How to Write a Business Plan for a Subscription Box Service

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starting a subscription box business

The subscription box industry is growing rapidly thanks to a steady revenue model and tapping into people’s love for surprises. Ipsy, Birchbox, and Dollar Shave Club are the premier companies doing exactly this and therefore reach the 15 percent of online shoppers signing up for subscription boxes.

But with so many people trying to get their share of the growth, many subscription box businesses fold within a year or two. Lots of new box companies have trouble ironing out the kinks in their process: their customer can’t easily unsubscribe, their boxes just aren’t exciting or well-curated, and more. Any of these can lead to failure.

There are several different types of business plans that can help you stay on track. If you’re seeking a bank loan or outside investment, you probably need a traditional business plan. But if you’re writing a plan as an internal guide for strategic growth, you should consider a lighter version—a Lean Plan. A Lean Plan can also serve as an initial plan that helps you think through all the aspects of starting your business.

This guide to writing a subscription box business plan will help you through the process either way. If you’re writing a traditional plan, you’ll provide more details and it will be more comprehensive. If you’re writing a Lean Plan, keep it shorter and think about making it easy to revisit and revise often.

A subscription box business plan will include the following components:

  1. Executive summary
  2. Your problem and solution
  3. Target market (intended customers)
  4. Marketing and sales plan
  5. Operations
  6. Team
  7. Company overview
  8. Financial plan
  9. Appendix (optional)

To help you get started, you can download this free business plan template for writing a traditional business plan for a loan or investment, or this Lean Plan template for a more nimble, easy to update plan.

1. Executive summary

The first element of every business plan is the executive summary. But, don’t write your executive summary first—it’ll be quite a bit easier to write after you’ve written the rest of the plan. It provides an overview of your business plan by compiling the most important information from the sections that come after.

Investors will read your executive summary first, so give enough information that they’re intrigued enough in your business to be interested in seeing your full plan.

This is what you’ll include:

starting a subscription box business

Opportunity: Proving there’s a market for your subscription box

Because you complete the executive summary last, you will begin your actual business plan writing process with the problem and solution section of your business plan.

Think of the opportunity as including the problem you’re solving, the solution to that problem, who you plan to sell to, and how your business fits into the existing competitive landscape.

2. Problem and solution

Defining the problem you’re trying to solve is an important part of your business plan because it’s the first place where you’ll demonstrate that idea is viable—that you can actually make money with your business model and idea. Your subscription box service could solve any number of problems.

Here are a few examples (but definitely not an exhaustive list):

Then, explain how your subscription box company solves the problem.

For example, if your box service will be cheaper than others in your niche, talk about your business model and how you’ll keep your box more affordable.

3. Target market

The target market section of your subscription box business plan identifies which subset of people you will focus your marketing and sales plan on. You can’t target everyone. If you’re selling a box that curates hair products for wealthy, curly-haired men, you probably don’t want to use your marketing dollars to advertise to people outside of your demographic.

Even narrower, not everyone who’s in your niche will want your box. A majority of men with curly hair probably have a product they always use, or they don’t use a product at all. The example box should, therefore, target men with that hair type who are looking for a new product.

Doing a formal market analysis can help you valid the assumption that people will actually pay for your box, as well as identify which people have the best chance of purchasing a subscription.

Additionally, you’ll want to have done some market research or analysis before you attempt to secure outside funding. Banks and investors will be looking to you to prove that you’ve had some initial sales success, but they’ll expect you to prove that you can continue to build your customer base in service of growing a profitable business.

The target market section of your business plan should include your TAM, SAM, and SOM, a brief buyer persona, your key customers, competition, and your pie in the sky future plans.

TAM, SAM, SOM

TAM, SAM, and SOM are three indicators that can help you think through how big your opportunity really is. In the beginning, your SOM is the most important number to think about. Most products aren’t really marketable to every single person with a credit card.

It can be tempting to think that you’re going to advertise to everyone everywhere—but that’s a huge and fairly unnecessary expense. Figuring out who can can really reach and get to pay for your product will save you time and money in the long run.

Understanding TAM, SAM, and SOM:

Buyer persona

Creating a buyer persona puts you in the customer’s shoes to guide marketing and sales decisions. You can see what your customer needs out of your subscription box, and why they need it.

It also gives you an edge over competitors without one. Keeping your buyer persona in mind can help you as you develop your marketing and sales plan, and think through crafting messages to potential customers that will compel them to convert, or subscribe to your box.

Key customers

This section is for businesses that sell to enterprise customers, not consumers. Companies that become a big subset of your revenue are likely strategic alliances, though, which is a later section. A key customer for a subscription box might be a large organization that contracts with you as an exclusive provider of something they need.

Maybe your subscription box is a monthly curated selection of comic books. If you partner with a large, wealthy private school district who wants you to provide comic book packages to all their eighth-grade students every month, that contract might be key your business survival for a period of time. They’re a key customer because without their business, you’d be in trouble.

