into watching this fascinating documentary series called â??Born in USSRâ?. The concept is based on the â??Up seriesâ? created by a British filmmaker. The idea is very cool – a group of people of the same age are filmed first when they are 7 year old children, then as teenagers at 14, then as young adults at 21 and 28. The British version goes on and on, every 7 years, up to age 56 so far. The one about kids born in USSR started in 1990 and is up to age 28 as of now.

There are several things that make this documentary series so gripping and amazing.

First, the kids are all different, boys, girls, twins, from different socio-economic backgrounds spread across the huge country that is former USSR. A few of them donâ??t even speak Russian as their first language when they are kids.

Second, just the fact that they are kids at age 7. As someone said, if you want to know the truth – ask a child. They are at this wonder age, when they are able to understand things in their own way, and communicate and interpret their worldviews in the most sincere and open way.

The kids are asked different questions, and itâ??s fascinating to see their honesty in giving answers, and how different they are. I donâ??t want to spoil the film for you, so youâ??ll have to watch and see for yourself. Knowing that youâ??ll be able to see these kids at 14 and 21, makes you wonder about their future, and you almost want and try and predict who they will become.

And lastly, it also happens so that the kids are around my age, and watching the series made me relate to them even more, as I, too, was born in USSR, in one of the former Soviet republics, and lived through the same events that shaped, or I should say destroyed, our country. Our generation lived through a very turbulent, but very interesting time, and we were young enough, AND old enough, to understand and process what was going on.

I am so infatuated with this film, that I want to tell everyone to watch it. Here are a few links for videos available online:

  • Age 7, part 1
  • Age 7, part 2
  • Age 7, part 3
  • I talked about it with Sean, and he had an interesting perspective on this. While he loves the idea of capturing life on film as it happens, he also said that watching this would make him incredibly sad. Of course I asked – why? Because the kids grow up, and their innocence and childlike wonder-view of the world is lost, and they get thrown into harsh realities of life and mundane daily struggles. Part of me agrees, because thereâ??s nothing like childhood, and a sense of wonder and openness and curiosity that lives in every kid. But part of me is also optimistic, because despite all of insanity that was former and broken USSR, the kids grew up and are alright. This also made me realize, once again, how lucky I was being born in Kazakhstan, into my amazing family, that was always together and still together.

    Mobile: responsive, adaptive or optimized?

    This is a question that we hear a lot lately: will my new website be mobile-optimized?

    And before answering this question, letâ??s make sure all parties mean the same thing when they ask for â??mobile-optimizedâ?.

    Hereâ??s how we at 360i define it:

    Websites can be mobile-friendly and mobile-optimized.

    Mobile-friently vs mobile-optimized

    A mobile-friendly website is the SAME website that you see on a desktop browser or a mobile browser. Nothing in the layout of the site changes, but all content is viewable on mobile. So your users browsing from smartphones can still read and access all of your content. Most websites can be called mobile-friendly, except for sites built with Flash – they will not show on iPhone Safari browsers.

    Generally, there is not much additional work in this case, just follow best practices when youâ??re building a mobile-friendly site:

    • use descriptive, semantic markup (appropriate header tags for headers, donâ??t include text as part of images)
    • minimize image file sizes for slower mobile connection
    • avoid Flash and advanced JavaScript/CSS animations

    A mobile-optimized website provides a DIFFERENT experience when viewed in a mobile browser. The reason for this is to address the smaller screen size and provide the best user experience to your visitors who are on mobile devices.

    Responsive vs adaptive design

    There are two ways you can create a mobile-optimized experience:

    1) Responsive website
    Responsive design is a SINGLE FLUID design for all devices and screen sizes. Your page elements can be re-arrranged based on the screen size, but they are still same elements.

    Example: forgottenpresidents.com

    This is usually done with use of media quieries in CSS, and looks like this (very simplified example):

    /* --------------- Tablet ------------- */
    
    @media only screen and (max-width: 1024px) {
         /* your styles for tablet here */
     }
    
    /* ------------- Smartphone ------------- */
    
    @media only screen and (max-width: 480px) {
        /* your styles for smartphone here */ 
     }
    

    2) Adaptive website
    Adaptive websites present users with DIFFERENT designs, depending on the device and screen size.

    This is accomplished by detecting the device (by checking the User-Agent header), which can be done either in JavaScript or server side. Hereâ??s a good site with script snippets for mobile browser detection.

    Usually, once a mobile browser is detected, the site redirects to a mobile version.

    Example: amazon.com

    Obviously, creating a mobile-optimized website (responsive or adaptive) would require more work, because you would have to either create a design that scales fluidly (for responsive sites), or create multiple design versions (for adaptive sites).

    Here are some additional resources that help you understand these concepts: