Ever since I found out about Birchbox, a monthly subscription beauty sample box, I have been hooked. When I had the opportunity to interview one of the co-founders, Hayley Barna, I jumped at it. Hayley Barna and her business partner, Katia Beauchamp, are inspiring women who have taken the beauty industry by storm. Ambitious, down-to-Earth, and capable, Hayley is not only a lot of fun to talk to, but she is also generous with her advice and knowledge. After years of consulting and working in the corporate world, Hayley made the leap and started her own company (Birchbox), which continues to see amazing success. Read on to learn about how Hayley got to where she is today, her thoughts about business school, and the advice she has for her 20-year-0ld self. You’re going to love and admire her as much as we do!
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Hayley Barna: I don’t know if I think about it as my youth or just seizing every day and making the most of every hour, every week, every year. Starting Birchbox, for example, there was a lot we didn’t know that actually helped us have the ambition to think “we can do this!” I think a lot of that was about being young and not being jaded.
CJ: You attended Harvard University and majored in Economics. How did you determine what to study?
HB: I went to Harvard thinking I was going to be a science major or an engineer. I did science research in high school and I was very into it. I took computer science and economics my first semester of college. I thought the classes were so cool and I loved it, but computer science was not very applied and it didn’t have a lot to do with people. Economics was the mix between left brain and right brain. I took microeconomics first, which was about people, decisions, and real world practicality. I fell in love with economics and stuck with that. I also started taking psychology classes. It was the behavioral aspect of economics that I really focused on.
CJ: How did you make the decision to go to Harvard Business School and what were your biggest takeaways?
HB: I applied to business school three years after graduating college. One of the reasons I wanted to go to business school was, first of all, everyone I had ever met who went to business school loved it. I heard 100% positive ratings. I also realized that I had a lot more to learn. I love learning, so I was excited about the possibility of going back to school.
I really liked being a consultant, but I did go into business school expecting to change careers because I wanted to get closer to the customer. Being a consultant, you work for people who are working for people. You put together PowerPoint documents but you don’t really get to see the results. I was hoping to make the leap away from professional services and more towards direct impact. I thought that consumer internet or consumer businesses would be a good place for me to land.
CJ: What advice would you give to someone who is considering going to business school?
HB: Business school is amazing. It’s also very expensive and it is two years of your life. If you already know what you want to do and have a clear path towards getting there, then maybe business school isn’t right for you. If you need to learn more about yourself and explore or want to go into a field where an MBA is a requirement, then business school is amazing. Do it.
CJ: What skills did you have that were useful in starting Birchbox, and what do you wish you had known before taking the leap?
HB: I ask a lot of questions and I want to know why. I don’t accept the status quo and that was a big part of Katia and me coming up with the idea for Birchbox and believing that there was a better way to buy beauty online. That was a muscle that I had exercised.
My early career was as a strategy consultant at Bain & Company. In that job I learned a good mix of analytical skill sets, such as structuring a problem and knowing when it was important to have data behind things. I also learned the soft skills that come with business, such as being able to ask the right questions and package an idea to have it be accepted and get people on board with something.
CJ: What advice do you have for teenagers and young adults interested in starting their own business?
HB: Start having business conversations. If there is a business that you are interested in, such as sports, talk to someone in your life who is a business person about the business of sports. How do you make money? What are the costs? Get used to having your brain work like that. It’s most fun to learn about running a business when you’re thinking about a topic that you’re passionate about.
Work exposure is also a very important first step for a young person. Try a lot of things. I interned at so many different places and a lot of my experience was to cross off that experience as an option. I interned at a hedge fund and realized that finance was not for me. Thank goodness I figured that out early.
CJ: How do you balance running the New York and Europe offices?
HB: It’s really different. When we went from having one office to multiple offices, it was a really big change. Part of it was just getting comfortable that we wouldn’t be able to see and know about everything that was happening. We try to travel there as much as possible, usually about every six weeks. We have three offices in Europe so we try to go to two countries at a time with every trip. We also stay in touch through email and regular phone calls. It’s so different but really fun.
CJ: How do you keep yourself motivated? What drives you forward?
HB: This is really simple but I am motivated by ideas and impact, and in particular, making people happy. The product of Birchbox is very simple when you think about it – samples in a box that arrives monthly, editorial content, and a place to shop.
The most motivating thing about my job is when I hear customers talk about what they feel when they get a Birchbox and how it makes them smile or connect with their family or friends who live across the country. That is extremely motivating. Getting your Birchbox is a real world experience that creates connections even though we’re an internet company and sell products online.
CJ: Is there anything you did as a young adult that greatly influenced you?
HB: I was a science geek in high school and doing independent science research was a helpful skill. It gave me the confidence to know that I could not only ask questions but I could also test things and find answers and iterate on it. It gave me confidence that I could be 17-years-old and contribute to science.
My family was also an influence. My family has a family business and I was exposed to those types of conversations at the dinner table my whole life. Those business conversations get soaked in somehow.
CJ: What does a day in your life look like?
HB: Every day is different. We started Birchbox three and a half years ago, and my job has fundamentally changed at least six times along the way. I get up early and try to work out before work because you never know what is going to happen later in the day. I try to do 7am workout classes and get to work by 8:30am. We have offices in Europe, so I often have phone calls with our Europe teams earlier in the morning.
Throughout the day a lot of my job is management. I check in with my direct reports to make sure everything is flowing well. I have very little sit-at-my-desk time. As co-founders, Katia and I set the strategy and make sure that the strategy is being communicated. I’ll work on monthly recaps of the business or agendas for off-sites and what is going to happen next.
CJ: How do you set personal and professional goals?
HB: I don’t have a very formal goal-setting process. I just have a lot of self-motivation. For the business we set all kinds of goals. They should be made on many different timeframes. Here we have monthly goals, quarterly goals, and annual goals. It’s also important to set five year goals.
If I had time to do that for my life, I would do it the same way. I would think about where I want to be in five years and move backwards from there. That would be fun because there’s no right answer.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
HB: I give this advice to every age of my past self. Don’t take things too seriously. Don’t worry too much about your next step. Don’t think that your next step is going to dictate the rest of your life. A lot of people when they are 20-years-old think that the job they get after college is going to be their career for the next 60 years. It’s not. Don’t overthink it. Just make sure that it is something you enjoy and that you’ll learn from and go from there.