“No one gets anything exciting through the mail anymore,” says Dan Campbell, co-founder of the new start-up e-commerce marketplace, Our Local Box.
And that’s mostly true: bills and junk mail. The occasional invitation or birth announcement, maybe. The stuff you impulse-bought from Etsy while watching the latest Doctor Who. (it happens.)
But there’s a burgeoning trend in e-commerce that’s become so popular that there are several websites dedicated to just reviewing these services.
And that’s the subscription box.
A subscription box is a “mystery box” of goodies that typically arrives once a month for as long as you subscribe. While the box has a theme– Birchbox, the most popular subscription box, is full of sample-sized beauty products for women; BarkBox delivers a box of treats and toys for dogs– you don’t know what you’ll receive.
For $30 a month– discounts for longer subscriptions– Our Local Box delivers a box full of Kentucky-made products to your door every month. Or to the door of your favorite homesick out-of-state college student. Or, on the case of the company’s co-founders, to the doors of friends who had to follow jobs with Zappos out to Vegas.
The idea for Our Local Box was hatched at Tony Boombozz Pizza and Tap Room in the Highlands over beer and pizza. Campbell and Jason Lee Menard used to work together at Zappos in Shepherdsville– Campbell as a photographer and Menard in the video department. When Zappos got gobbled up by Amazon, they were given a choice: move to Vegas with Zappo’s or stay in Kentucky with Amazon.
Campbell took the “none of the above” option before the gobbling. He quit the company and now works for Nasty Gal, an online vintage and new fashion fulfillment center in Shepherdsville. He’s a Louisville native and has family all across Kentucky. He went to Trinity High and Bellarmine University, where he majored in biology but also nurtured his intrest in photography.
Menard first started working for Zappos out in Vegas. In 2009, he was sent to Shepherdsville to do some training, saw the Highlands neighborhood and fell in love. When he got back to Vegas, he told the powers-that-be that he thought he could do his job better in Kentucky. In a couple months, his car was packed and he was on the road.
After their Zappos jobs dried up, Menard and Campbell met regularly at Boombozz to brainstorm ideas. “We were in a period of transition,” says Menard. “And we’re entrepreneurs at heart.”
Once they settled on Our Local Box, they spent more than six months researching and planning. They sourced vendors and met with local businesses. They traveled around Kentucky and went to small town events, like the Pancake Festival in Auburn, to find craftspeople.
Menard spent a whole day searching Etsy for Kentucky products. He said that there were around 80 pages of 50 vendors each. By the time he’d looked through all of them, he had a list of 20 vendors that he wanted to contact.
So when the guys say that their boxes are “carefully curated,” they mean it.
A discussion at a startup event at Apocolypse Brewery with Jeff Stum, the former Brown-Foreman executive who founded Rooibee Red Tea, clinched the deal for them. Stum told his story of his perilous journey from startup to market, told them he didn’t regret a day of it and gave them the validation they needed.
Our Local Box launched on March 21 of this year. The company takes orders until the last day of the month and ships boxes the first week of the next month. That meant they only had nine days to sign people up for the April box.
By the time April 1 rolled around, they had 50 subscribers in 13 states.
It was important to them to establish their credibility by including a solidly-recognized product in that first box. For them, the brand they wanted to hang their hats on was KIZITO cookies, made right here in Louisville on Bardstown Road.
Because Campbell and Menard were so versed in the customer-centered philosophy of Zappos, they decided to hand-deliver all of April’s boxes that were sent to Louisville addresses. And because they’re artists, they made a video:
The review of the box on the My Subscription Addiction website was very favorable. The author wrote: “I loved unwrapping this box and discovering Kentucky-made products! Everything is top-quality and new-to-me – high points for a subscription box in my book!”
By May 1, they had 85 subscribers in 25 states.
“Now vendors are coming to us,” says Menard.
And why wouldn’t they? The customers that Menard and Campbell are cultivating are very attractive to vendors. They’re locally-focused customers. Our Local Box is introducing them to new or “new-to-them” products. These customers– simply by virtue of the fact that they’re interested in receiving a “mystery box” every month– are adventurous and open minded. And they’re willing to take a relatively expensive risk at $30 a month.
The founders are pretty sure that Our Local Box represents the only subscription box service that is locally-themed. It’s also in the minority in that it provides full-sized as opposed to trial-sized products.
“We want there to be enough to share,” said Campbell. “Especially for out-of-towners. We want them to take the cookies into work and give people pieces and tell them, ‘This is from home.'”
No matter what, they’re planning on capping subscriptions at 500 a box. Producing even 500 items is tough on small vendors and can even take months. The limited quantity makes the boxes feel exclusive.
But, Campbell and Menard consider the venture very scalable. They’re already signed up to provide themed boxes for guests of two upcoming weddings. Menard said that Our Local Box would be the perfect “closing” gift to a new homeowner from a real estate agent. They’re looking into the HR departments of large Louisville and Kentucky companies that recruit a lot of talent from out of town.
And, of course, there’s no reason there can’t be an Our Local Box– Indiana version or Rhode Island version.
The founders of Our Local Box have fielded interest from investors, but at this point they don’t want to cede any control. Not after what they saw happen to the culture at Zappo’s.
At least not yet.
They’re still working more than 40 hours a week at their respective jobs. Menard is about to be a dad.
But right now they’re embracing their motto: “No gift baskets, no cellophane, no stereotypes!” and sticking to the down-and-dirty startup lifestyle. Late nights. All hands on deck. Bust your butt to get the product out the door. And feel like a million bucks when you do.