Birthing a Business
Ask Bump Boxes founder and CEO Christine Cooney Deehring ’07 MSA ’07 why she left a secure accounting job at Caterpillar Inc. to pour her time, money and energy into a start-up housed in her dining room, and she might tell you a story about her first week of high school.
“It was a new school for me, and I was kind of in my own shell all week, not saying much to anyone,” she said. After school on Friday, when her mom suggested they go out for ice cream, Deehring agreed and climbed into the family van.
Without a word, her mom drove straight to the high school, crowded with students going to the first football game. “What are we doing here?” Deehring asked in a panic.
“Get out of the van,” her mom replied. Despite her pleas, her mother insisted she get out of the van and go to the game. Deehring did, armed with the conversational icebreaker, “My mom kidnapped me and brought me here.”
“I made a lot of friends that night,” she admitted. “It was hard for my Mom to do, but she knew it was the best thing for me. It taught me that I have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to grow.”
In 2015, Deehring “kicked herself out of the van,” as she puts it, by leaving Caterpillar to create Bump Boxes, a monthly subscription service of helpful products for expectant mothers. Four years later, the company also has Bitsy Boxes, a spin-off subscription for moms and babies; Glow Organics, a line of organic bath and body products; multiple apps and acquisitions, and 36 employees whose focus is squarely on supporting new moms.
Deehring began to think about creating the business when she was pregnant with her daughter Ainsley, now 5. Spending hours after work researching products that would be safe for her and the baby, she noticed there didn’t seem to be a place that offered safe and healthy products vetted for expectant mothers.
So she and her husband, Leland ’06, decided to start the company in their dining room. “We financed it with savings and bootstrapped in the beginning, using our own money to fund the growth of the business. We took on a very small amount from angel investors, but the business has funded its own growth ever since,” Deehring said.
“Any time you invest your life savings into something, there is added stress. But because we’re so personally invested, we make better decisions for the company since it’s our own money on the line. We’re smart with where we invest our dollars and the bets we take, so we’ve been able to scale incredibly quickly.”
Bump Boxes’ success — they shipped 300,000+ orders in 2018 — is part of a 900 percent increase in subscription services worldwide since 2014. Consumers subscribe to have ready-to-cook meals, socks, shaving cream and razors, clothing, household cleaners, pet food and more delivered to their homes on a schedule.
In 2015, Bump Boxes grew into a 1,200 square-foot facility, and in 2016 moved into a 18,000 square-foot office/warehouse in north Peoria. They are currently looking for a new headquarters building. Their Glow Organics line of bath and skin-care products for women, started in 2018, is manufactured in central Illinois.
‘A birthday every time you get a box’ In the early days, Deehring blogged and pushed out social media content in the evenings after working a full day. Today, the company’s social media tone is still a mixture of support and encouragement, playfulness and honesty. “Pregnancy is a life-changing event,” Deehring said. “Many of our employees are moms, and we want to be supportive. We vet all our products and want to be a trusted resource.”
Marketing Instructor Heidi Rottier ’98 MBA ’01, who had Deehring in class, understands why consumers love subscription services. “I think the biggest part of (the category’s success) is that we like experiences. Even if I order something for myself online, when it comes, I’m so excited. A subscription service ramps up your experience. It’s a birthday every time you get a box, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like to get presents.”
“And they’re personalized — there’s every level and type of subscription box. For Christmas, we got our daughter a Harry Potter subscription box. I even subscribe to a couple of services for my dog. One of my former students lives far from her mom, and her mom sends her dog a Bark Box every month, and (my student) posts the unboxing to Instagram.”
“With the food services, the convenience factor is huge. It’s not about saving money.”
As for Bump Boxes, Rottier thinks subscribers appreciate that the products in each box are curated. “If you’ve never been pregnant before, if you’re working, you don’t have endless time to research. The fact that someone else has gone to the trouble to research these products, it’s like a mom’s seal of approval — a trusted friend.”
Many subscription services offer an interactive platform where subscribers can log in and pause or edit their orders. Rottier says consumers see that as a benefit, whether or not they use it. “When we sign up, there’s peace of mind that we can control our subscription, even if we forget our log-in and never adjust anything.”
This business sector is still being invented, and there are many changes to come, Rottier said. “Use of subscription services will settle out where people truly find value. Things that save us time and effort. Those that are not just for fun, but that truly meet a need.”
Careful choices, valuable feedback
As the company’s head merchandiser, Sarah Gruber chooses products for each Bump Box. “Every box is so different,” she said. “We choose 5-8 full-size items, and each box has a theme. I work with the Customer Experience team throughout. We want 100 percent of subscribers to be happy. If someone isn’t, we re-evaluate.”
Bump Boxes customers are great at letting the company know how they feel about products, and Gruber receives the comments. “I’m the front side. I’ll hear how things go,” she said. “We read each and every comment, and when someone doesn’t like a product, they let us know.”
Gruber, who has two children and has been with the company almost two years, calls Deehring “motivational, positive and honest.”
“The company is very family friendly. Moms come first with our subscribers and in the office. Bump Boxes’ leadership knows stuff happens, and they’re flexible.”
Customer service is essential
As CEO, Deehring sees herself as the company’s integrator — “I lead, manage, hold people accountable.” She has weekly meetings with her leadership team, a monthly “Bump It Up!” all-staff meeting, and meets one-on-one with each employee. “I’m also in charge of company culture, pulling the pieces together,” she said. “We work hard, but we also have fun. Every Friday at 4, we break for a happy hour open to friends and families.”
She knows that one of the company’s biggest strengths is its team of customer experience specialists, all of whom are experienced parents. Brooklyn Layton, a teacher in Haltom City, Texas, adored her first Bump Box, which arrived as a gift from her husband. “My love language is gifts,” she joked.
After receiving a few boxes, Layton had a miscarriage. Grieving, she called Bump Boxes to ask for her subscription to be stopped. She connected with customer service specialist Cat Littlefield, who consoled her and took care of the request. “She was amazing, so understanding,” Layton recalled. “Then she sent me a take-care-of-yourself box from the company. They didn’t have to do that.”
When Layton discovered she was pregnant again, one of the first people she called was Littlefield. She ordered another subscription and stayed in frequent touch with Littlefield, even sending sonograms of the baby throughout the pregnancy. Minutes after her son Mason was born last April, she texted Littlefield a photo of him. “We keep in touch to this day. Cat will be part of my family forever,” she said.
Partnerships show employees they’re valued
Bump Boxes’ newest effort is forging partnerships with businesses and corporations to support their employees during and after pregnancy. The company supplies customized gift boxes that can be used as part of maternity leave benefits.
Jennifer Robin, associate dean and professor of management and leadership, sees efforts like these as evidence that companies realize the importance of supporting employees through major life changes.
“This trend (of companies helping employees starting families) has been around a while, but partnering with companies like Bump Boxes is a new way of showing they care. I’ve also heard of companies providing meal delivery services or setting up meal trains for families.”
“It’s a recognition of the blurring of lines between work and home — for example, that many employees are expected to be available by phone or email after hours. It’s a way for companies to show they see the employee as a whole person.”
“Of course, the most effective thing employers can do to help employees and increase retention is to provide paid family leave. It’s good for mothers, for fathers, for all people. There’s also a growing trend toward providing adoption benefits.”
She also notes that a company’s off-ramping process — easing the employee’s departure from and return to the job — can reassure anyone taking family leave and make them more eager to return. “If their leave is planned well, it helps the employee park that worry about coming back. Companies need to think about managing re-entry.”