How twins Emily and Sarah Hamilton grew beauty startup bellabox to 40,000 subscribers, and why they stopped that growth on purpose


Emily and Sarah Hamilton, co-founders of bellabox and Sand & Sky. Source: Supplied.

Australian beauty subscription startup bellabox is celebrating its seventh birthday this month and — because startup years are a bit like dog years — that makes co-founders and twin sisters Sarah and Emily Hamilton veritable veterans of the Aussie startup ecosystem.

Founded in 2011 at the height of the fiercely competitive beauty box boom, bellabox has since seen off 13 competitors in the Australian sector, Sarah Hamilton tells StartupSmart.

It has completed two funding rounds, raising $1.3 million from Square Peg Capital, Apex Capital, Monash Private Capital and a range of angel investors in 2013, while Fairfax’s Allure Media acquired 50% of the company for $3 million in 2014.

Hamilton is reluctant to reveal current revenue figures, but says “it’s been successful”.

At its peak, bellabox had more than 40,000 subscribers, primarily secured through social media marketing.

“The biggest marketing channel for us has always been social media,” Hamilton says.

“The viral nature of what we do is extremely helpful in terms of acquiring customers,” she adds.

Part of this comes from the brand’s message — it’s not about being “a beauty aficionado”, Hamilton says.

“It’s about accessible beauty, fun beauty and rewarding yourself. That definitely helps with people sharing stories and sharing the opportunity with friends.”

However, the startup has stopped focusing on customer acquisition “in order to give more strength to the business — more longevity”, Hamilton says.

“There was so much hype around it when we first launched, we were able to outlast our competitors and that was by pushing for growth,” she explains.

“A couple of years ago, we really started looking into how to make the business profitable, not pushing so much into the growth phase but really looking to become a more sophisticated beauty box player.”

The decision saw subscriber numbers dip, although Hamilton says they’re starting to creep up again now.

But it also marked a certain coming of age for the startup, Hamilton says, moving it away from the race-to-the-top mentality, “to make sure we had a really strong, profitable business”.

Family affair

The sisters were never daunted by entrepreneurialism, having come from a family of business people. In fact, in the early days of bellabox, nobody in their family of six was bringing in a salary.

“It was always around us, we saw our parents go through the highs and the lows,” Hamilton says.

Determination and risk appetite was “just innate”, she adds, “just knowing that by setting your mind to something you can be successful”.

And, of course, bellabox itself is a family affair. The startup is even named after the family’s first pet dog, Bella.

While it can be stressful at times, Hamilton says, running a business with a family member at your side can also mean you can scrap some of the niceties and get things done.

“You have moments when you’re probably irrational, but because you respect each other and you know how hard you both work, you make it work, and I think you get better at delineating a work problem,” she says.

“You address things faster than you perhaps normally would … that makes you better at working and managing other people because you discuss things.”

If, as founders, you’re quick to have the difficult conversations, that becomes ingrained into the culture of a startup.

“It makes challenges less of an issue — you just solve it and move on”

And these founders may be twins, but they’re far from identical, Hamilton says, approaching challenges from completely different angles, and bringing completely different skill sets to the table.

“I think if we were the same we wouldn’t get the most out of it because we would just be making the same decisions and not challenging ourselves.”

Today, while the founders are still involved in bellabox, they have appointed a chief executive, Andrew Batt, to run the business day-to-day. That brings another voice, and another opinion into the mix, while the board brings several more.

“I think it definitely helps to have different opinions,” Hamilton says.

Trust your instinct

Now the Hamilton sisters have taken a step back from the day-to-day running of bellabox, they’ve launched another company, Sand & Sky, producing a pink clay face mask that “kind of went crazy”, Hamilton says.

While Sand & Sky isn’t a tech startup, the founders learnt a lot from their experience with bellabox which they applied to their new venture, Hamilton says. She also notes the ecosystem has become a lot more advanced in a fairly short space of time.

“When we started, the concept of a mentor was still really underground. I think Australia has got a lot more notoriety with its startups, and there’s definitely a lot more opportunity [for founders] to discuss with other people what they’re doing with their startup,” she says.

“There’s a lot more confidence in the market to start businesses”

Hamilton herself is an experienced founder happy to share her experience, being open with people about the challenges founders can face.

“I try to leave myself open for coffees as much as possible,” she says.

“We’ve made a huge amount of mistakes along the way, which has then helped us set up our new company, so I think it’s good to be honest about those … I’m just naturally an honest person,” she adds.

That said, Hamilton also advises startup founders not to blindly take on all the advice they’re given. One thing she wishes she had done in the early stages is trust her instinct more, especially when it came to investment.

“Sometimes when you take investment on you feel nervous about it, and you probably give over to certain things because you feel like that’s the right thing to do and because you feel like the investor might know more than you do.”

However, it’s the founders who are in the thick of the business day-in-day-out. Often, they’re the ones who can best make decisions for the good of the company.

“I’ve made decisions in the past based on suggestions I’ve taken on board because of the seniority of those people … in hindsight I think I should have stuck to what I thought should have happened, because I’m involved in it 24 hours a day,” Hamilton says.

NOW READ: Paying it forward: Why the co-founders of TWOOBS are offering $5000 to boost other female-led startups

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