Competition

Name the other subscription boxes that appeal to your niche. The men’s hair product example would list Birchbox, Dollar Shave Club, Bespoke Post, and Luxury Barber. Describe their pricing, what sort of products they include, how many items are in each box, and so on.

An easy and visual way to do this comparison is with a competitive matrix. A competitive matrix lists the company names down the left column and particular features across the top row. Check marks indicate which company has which feature—you should construct yours to highlight why your box is different and better.

Then, explain how your subscription box service differs, and how those differences appeal to your target market.

Future plans

This section is for your hopes and plans for scaling your business. Maybe your comic book subscription plan eventually wants to branch into comic book merchandise curation in the future. Maybe you want to start marketing your subscription boxes at different price points to increase your available market share. Put those ideas here.

starting a subscription box business

Execution: How you’ll do it

Now that you explained your opportunity thoroughly, it’s time to describe how you plan to take advantage of it. Now, you’ll describe your marketing strategies, sales plans, operations information, milestones, your team and company basics, and your financial plan.

4. Marketing and sales plan

For many businesses, marketing and sales effort stops once a particular customer purchases its product or service.

Subscription boxes are nice because they’re designed to retain customers. But a lot of subscription companies bill on a period basis, like monthly, so you’re always thinking about how to retain the customers you have while you seek new customers.

Your marketing and sales plan should include a positioning statement, your initial pricing tests, tactics for promoting your brand, and information about any strategic alliances that are critical to your success.

Positioning statement

Your positioning statement should explain how your subscription box is different than competitors. Most statements follow this template:  

“For [target market description]who [target market need], [this product][how it meets the need]. Unlike [key competition], it [most important distinguishing feature].”

Pricing

Next, it’s time to determine your box’s pricing.

There are a lot of factors to consider when determining your monthly price:

With the total cost of each box in hand, calculate a price with at least a 40 percent profit margin, as suggested by CrateJoy. Cratejoy also has other resources for calculating the best price for your subscription box.

There’s one final aspect of pricing to consider. Established subscription box services generally offer different rates depending on the length of subscription. For example, the men’s hair product box might cost $39.95 per month, but if you commit to subscribing for a year, its monthly cost will drop to $36.95.

If you do this, make sure the annual plan with cheaper monthly payments still generates a profit.

Promotion

Most of your outreach will happen during the pre-launch stage. Subscription box services primarily use social media (Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and influencers) to show off some of its curated products and give offers prior to official launch.

Get the email addresses of interested customers by advertising email sign-ups rather than pre-orders on your website and social media. You can then personalize your pre-launch marketing plan with emails to these interested people. This will keep your leads warm and encourage a higher percentage to subscribe once you launch.

Consider landing page design, easy email sign up, and potential deals for pre-subscribers during the pre-launch promotion as well.

One thing to be cautious of: how you advertise the products in your box. Not getting permission from the manufacturers on their product limits how much you can advertise it.

Strategic alliances

What vendors can you partner with to give you discounted or free sample products for your box? Let them know that they get cheap advertising by sponsoring your box.

Your business has a lot of potential if you can attain such partnerships. They save time by lessening your product curation efforts, and they make the overall product cost cheaper.

The example box might reach out to popular hair product brands like American Crew, Baxter of California, or Kevin Murphy to get free samples. Customers try each one in their box and decide if any are worth buying a full bottle of. If none work perfectly, they wait until the next month’s box, plus they don’t waste any product because the samples are small.

You should also explore other types of strategic alliances, like brick and mortar locations or selling through Amazon. These, among other ideas, can help your store reach new target markets, expand business operations, and improve profit margins.

Finally, an overlooked alliance is the one with each of your customers. Subscription models depend on customers staying for a while and increasing their lifetime value. Make the boxes personal and provide reliable customer service to grow your business and retain customers.

5. Operations

The operations section includes the logistics, technology, and other behind-the-scenes pieces of your business. For a subscription box service, this section will primarily focus on product curation and box distribution.

Sourcing, fulfillment, and distribution

Where will you get your products? How you will assemble them in your box. What packing materials will you use and how will you make the inside of your box aesthetically pleasing?

Then, talk about the box itself. Will you have a custom box designed, or will you keep it super simple at first? Will you outsource your packaging and shipping?

Once your business can’t run out of your garage anymore you’ll probably want to consider outsourcing some of the work. If you don’t plan on outsourcing initially (as most don’t), explain how you will handle box distribution. Your explanation should include how you will ship boxes, keep track of shipments, and any other logistics for getting your product to the customer’s door.

Deliver your boxes on a regular schedule—customers should receive their order within the same time frame each month (or whatever time period) to avoid confusion. Also, offer tracking information so they can see where their package is in the shipping process.

