It can seem rare when best friends team up, go into business together and build something successful. For Gabi Koshgarian and Catherine Wang, CEO's and Co-Founders of blankbox, this decision came naturally.
Pictured above, are Founders and CEOs, Gabi Koshgarian and Catherine Wang. (Photo Courtesy of blankbox)
They met their senior year of college and remained best friends beyond the walls of College of the Holy Cross. Having both worked in finance and living four blocks apart they figured there was nothing else to do besides getting in to business together. The pair, who specialize in “ready-to-Gift" gift boxes, are using blankbox to create an “elevated experience" for their customers, especially those who love gifting, are looking for something personal, customized and easy to buy. In three simple steps, one would choose a box design, select crinkle cut or tissue paper and wait on its arrival. Whether they want to celebrate the big or little things in life, Koshgarian and Wang hope to provide a resource for them to do so.
This six-month old company provides everything needed to send a “chic and customized gift" minus the gift, of course. These female co-founders sat down with SWAAY to share with us their journey into entrepreneurship, overall goal of blankbox and what they hope for in the future.
Behind the scenes of blankbox...
1. What was the inspiration behind the company's name?
We both love giving gifts, and will put in effort to make our gifts thoughtful. Unfortunately, that makes gifting somewhat of a hassle: toddler-style wrap jobs, “crap! the card!" last minute sprints, and uninspiring department store gift bags when we're really desperate. We wanted to bring a gifting experience to market that essentially solved all the hassles of gifting that we ourselves had experienced.
The name blankbox actually came to one of us in the middle of the night. Not kidding! We had been trying to find a name that captured the essence of our box, which can be used for any occasion from traditional holidays to the little things: “will you be my bridesmaid?", “congrats on your promotion", etc. We kept saying to ourselves, okay it's a ________ box' and filling in the blank, so it finally hit us: blankbox!
2. You explain how you'd both been searching for a better gifting experience prior to launching this company. How does your brand differ from other gifting services? What do other companies lack, that blankbox offers?
Before blankbox, if you wanted to give a gift you had a few options: traditional gift wrap, company branded wrap (think department store gift box), or a pre-curated gift box.
With traditional gift wrap, you get to thoughtfully choose the gifts, but then struggle with creating an elevated presentation and the inconvenience of going out to buy the wrapping supplies (does anyone actually know how to wrap well besides my mother? Also, once you become a mother do you magically gain the skills to wrap? Need to know).
With packaging, like a department store gift bag, you again get to choose the gifts but are limited to that one retailer. Giving a box [that is] branded with a company name doesn't exactly scream personal. Lastly, you have numerous companies offering pre-curated gift boxes that offer the opposite experience: elevated presentation and convenience, but lacking the personal and thoughtful gift choice.
That's where blankbox comes in.
We solve for what each of the above options lack by giving gifters the convenience and elevated presentation of a pre-curated gift box, but with the ability to personalize with any gift they'd like. We provide elevated packaging without 'in-your-face' company branding sent directly to your door. As our customer, all you do is add your gift [and] give! As a plus, with no visible branding on the box (it's on the bottom), they are meant to be kept or reused. To date, we've seen creative reuses like coffee table centerpieces, bookshelf decor, momento boxes, and of course re-gifting.
“blankbox is about so much more than the boxes" - blankbox
(Photo Courtesy of blankbox)
3. What was your journey into entrepreneurship like as best friends? Especially when you were bringing blankbox to life?
You know it's funny; we all hear these warnings about working with or employing friends and family members because feelings can get hurt if it doesn't work out. [Though], for us it's been a great experience, really fun and has made us closer [as] friends.
We have the ability to separate blankbox conversations from friend conversations. We're both very direct people in general, so when either one of us is being tough or pushing back at the other because we disagree on a business decision, it's understood that it's not personal. We've approached things differently several times, but there have been very few times where both of us feel strongly about the same thing.
If we could give one piece of advice to close friends thinking about starting a business together, it would be to make sure you “work the same way". By this I mean, you may have different skill sets to bring to the table, but you both need to have a similar work personality for it to work.
