To scale subscription startups, obsess over what your customer wants next

The crowded world of subscription businesses offers ongoing opportunities to screw up your relationship with subscribers.

At Disrupt San Francisco 2019, I spoke with Forerunner Ventures’ Eurie Kim, Lola CEO Alex Friedman and KiwiCo CEO Sandra Oh Lin about key issues and priorities for scaling a subscription service post-launch. A primary theme: building relationships with customers who’ll help you decide where to look for your next product.

“The first product just has to work or else you’re just not gonna have a company. But to be a big company, you have to have much more than just the product, it has to be the full experience and the full relationship that you have,” says Kim. “And then certainly you have to have the muscles on your team to be able to listen, evolve, test, and grow. So we’re obviously searching for companies… where the founders know so much about their customer that for the first few years, you have a very clear line of, you know, path forward. It’s not complicated. It’s just execution. And that’s hard to do. But you need to have a pulse on that customer.”

Instead of striving to meet the needs of every customer, entrepreneurs should focus on trying to understand the subscribers they’ve zeroed in on by being purposeful — instead of throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall to see which ones stick.

“What’s hard is your cash constraints. So you’re starting with one or two products. It’s not like an amazing experience, because it’s one or two products,” Kim said onstage. “You have to have like that laser-sharp product that is actually solving so much of the need that someone’s like, ‘well, it’s only one product, but it’s like a really good product. And so I’m going to start there, I’m going to trust Lola, and I’ll get this tampon. And then if I like it, I’m going to stick with it. I’ll sign up for the subscription, because I do need it monthly. And then hey, maybe I’ll buy something else.’ And so the brand relationship builds over the course of time naturally.”

Lola, which makes women’s health products, launched with an organic cotton tampon that shipped to users monthly. After entering that space, the startup’s co-founders strategized about how expand their offerings.

“We figured, okay, there’s this opportunity to build an end-to-end experience here,” says Friedman. “Where do we start? Obviously, there are a lot of different categories and moments. So how can we be there for [our customer] at every stage with products and content and community. And so after period care, we went to sexual wellness, because that is very resonant with our current customer base.”