Most people approach their 40th birthdays with a little trepidation. Christina Geist took hers in stride and came up with a thoughtful business idea that is now, quite literally, booming during the pandemic.
Here's how the story goes: A few years back, Geist and her closest college friends were all zeroing in on the big 4-0. To mark the occasion for the first to join the club, they set out to create a memory box for her reaching out to family, friends, and other important people in her life, printing their personalized messages and photos on cards, and then packaging them up in a keepsake jewelry box. Tears of joy ensued, naturally... and the idea for Boombox Gifts was born.
On the car ride home that night, we were all talking about how powerful the box was, says Geist, Boombox's founder and CEO. And one of them said, 'This should be a thing, this should be your thing.'
Today, Geist and her nimble team, along with outside production partners, help people all over the world collaborate virtually to create Boomboxes for their own loved ones, to celebrate milestones like birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and retirements. With big celebrations on hold due to COVID-19 and people craving connection and sentimentality more than ever, Boombox has proven to be a perfect product for these times. Thanks to an organic uptick in demand and effective pivots including the launch of an online-only offering Geist says sales between April and August of this year are up nearly 100 percent compared to the same period last year. Boom.
New York-based Boombox, which launched online in 2015, is not Geist's first entrepreneurial foray. She is also principal and strategy director for True Geist, a creative branding agency she co-founded around the same time as Boombox.
We recently caught up with Geist to talk pivots, the perks of remote working and why we all need to just pick up the phone again.
So many people wonder if their personal hobbies and crafts might be a business idea. How did you know this literal passion project for your friend actually had legs?
I like to call our products collaborative acts of love. We did that first box the old-fashioned way, through my email account, and tracked down her old friends, her newer friends, her first boss, her children and her parents. The process of putting that together was so emotional for me, I felt the boom. I felt the emotional connection to my friend. I couldn't wait to present it to her. And when we presented it to her, we felt that second boom that sentimental walkthrough of your life, from those you touched along the way.
We realized we were on to something powerful.
Fast forward to 2020 and we all felt a different sort of boom. Like many companies that have found success amid all this, you shored up your core business then dusted off some old plans and made a pivot. Tell us about that.
We realized now was the time to actually launch the Digital Boom without the box. We had been sitting on this idea since the company started and launched the product within three weeks.
What I love about your business model is that you have natural, built-in evangelists. Boombox is experienced not just by the giver and recipient, but by everyone who helped contribute. How has that customer connection helped?
We were lucky that we had four and a half years of really beautiful connections to our customers and their contributors and people knew us and knew to come to us, because left and right, the events in their life were slowly being canceled. A typical Boombox includes about 100 invited guests, so every purchase touches far more than the recipient. So we have a natural organic growth story, because those 100 invited guests naturally come to Boombox when they need a gift.
So what's happened now is all those folks already in our universe have come back to us because the wedding or special event was canceled. There aren't many ways to collaborate beyond Zoom. How do you replicate that in a gift? Since Boombox is collaborative, we allow people to gather without gathering. The end product is a tangible box or an interactive experience with a digital boom.
You're not the first entrepreneur I've talked to who had been thinking about digital forever and COVID proved that...What's it like to finally see it live?
It's been a new, complimentary revenue stream for us. It has really been an add-on to our flagship product. Our flagship Boombox is still what people know us for. Our past contributors contributed to a box and that's what they come back for. We did see a nice uptick for graduation sales. Parents were able to put together a digital boom for their high school and college grads.
Luckily we didn't cannibalize ourselves. It allows us to reach a new customer who may have been shy about our price point. The deluxe Boombox is a very premium gift experience. What's been interesting, we've seen many customers have purchased the digital boom in order to produce that faster for an event and then upgrade to purchase the box as well.
You built those good relationships with your customers, but also with your partners both of which I think are good reminders for other business owners at any time. How did that groundwork help you in this situation?
