Subscription box pain points

While running our twice-monthly candy subscription box Candy Japan, I've discovered the biggest time spends are marketing, fulfillment, website maintenance, customer support, bookkeeping tasks, curation and investigating directions to expansion and things to improve. 

Of these for our twice-monthly candy box, fulfillment was the easiest to delegate to someone else to do, as it is purely manual labor. Some effort is required to gather the list of addresses and sanity-check that the entered addresses and amounts make sense. You can either do fulfillment in-house or hire an outside third-party logistics company.

Marketing is an activity which you can spend all your time on if you wanted to. There are thousands of places where you could advertise, both paid and free. The options to tweak ad campaigns are endless. Marketing through the seemingly free social media and content-marketing channels is very time-consuming. Somewhere between paid and free is providing free sample boxes for bloggers, which ends up taking time just to evaluate which blogs are worth sending to and keeping in touch with them to maintain the relationships.

Customer support
Customer support gets tiresome, as you are often dealing with very similar issues. If you are using a home-grown system, you may find that the information you need to answer these question is buried somewhere in a database which only you understand, which makes outsourcing this more challenging. This is one good reason to use a ready-made subscription management system such as CrateJoy or Subbly. Besides just the usual support questions, there are always new situations occurring which can only be answered by you, meaning with a somewhat successful box you will always end up having some email to answer yourself every day.

For instance I often find myself having to dig for some information manually in our database or try to make educated guesses when a customer requests something to be done, but is emailing from a different address than the one they registered with. These examples sound bad and probably make you feel like “well, that should be easily fixable”. And they are, which is part of the support task, improving things so that those things will no longer get asked.

Keeping books
Bookkeeping is required for you to be able to correctly pay taxes and have some picture of whether you are making any profit with your box. It involves mostly storing offline and online receipts and entering their information into spreadsheets. Even with a hired bookkeeper you still end up doing some of this, as when for instance you make an order for some product which will be included in the box, you will be the one who gets the receipt. 

When you sign up for an online product such as CrateJoy or ZenDesk, those receipts will get sent to your account. Each month you will need to find all these receipts and summarize them somehow for your books. Last month for out subscription box Candy Japan I had 50 receipts for various purchases and online services and just summarizing this for my bookkeeper takes several evenings to do. Mostly because it is such a dull task it is very easy to get distracted while doing it!

We are paying a bookkeeper, but that doesn’t mean you never need to deal with the issue. You must still be able to explain each receipt and HAVE each receipt. Each time you pay for something online, you have to figure out how to get the receipt for that later. You may be using an email system, a hosting site, buy tape and envelopes online, perhaps travel somewhere and use cash to buy your tickets etc. and for all of these things you will need to have the receipts and organize them in some way. It’s not a huge task, but another thing that needs to be done each month.

This is about finding the items to put in your box. Not every item you can think of is necessarily possible to purchase by you in the desired quantities. You might have a dream box in mind, but find out that half of the items have already been discontinued and are no longer available. Some might be available only in awkward quantities, such as a box of 200 pieces when all you needed was 150. 

These limitations mean that to find a box containing 5 items, you might need to investigate more than 10 to be able to settle down to 5 which are practically possible. This can be made easier by using a catalogue of products which you know are available.

Growth & improving processes
After these repetitive tasks are dealt with, comes what at least to me is the most interesting part: expansion! This means discovering new marketing channels to try, optimizing your homepage for conversions, improving your box, hiring staff, including new types of inserts in your box etc. things which will change the month-to-month operation, hopefully for the better. You then also get to look forward to other things you could expand to, perhaps increasing the variety of your subscription plans or start/acquire completely new lines of business. 

It is also quite enjoyable to think of ways to improve operations, such as eliminating some steps required for putting together your box or finding a way to otherwise not do something you were previously having to do every month. This sort of improvement is very useful for your sanity as well, as it will make you feel optimism: “ah, things can get better!”.

Thanks for reading
Can you help me out and let me know how much you would be willing to pay for an ebook on subscription boxes? You can do so here: Subscription Box - Start and Grow Your Box From 0 to 1000 Subscribers. It will have around ~100 pages of my thoughts and advice on running a subscription box, based on what I've learned running Candy Japan and other subscription boxes for ~4 years.