For us, we are both organized and get things done quickly. So, it's never the case where one person doesn't do something they say they would do or where one has to chase the other. This is absolutely key to maintaining our friendship and business relationship without issue.
4. You have a newsletter called, 'the fill.' How does 'the fill' carry out your company's mission and add on to the overall experience?
So excited you noticed! This is a very recent addition to blankbox and we're really excited about it. The point of “the fill' is to be for content what our boxes are for gifting. We want to create elevated content that is actually meaningful to our reader base, gets people excited and relates to their lives.
As blankbox has grown, it's become about so much more than the boxes themselves; people want to hear our story and our experience in the female founder community, and we are consistently asked for advice on what gifts to include in a blankbox (hint: it fits a bottle of wine. just saying). We figured “the fill" was a great place to start with.
For now, we're keeping it short and sweet with a once-per-month release, including founder features, tailored gift guides and behind the scenes blankbox action. We'd love to hear any ideas you or anyone else has about content to include!
'The fill' will contain monthly gift guides. Each [one] will be curated by us, with a fun twist on a holiday happening that month. Any gift on this gift guide will be brands and founders we love and have experienced enough to recommend, and will not be sponsored content. Our website will allow customers to click through to purchase on each brand's site.
Stay tuned for more exciting gift related things in the coming months!
5. What would you say keeps you motivated each day when it comes to running your business and why?
We're constantly networking and meeting new people as part of growing our brand; with that, obviously, comes explaining what blankbox is and who we are over and over! There is NO feeling in the world better than explaining what blankbox is and seeing someone's eyes light up, or hearing them say “Oh my god. That makes so much sense. I needed this…" We have heard “I needed this..." more times than we can count, and it's even more exciting when they become a customer!
We'd be lying if we said every single thing we do for blankbox is fun and exciting; there are definitely more arduous tasks (have you ever cut a massive roll of bubble wrap into the same size pieces for 2 straight hours? Not fun. [And] don't even get us started on taxes). So there are definitely nights we'd so much rather swan dive into bed than do work, but remembering that at the end of the day, we have a product that people understand and that excites them - that validates the work we're doing.
6. Did you face any challenges that almost deterred you from continuing with this business? Do you have any advice that you'd like to share for new entrepreneurs and female founders?
I would say the biggest challenge at first was not knowing how to do some of the things we needed to do: namely, designing the boxes and building our website (on a self-funded budget). We are incredibly lucky to have our designer Madeline, who is not only super talented but one of Gabi's best friends! We must have gone through thousands of designs before finalizing our [three] to launch with, so without Madeline there's no way we could have made this a reality. Same goes for our website designer Sami. He was able to visualize what we wanted, and create it without getting distracted by us constantly barking changes in his ear. Right before launch, we decided we wanted to launch with optional handwritten gift tags, as this would make the packaging even more personal - the only problem was, neither of us can calligraphy. One long social media stalk session later, and we found Brittany, a talent-turned-friend that is indispensable to our product!
Along these lines, there are always going to be skills you don't have going into entrepreneurship. In more traditional jobs, it's okay to get segmented into one skill set or another – as an entrepreneur, you're everything at once. Some of our best advice is to not panic about things you can't do. Look around at your network – friends, family, colleagues, etc. More times than not, there is someone in your inner circle who can teach you what you don't know, or help you get it done. And don't be afraid to ask. Whether it's finance, graphic design, social media, or anything else, there is always someone who knows more than you and will help you if you ask. And if not, Google is your best friend. It's definitely ours!
(Photo Courtesy of blankbox)
7. What do you hope to accomplish with blankbox in the years ahead?
We launched with [three] designs and one size to test the market - in the coming years we would love to grow our collection into more designs and more sizes! We're also exploring design collaboration ideas and would love to collaborate with NYC-based artists, designers, and/or women we admire to create limited edition collections.
On a bigger picture scale, we're so excited to continue expanding blankbox's market share and do our part to preserve the thoughtfulness and personal touch behind gifting, even as everything around us becomes less interpersonal (seamless pizza to our apartment 2 blocks away...check!)
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."