When we think about brands we really like–not just because their products are great, but because their voice is relatable, we like what they stand for, and we don’t mind seeing their Facebook posts in our feeds–Birchbox is on the top of that list. Besides their general business model (beauty samples once a month for $10? Yes, please), they offer a ton of helpful how-to videos (we sprinkled a few throughout this post) and tips on using the products in the boxes. Which is awesome, because there’s a good chance we haven’t the slightest idea what to do with at least one of the products in the box each month.
Mollie Chen, the editorial director of Birchbox, is the woman behind the brand’s high-quality content. A former beauty editor, she left Conde Nast to join Birchbox as the company’s very first staffer (she and Birchbox co-founder Hayley Barna we roommates and friends from Harvard), and now oversees the brand’s online magazine, YouTube channel, social media voice, marketing copy, and more. We recently got a chance to catch up with Mollie about the early days at the company, how she left her current hair cut to a Facebook vote, and how she makes Birchbox a go-to source of beauty info.
IT WAS ACTUALLY A JOB YOU HELD AT ONE POINT THAT INSPIRED HAYLEY BARNA AND KATIA BEAUCHAMP TO START BIRCHBOX. CAN YOU TELL US THE STORY BEHIND THAT?
My first job out of college was at Conde Nast Traveler, where I was the assistant to the beauty and spa editor. Naturally, I amassed quite a few samples, and I would bring them home to my roommate, Hayley, and give her the ones that I thought she’d like. I was also learning more than any human would ever need to know about things like hyaluronic acid, thalassotherapy, and manicure trends, so I passed that knowledge on to her, too.
YOU WERE THE FIRST EMPLOYEE AT BIRCHBOX. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE A MORE “STABLE” JOB AND JOIN AN EARLY-STAGE STARTUP?
It didn’t feel risky to me at all. I believed in the concept but, more importantly, I believed in Katia and Hayley. They’re two of the most brilliant women I know and I knew they would succeed.
WHAT WERE THOSE FIRST DAYS AT THE COMPANY LIKE?
The months leading up to the first box shipment were not my favorite—it was hard to know what you were building and everything felt intangible. But on the flip side, it was exhilarating to make so many decisions and just trust yourself and your colleagues. Once the first boxes went out and we had a tangible product, and real, live customers—that’s when it started to feel very real.
WHAT’S IT BEEN LIKE TO SEE IT GROW SINCE?
Insane, or completely normal, depending on the day. I have a short memory so I look around and think, ‘this feels right,’ and then I think back to the four of us sitting at a folding table in DUMBO in summer 2010 and it hits me.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO DEFINE THE PARAMETERS OF YOUR JOB FROM SCRATCH? HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH AN EDITORIAL STRATEGY?
Defining my role has definitely been a process. I started out doing everything from marketing copy to social media, as well as the more traditional editorial work. As we’ve grown, I’ve built a team that has taken on those responsibilities, so now my job is more about management and overall strategy. The editorial strategy has been the same since the beginning, though we’ve added plenty of texture and specifics to it: Birchbox content exists to add value. Value to the customer, to our brand partners, and to our overall company brand.
ONE OF THE THINGS BIRCHBOX SEEMS TO DO REALLY WELL IS ENGAGE WITH ITS CUSTOMERS AND AUDIENCE. PEOPLE REALLY LOVE BIRCHBOX. WHAT ROLE DOES EDITORIAL PLAY IN THAT?
We are completely customer-centric. All the content we create—from social media channels to our videos and articles—is designed to create a connection with our customers, and to help, entertain, and engage them. Beyond that, our voice is designed to feel approachable, fun, and savvy—like a friend.
AS THE COMPANY’S EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, WHAT’S YOUR DAY-TO-DAY ROLE LIKE?
Many, many meetings. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just the reality of being at a company where there are so many cross-functional projects and processes. I get to weigh in on everything from marketing campaigns to box themes to whether our Birchbox man editors need an additional shaving video in their lineup.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORKING AS AN EDITOR AT A MAGAZINE, AND WORKING AS AN EDITOR FOR A BRAND?
At a magazine, you’re typically working to create great content, period. At Birchbox, my editors are responsible for creating great content that impacts our overall company goals. They have to be strategic, see the bigger picture, and connect the dots between what they do and what every other team is working on. It’s incredibly exciting, and forces you to use your brain in a completely different way than traditional media.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF YOUR JOB?
I’m surrounded by smart, passionate people who are all working to build something incredible. It’s pretty amazing.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST EXCITING MOMENT YOU’VE HAD WHILE WORKING AT BIRCHBOX?
We’ve been lucky enough to hit some big milestones. Most recently, we launched our first commercial, “open for beautiful,” and i can’t wait to see it on tv.
WHAT’S THE BEST BEAUTY TIP YOU’VE LEARNED WHILE WORKING THERE?
Not a tip but I do owe our Birchbox Facebook community a major thank-you for my current haircut. I had been rocking the sideswept bangs for close to a decade, and I let them vote on a makeover last October. Five inches lopped off, plus blunt bangs—never going back.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE WHO MIGHT WANT TO FOLLOW IN YOUR CAREER FOOTSTEPS AS AN EDITOR?
To succeed in the current media landscape, I think you need to be both traditional and radical. Build a strong skillset— reporting, writing, copy-editing—and then be willing to go wherever you think you can do the most interesting things, and learn the most. That very well might be a brand.
What is your favorite:
Thing to do after work: have a cocktail—usually a negroni—with friends in my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Way to spend a weekend: The weeks are so nutty that I try to stay close to home on the weekends. I love going for runs in Brooklyn Bridge Park, going to the farmer’s market, cooking for friends, and wandering around without an agenda. Lately I’ve been using Citibike to explore Brooklyn and it’s very fun!
Restaurant in your neighborhood: Frankie’s Spuntino. I love sitting at the bar and having a big glass of red wine, a pile of their crusty bread with olive oil, and a salad or pasta. Their garden is lovely in the spring and summer, too.
Mascara: I just got my hands on w3ll people’s all-natural mascara and it’s a game-changer.