Zarina Bahadur is the CEO and founder of 123 Baby Box, a monthly subscription box for babies aged 1 to 3. Zarina graduated from the University of California Irvine last year, and started her company while still in school. We talked to her about starting a business in college, where her inspiration came from, and what her support system looks like these days.
Start by giving us the quick overview of what 123 Baby Box is and what it’s all about.
123 Baby Box is a monthly subscription box for babies aged 1 to 3. Each box comes with products tailored to the baby’s age and developmental stage. I founded 123 Baby Box with a mission to help the working mom – 1,400 hours per year is the average time new moms spend researching products for their baby. 123 Baby Box aims to bring everything their baby needs conveniently to them, saving their time and money. A portion of sales is also donated to orphanages to help provide babies with the proper supplies they need.
How did you come up with the idea for 123 Baby Box? How did you realize that there was a spot in the market for this kind of service?
One night I was at the grocery store. I saw this mom in her work clothes with a toddler in one hand and a crying baby in the other and her cart was filled with baby products. I thought to myself, “we are living in the 21st century, why couldn’t these things just come to her conveniently packed right when her baby needs them?” And that really sparked the idea for 123 Baby Box. There weren’t many companies out there, aside from the big players in the diapers and wipes industry, tackling this problem so I decided I would.
That’s amazing- what a great origin story! So you knew you had to start right away and found this company while you were still in college? What did that decision process look like, and how did you manage being a student while also creating a company from scratch?
Right when I got to college I was focused on graduating a year early because that’s what I did in high school and wanted to achieve that goal again in college. So, I was taking a bunch of classes, and at one point I was at 11 classes in one quarter, but it was still manageable to me. I did end up graduating early but while I was in college the thought of getting a typical 9-5 job made me cringe. I wanted creative control over my life. There’s little room for creativity and out of the box thinking at the typical 9-5 job; not to mention you have to report to a boss…no thank you!
I knew I had the right resources around me to start my own company. Despite my crazy school schedule, I prioritized and stayed organized; thankfully time management is a skill I sharpened in high school! I was constantly working on the business before and after class and was even fulfilling orders in the middle of lectures. I still made time for lunch with friends but every second of my day was focused on my class or company. This kind of hyper work ethic was necessary when you’re going to school full time and running your own business.
So are you one of those people who always thought you’d be an entrepreneur and start your own business eventually? At what point did you realize that 123 Baby Box was not just a dream and that it was a reality?
Starting my own business was always something I wanted to do. When I was in 3rd grade, my brother, sister and I started a burger stand because we wanted to be creative and not do a traditional lemonade stand. That was my first taste of entrepreneurship and I really enjoyed it. Since then I became obsessed with starting my own business. I was planning on starting later in life, but in college there were so many opportunities around me that it made sense to start then.
The point I realized 123 Baby Box was not just a dream but a reality was when I got my first sale. It felt amazing because someone just purchased something that I came up with and it solved their problem. This small idea that I had dreamt about now turned into a whole business. Not only that, but my first customer subscribed for the whole year so they had committed to buying 12 boxes which blew my mind at that time.
Making that first sale is the most exciting feeling in the world! Starting so young, have you run into people doubting you or your company based on your age?
I’ve been lucky to be surrounded with very supportive people from whom I’ve received encouragement since the day I started the company. However, like many young entrepreneurs, I needed to combat my lack of experience by becoming familiar with my industry and customer needs. Not only knowing your numbers but also your industry and really making sure you’re hitting the exact pain points of your customer will set you up for success.
Yes, I love that–if you can prove you should be there and there’s no reason for someone to doubt you, they’ll take you seriously when your results speak for themselves. As a relatively new company currently in the start-up phase, what are your favorite aspects of start-up culture?
The long hours and watching the sunrise are definitely my favorite … kidding! No, but I just love the overall community aspect of start-up culture. 123 Baby Box is in an incubator with other startups so just to be connected with other like-minded entrepreneurs and being able to discuss how we’re running our companies is really cool. There have also been a ton of mentors and advisors that have given a hand. However, there is no roadmap to follow so you have to learn to adapt and create your own direction. I’ve never been one to follow rules so it’s been fun getting creative and learning as I go.
You mentioned before that you have strong support from people around you. Tell us more about what your support system look like and how it has helped you along the way.
My family and college (University of California Irvine) have been my #1 supporters; without them I really couldn’t have achieved so much. A huge bonus is that my parents were also entrepreneurs so they have helped me tremendously throughout my journey. I can always count on them for their knowledge, experience, and support. UCI is also cultivating a climate for innovators and entrepreneurs and I am grateful to have attended a university that supports these initiatives. Being in a supportive environment like this has truly helped me and my company thrive.
That must be really nice to be in that kind of setting and have that support while getting a business off the ground. You also mentioned how important giving back as a company is to you, and how you do that by donating to orphanages — How has giving back made you feel more fulfilled as a business founder?
Just to see the impact on people’s lives is very astounding and fulfilling. We often forget how blessed we are until we cross paths with someone who is less fortunate. I started this company not just to solve a problem but also to create a positive impact on people’s lives. To be able to give back and help someone encourages me to continue to grow the company because I know I’m changing the lives of others as I’m doing it. I hope to help as many people as I can throughout the course of 123 Baby Box and inspire others to do so as well.
I want to talk subscriptions for a minute. The subscription model has totally taken off these past several years, and it seems like people love subscriptions. Do you think the subscription model is going to move more towards the norm for e-commerce?
Yes definitely. I believe every company should learn how to implement a subscription model to their business. There are a number of benefits to this. One is the one-time customer acquisition cost. You don’t necessarily have to pay to get that customer to purchase again if they’ve already subscribed. It’s ok to lose money on the front end when acquiring that customer because you’ll make it up in the back end when they stay for their term and continue to purchase. Also, it’s recurring revenue, you literally have repeat paying customers. From the customer’s standpoint, they’re going to purchase anyways but now they have a discount which is a better incentive for them.
Ok, when it comes to being a business owner, how do you start the day to set yourself up for success?
Unlike many people I don’t wake up and check my phone immediately. Instead I first have breakfast with my parents and talk about everything from business strategy and goals to funny TikTok videos. (I don’t work out/exercise at all, oops). Then I like to dive into my emails and make sure my customers are taken care of. From there, it’s pretty much working on 123 Baby Box throughout the day.
How do you balance being a young woman and being a super involved businesswoman? What are your main strategies to avoid being swallowed up by your work?
Pre-Covid, I always made sure to have time to hang out with my friends and family; I believe that’s important because they’re your support system. I think I did a good job of not allowing my school work or business work to consume me. I did this by implementing good time management strategies and making sure all the work was done on time. Although, in the early days I was always burning the midnight oil and micromanaging things. Now I’ve got a good team in place that can handle everything.