Startup costs

There are several expenditures you need to address before starting your business operations. Your startup costs will include acquiring your initial inventory, or the products you plan to include in the first edition of your box service.

You’ll probably also want to include your first round of shipping materials: filling, boxes, and labels. Say where you will get these and why that’s the cheapest option—you’ll likely buy these supplies in bulk. And if you’re paying for space for storage or packing operations, you’ll want to include that too.

Away from the box itself, you will pay for a website to process payments and advertise your service. Will you need an app? Think that through from the beginning too. You’ll want to think through which tool is essential from the beginning.

At first, you might get away with manually billing each of your customers each month, but it probably won’t be long until you’ll need tools to help with automated re-billing, order management, shipping label generation, customer management and more. The key for startup costs is to decide what you can’t live without from day one.

Milestones

Set milestones to show your business plan’s audience where you realistically see your company going long term. Add the milestone’s name, due date, budget, and person responsible to a calendar to put “some bite into your plan and management.”

Stay up to date with these milestones once your business gets off the ground; they will keep you and your coworkers on track toward your original goals. Schedule monthly review meetings within your team (or schedule time to review by yourself, if you’re starting out solo) every month to monitor your progress on each milestone.

Traction

No investor will give away money to an unproven business idea. Even if you haven’t launched your subscription box yet, run a minimum viable product (MVP) to demonstrate that people will pay for your box. This can be as simple as selling a beta version of your boxes to verify that people will pay for it.

If your business is already up and running, include the milestones you already achieved. “Traction” shows that your subscription box is heading in the right direction and is important to investors as proof that your business is viable.

Key metrics

Going smaller, use key metrics to ensure that your business is on track to reach your milestones.

The five key metrics to judge your subscription model’s success are:

Most business owners would be terribly concerned their sales stagnated. That’s one benefit of the subscription pricing model—a slower sign up rate isn’t always bad for your business. Use these five metrics to track how many people are continuing their subscription and to know when you need to address stagnated sales.

Key assumptions and risks

State the key assumptions and risks of your subscription box service.

Knowing your assumptions helps maintain the business’ consistency because the subscription box industry is always changing. They become even more important when you revisit and update your business plan in the future.

Additionally, acknowledging potential risks can guide your business to reduce its susceptibility to them. Investors want to know that you’ve thought about situations that could negatively affect your service business, plus ways to avoid them.

Issues related to credit card fraud is a big risk with any ecommerce business model. Address the security risk with your website, as well as how you plan to stop any sort of fraud.

6. Team

You want to make your management team attractive and credible to investors. If they know your subscription box idea will get customers, show them why you and your team are the ones to make it happen.

Name the people involved with your subscription box service. Your team might change as the business grows, though. You might outsource packaging, shipping or both instead of hiring more people to work with you directly. 

Explain your business qualifications, along with any business partners or key team members. Also, describe why they are passionate or knowledgeable about the niche your box specializes in. Why do they know how to curate products that will surprise and satisfy customers?

The Lean Business Plan Template

7. Company overview

In the company overview section, you’ll explain what your company values, how it will legally protect its products, follow certain regulations, and structure ownership. Include your business’ history and location as well.

Mission statement

The mission of your subscription box is what you ultimately want people to recognize the brand name for. A generic template for a mission statement is:

“The mission is to provide X (services) by doing Y (methods) for Z (target market).”

Keep it as short and meaningful as you can.

Intellectual property

Trademarking your business name, logo, and so on are the main intellectual property issues for a subscription box.

But if you have some sort of new technology or method that improves an aspect of your service, make sure to protect it with patents. That could be anything from improved packaging methods to automated product curation.

Legal structure and ownership

Each legal structure has its own pros and cons, so do your research so you can make in informed decision.

Location

Where is your distribution center? Is it in an optimal location for reaching your target market without expensive shipping costs? This might change at some point in the future if you choose to outsource it.

History

If you’re writing this business plan as a strategic guide and your startup is already up and running, talk about how it began. Highlight any major achievements you have already reached.

8. Financial plan

With so many fluctuating expenses to account for in the curation and distribution of your boxes, you need to make sure that you are still making a profit.

For a subscription box company, like any other business, there are eight elements you need to include in the financial section of your business plan.

Here are the components of the financial plan that you’ll need to include:

Appendix

Like with any appendix, add any charts, tables, pictures, or other necessary information that didn’t fit neatly into the business plan.

This section is not necessary—only include it if you have supplemental information that you need to cover.

Conclusion

Subscription-based business models are growing exponentially in all industries because people are figuring out how to maximize the profit margins, and subscription box businesses are one of the premier industries taking advantage of this new and popular business model. They supply customers with unique, curated products, and provide the excitement of the unboxing experience that no other industry can.

Before you enter this lucrative industry, ask yourself these seven questions to make sure it is right for you. Then, start working on your business plan—keep it as short and concise as you can so that it’s easier to use it as a tool to guide your business.



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