BaubleBar Brought to Life, and Other Tales of Joining a Start-up

It’s Tuesday afternoon, March 4th.  A lively group of HBS students passionate about retail entrepreneurship sit in Aldrich 108, waiting.  Then “ping!” – up pop Julia Straus (HBS ’11) and Katharine Hill (HBS ’12) who both work at BaubleBar, the growing one-stop retailer for affordable jewelry, on the big screen.  Our virtual conversation is live!

Julia Straus (HBS '11)
Julia Straus (HBS ’11)

Julia is the Director of Business Development at BaubleBar, and oversees the company’s global digital and offline partnerships.  Before HBS, Julia never worked in retail, but had lots of good finance experience.  Katharine is the Director of Offline at BaubleBar, after stints in retail and finance.  Both had good advice for HBS’ers looking to break into a retail start-up, and discussed the business of BaubleBar.

Katharine Hill (HBS '12)
Katharine Hill (HBS ’12)

Go in ready to roll our sleeves up, they said.  Katharine shared a funny memory of her first week.  One of her first projects was to create the company’s first shop – in the NY office.  Sure, she said, where are the drawings?  What phase of development are they in?  As she stood in this blank space of a room, the founders (Amy Jain and Daniella Yacobovsky, both HBS ‘10) explained, “that’s why you’re here!”

Words of advice for 1st year students without retail experience?  Julia encouraged them to get relevant summer experience, like her internship at New Balance.  She jumped on an e-commerce project there, and did related independent work during her 2nd year that definitely helped her sell herself to PopSugar Media, her first job post-HBS – where she managed the development, launch, and operations of their e-commerce business.

Also, be ready for a possible multi-step job process, Julia said.  Maybe you work in tech over the summer (think Yahoo, etc.) and then in your 2nd year, do independent e-commerce projects.  Whatever you do, it’s key to be both patient and passionate.  You’ll send out a lot of emails and have a lot of coffee chats.  As long as you really do your homework for every conversation, know the company, and bang on the door as many times as you need to – it will happen.  Julia shared the tale of one Bauble Bartender; this woman sent 14 emails.  They decided she was either crazy or they needed to hire her.   She got the job.

“What else should we think about, when looking at different start-ups?” 

Don’t be afraid to pitch a position, they said.  Offer to spend the summer exploring some specific need or project facing the start-up.  This advice dovetailed well with what we in Career & Professional Development hear from entrepreneurs all the time.  Don’t go in to an interview without a point of view on the start-up, and what you could specifically do to contribute to the business.  Founders don’t have the time to hear someone offer to do anything… they value focus.  Yes, it’s also good to be flexible.  Just don’t approach an interview vaguely.

“What challenges are next for BaubleBar?”

One ongoing task is customer acquisition.  How to get that next person who can’t touch or try on the jewelry?  The offline partnerships are key for BaubleBar now, as were the pop up stores the past couple years.  Anthropologie now carries BaubleBar pieces, and the partnership is off to a great start given the customer fit.  Other deals are in the works, and the company continues to look at demographics and/or geography as criteria for future partner prospects.

Julia and Katharine agreed that the leadership team is focused on where the company is in terms of its scale.  They have 85 employees now, and are looking at internal operations carefully.  In fact, both Julia and Katharine agreed that this issue of thinking about company size is important for anyone looking to join a start-up.  Have a sense of how you would perform given the challenges of wherever the firm is in its growth.   What are the operations like?  Amid all the opportunity, are you ready for the hurdles and obstacles?  What size start-up would you perform best at?

Final words of wisdom for would be start-up joiners? 

Katharine admitted that she herself didn’t take the advice she was about to share.  “Really, do not stress about waiting for the right role”, even if your section-mates are all set in February, and it takes you to Spring to land the start-up.  It’s so easy to lose perspective, but please don’t.  You’ll find the right job, and you’ll be so happy you did.

Julia nodded, “It can be discouraging… so many meetings; what feels like so little structure to your search.  Keep at it.  If it’s really what you want to do, you will absolutely find a way in.  I have been so happy at BaubleBar.  A product I believe in, a great group, a perfect job for me.  So just don’t take it personally when you have to keep plugging – it’s worth it.  Do it!”

–          Laurie Matthews,  Career & Professional Development, Sector Lead: Retail and Entrepreneurship

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