“Pure execution” – Glossybox founder Charles von Abercron on meeting Oli Samwer, growing Groupon and closing Petitebox

Charles von Abercron
Charles von Abercron

Charles von Abercron

“I’m standing here today,” Glossybox co-founder Charles von Abercron told his packed-out startup masterclass at Pioneers Festival, Vienna, “because for the last 18 months I’ve been focusing on pure execution…”

The results show. After starting up in March 2011, Glossybox – a Rocket Internet-backed copycat of Birchbox in the US – is now present in 17 countries, employs 400, partners with over 350 high-end brands and delivers over 220,000 subscription boxes of beauty products per month. The company is currently working on a “huge ramp up”, consolidating its growth and getting ready to really focus on building the brand.

Oliver Samwer IdeaLab! 2012Oli Samwer addressing the crowd at IdeaLab! 2012 in Vallendar

Meeting Oli Samwer and joining Groupon – “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into…”

It’s a typical Rocket Internet founders’ story. Von Abercron, a European Business School grad, spent several years in investment banking before catching the entrepreneurial itch and deciding to leave.

At that point, he wasn’t quite ready to go it alone, he told the crowd. A meeting with Rocket Internet’s Oliver Samwer – “quite a compelling experience… a non-corporate interview in a non-corporate office” – convinced him to join the famed Berlin-based incubator instead.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to explore the entrepreneurship field and I wanted to be in Berlin.”

Von Abercron signed up with Rocket Internet in March 2010, and rose to become Vice-President International Online Marketing/SEM at Groupon (through its acquisition of Rocket’s CityDeal):

“My first day, I walked in and it was like, Charles, good morning, fix the customer care Europe, centralise everything,” he recalled. “I heard about customer care, I think I can talk with people to some extent, but I didn’t know what first and second level customer service was, I didn’t know about ticketing, I didn’t know how to manage a team of 30 people… I could have pretty much gone home, but I started to work with it, and that was pretty much the best thing that happened to me.”

Glossybox

Yet it wasn’t quite enough to satisfy his desire to become a founder. So, with McKinsey consultant Brigitte Wittekind, he moved on to co-found Glossybox.

The idea – pioneered by Birchbox, and one von Abercron had in mind since 2010 – is classic subscription commerce. Customers sign up, pay about $21 a month (less for longer-term subscriptions) and receive a regular supply of beauty products.

Glossybox – find suppliers, a name, launch, sell, expand

The first step in the execution, von Abercron explained, was to secure suppliers – as quickly as possible. “My first day working on the project, I pulled out a list of 350 prospective companies that I got from the internet,” he said. “We set up our first meetings within three days…

Emailing the CEO of L’Oreal from a Gmail account isn’t the best idea, so the company needed a name and a website, stat. “We pretty much listed all the names that came into our mind one day, then we called in 20 people more or less from the street, 20 girls,” von Abercron recalled. “We took a vote and within five minutes we had the name.”

A basic website took five weeks to launch. After it went live, he said, “in half an hour, we sold 50 boxes”. As the company expanded across four new markets, in just three months, most of von Abercron’s time went on HR. “You’re only as good as your team is, after all…”

Tough decisions – closing spin-off brand Petitebox

Despite the company’s growth, including expanding into the US, a notoriously tough market for German startups to crack, and bringing on Russian billionaire and Facebook backer Len Blavatnik as an investor, it hasn’t all been smooth-running. Glossybox closed its spin-off brand for new mothers and babies, Petitebox, in July this year, after comments on its Facebook page suggesting logistics issues.

“It’s still a great concept”, von Abercron said, when asked by VentureVillage at the conference to expand on the reasons for the closure. But “the target group of people is very small, it takes a lot of time to get people on board and is also limited in terms of who will subscribe… It’s also a question of resources.”

While the effort into developing Petitebox and expanding it into the US has stopped, the product does live on – as Glossybox Baby, so far only available in Germany.

Taking responsibility – “If you fail, you’re the one who fails”

So, what does execution mean for von Abercron? “First of all, it’s taking on responsibility and making your own decisions,” he said. “Once you accept a challenge, you have to know that you’re the one in the driver’s seat, no matter who is behind you. If it’s a VC, if it’s your family money or if it’s your own money, it doesn’t matter. You’re in charge. If you fail, you’re the one who fails.”

Then it’s implementation, celebrating success but switching back to work mode straight after – not celebrating for “weeks and weeks” after a funding round, for example – and adapting to growth and changes in circumstance.

“If I can give one thing tonight to you, my key learning for the last three years was that a lot of things that lead to execution were pretty much in my mind already,” von Abercron concluded. “I’m 100 per cent certain that you have all of the ideas and all of the skills in you. Try to find them and activate them.”

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