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!)
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.