This Young Entrepreneur Shares the 3-Step Strategy She Uses to Banish Self-Doubt BOXFOX co-founder and COO Sabena Suri wants to help other young women find their confidence.
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
When Sabena Suri, then 24 years old, couldn't visit a friend who had been hospitalized, Suri and two other friends assembled a get-well care package complete with cozy socks, a notebook, tea and a mug and her favorite book. The act inspired the idea for BOXFOX, a platform that provides customers with the tools to build unique and personalized gifts.
Three years after the women quit their jobs to run the business full time, BOXFOX's services now include hand-selected gifts for everything from baby showers to weddings. The service ships across the world.
The now 28-year-old COO shared that she and her co-founders have been able to triple consumer sales every year since its launch, and are on track to hit $6.6 million in revenue by the end of 2018.
One in four people who use BOXFOX are repeat customers, according to the company, and it has corporate accounts with big name brands including Airbnb, Drybar, Fandango and Southwest Airlines. Its team has grown to 12, with five more new hires joining in the coming months.
More than figuring out how to craft the perfect gift and giving herself a crash course on the ins and outs of international shipping, Suri says that one of the most rewarding elements of growing this business has been connecting with other women with similar goals.
"As young female entrepreneurs, we started a company in a world where both of those qualities [can be] perceived as two strikes against us," Suri tells Entrepreneur. "It took [finding] a lot of strength within myself and my two co-founders to know our worth and the value that being young and female actually brought to the table. By building this company [we hope that] we are starting to pave the way for other young women as well."
Suri shared her insights about how to bolster your confidence and write your own rule book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about a time that you needed to create an opportunity for yourself or others?
When we first started BOXFOX, a lot of times it felt like [people thought] we were creating this concept because we were women. Gifting is [sometimes seen] as this cutesy concept. But we knew that this company was bringing an important service to people's lives. We knew that it wasn't just a cute concept -- it was scalable.
Maintaining the vision of why we were starting this and understanding that people might have wanted to put us in a certain category or think about us as a certain type of entrepreneur, we knew that we were going to have to fight against that and prove that that wasn't the case. This was much more important and much bigger of an opportunity than just starting a cute little company.
What was at stake for you? Did this experience change how you think about leadership?
For any entrepreneur building a business, what's at stake as a leader is failure. That can be defined as not living up to the potential that you've identified for your company and what you dream that it will become. As young female entrepreneurs, those stakes feel even higher. We want this business to succeed from a financial standpoint. We all quit our full-time jobs to pursue this. I believe so strongly in the concept. But we also feel we've got a lot more to prove. The success of this business will hopefully inspire other women to follow in our footsteps and go after what they really want.
In terms of how this has changed how I think about leadership, it really gives me a purpose that feels greater than the granularity of the everyday life of being a business owner. One thing I do is really empower our employees to give me feedback constantly and ask for what they need from me. I want to always help give them the resources that are going to help them do better in their jobs.
What personal traits or strategies do you rely on to create opportunity for yourself and others?
Whenever you're creating opportunity you've got to realize that what you're doing is often greater than yourself or even the business that you're building. What you're doing is going to have an impact on people in ways that you can't necessarily see. I'm always floored when someone emails me or I'll be on a panel or a networking event and they'll say what you're building has really inspired me. Seeing the bigger picture and being motivated by that feels like a trait that's really important.
When you experience a setback, what do you do to keep going? How do you get unstuck?
The key thing is that it's all about your frame of mind. A lot of people will see a setback as, "I've totally failed" or "I'm not good at this" or "I should just quit." "This is the proof that I was looking for that this wasn't my path." But I really think that if you can see a setback as a learning opportunity, you can really benefit so much from that. The first thing to do is take the emotion out of the situation. I'll go on a walk or journal or have a venting conversation with someone and get the emotion out of it. Then when I feel like I'm ready to see the silver lining and find the lesson [I reassess]. What could we have done better? How can we make sure this doesn't happen again? How is this going to make us even more unstoppable? If you look for that and those answers and ask those questions you're always going to be setting yourself up to grow and learn.
One example of this for us was super early on, we were going to partner with this other big brand. Then they essentially ghosted us. They pretty much took a lot of the ideas that we had brought to the table and launched something very similar. We felt totally dejected. We were 24 years old, we were still working out of our apartment and we honestly did not think to [put forth] an NDA. Now we won't have an initial conversation with any partner without the proper paperwork, because we know it's protecting ourselves and it's really smart and strategic.
People who want to advocate for themselves don't know always know how. What are actionable steps they can take to make themselves heard? What steps do you take?
The first one is information gathering. There's so many resources to connect with people who might be in your exact same situation, whether that is a network [of people] or books or blogs or podcasts. In your moments of self-doubt and being unsure, having those resources can really help. Having strong mentors, especially other female entrepreneurs, helps me feel like I'm not alone. When I'm having a moment when I wonder if I'm good enough and how to advocate for myself, I write down all the things and accomplishments that I've brought to the table.
Putting pen to paper and saying here's how I contribute every single day and here's what I've brought to this company or this job or this situation. This is how you can build up this unwavering confidence that's going to drive you forward and allow you to stay strong when you know you're going to be facing something super difficult. When you're marching into your boss's office to ask for a raise or to an investor to ask funding or a manufacturer to get better pricing, you really just have to not take "no" for an answer. With those three steps you've equipped yourself with information and your own self-confidence and that feels like a really good combination. I find that never really fails.
Has there been a counterintuitive or surprising way you've opened doors for yourself?
Growing up, I was very much a rule follower. Take all the right steps and follow the rules and that's going to get you where you need to go. I've come to learn that this is not always the case from starting my business. If you're starting something that no one has done before, you're the one writing the rule book. A lot of people sort of stick with the set path because we're taught to kind of do that -- we're scared of what is outside of that. I've realized instead of wasting my energy thinking about all the reasons something can't be done or why I wouldn't be good at it -- I just go for it understanding that it could not work. My co-founders and I agreed, we're just going to be in the trenches. Our philosophy is, we're not going to make excuses, we're just going to figure it out.
Was there a blindspot that you had about leadership and opportunity you worked to change within yourself?
Thinking that "hard work" looks the same for everyone. The three of us had become very accustomed to what it felt like to work full-time jobs and then also be launching a company at the same time. That level of literal hours of work as well as that dedication and unwavering resilience. We had that expectation for our first few hires. Over time we've realized that people are going to contribute in different ways and at different levels and hard work means something different for everyone, and that's OK. As long as we're all aligned on the vision of making this company as good as it can be, not everyone has to work the same way that we do. We've all relaxed as well because we've adopted that philosophy. We honestly want our employees to thrive and so when [work-life balance] becomes a priority we have to let go a little bit of how we've defined hard work to mean.
We also wanted to create the type of work environment that we believed in which is positive and uplifts women. I realized that I was doing my employees a disservice by not addressing their shortcomings head-on because everyone deserves transparent and helpful feedback. Those conversations have gone from feeling difficult to actually feeling super productive.