For me, the spirit behind Boombox and the ethos that I live by is that your life is measured by your relationships and not your accomplishments. Your accomplishments should happen in service of your relationships. That permeates the way we work. We have a great working relationship with our tech partners, who have been with me since Boombox was still a creative brief. So when I picked up the phone and said, I think we need to do this, the conversation was very fast. They understood the need and understood this was a priority. We had that working relationship in place.
What does pivoting mean to you?
I think this is important and it's inherent in your DNA when you're a startup you're pivoting every day. That's how you run and grow a new business. You constantly pivot. So with the Digital Boom, we had to be very focused on the MVP. What was the minimum viable product we could put out there so people could continue to honor their relationships, gather digitally, and love one another? We started to think about the features of that product. Our core product has printed cards, so we've never had video. We had to accept launching a digital product was a digital version of our analog product and that this would not include some of the bells and whistles that you might naturally want to throw into the creative or development brief, because you've been daydreaming about those too. So the discipline about focusing very clear goals and acceptable compromise of your daydreams is the way to get from concept to launch quickly. We already had a digital file that would go to print, so we just decided not to go to print. That was our MVP we launched and that's still the product.
You were ahead of the curve on this whole remote working thing the Boombox team has always been virtual. How have you made it work?
I launched Boombox when I was 40 years old and I had spent enough time commuting to and from offices, especially as a working mom, to know that I could be so much more productive with my day if I didn't have to physically worry about getting myself to the office. So I've always encouraged my team to be comfortable and confident working from wherever they can work, with reliable Wi-Fi and focus. I trust them. Our customers trust us with their most priceless memories. I trust my team in managing that relationship with our customer, and I trust them in working with me. As a small-business owner, I've been able to cultivate the team and talent I can trust.
I know we share the same philosophy of, Remember phone calls? We're all a little Zoom-ed out at this point. What are some tactics that work for your remote team?
We've always had a weekly huddle on Tuesdays at 11. It's sacred time. We've kept that in place and have relied on videoconferencing. We have made three hires, which is significant for our very small team during this team because we have still not met three new team members. We have used technology when we need it, but we haven't forced it upon everyone, because sometimes it's just easier to be on the phone and have your sweatshirt on and your hair up in a bun and you can still think just as clearly and be focused without turning your camera on. At the beginning, I think there was this notion that everything had to be virtual face time but I'm not used to having face time in my regular work life.
I always make a point of ending every interview with the most important question: Forget business for a minute, how are you doing as a person?
Thank you for asking. I come from a family where you default to what is half full about your glass. So I immediately look at my life, my circumstances, my basic needs, and those of my family, and I am blessed. I think from the beginning of the pandemic, I knew my glass was fuller than many. Then I focused on the fact that because I am blessed with a glass that is fuller, I have some room at the top and some capacity to try to help others at a time when we're told to stay home and not do anything. For those of us who were in a position, who had capacity to help, our human instinct is to help someone else and we were having to shut that instinct off as a population. I struggled with that initially.
Not being able to volunteer or help people but knowing that our city, New York City, was in desperate need of so much help, I decided I would take $19 for every box or digital boom sold between March through June 2020 and donate it to the New York Common Pantry for their unprecedented effort. I'm trying to make sure that I continue to take what's in my glass and try to spread it around a bit and help where I can.
I also think it's important for us as business leaders to remember that we're life leaders to our teams, and that in times of real uncertainty, they're watching us to see how we handle it. There were many weekly huddles where I cried. I cry a lot because our business is so emotional, so when we're talking about gift givers, I often cry. In this case, I was scared about the state of the world and I didn't hide that. I don't hide my humanity from my team, I don't hide my life, I don't hide who I am, I don't hide my struggles. On most days, they're waking up and working from home alone, so if we all show up on a Zoom and put our lipstick on and pretend everything is OK, then what kind of leader am I?
Photo: Emily Fisher Photography