May 21, 2024

From The Gentleman’s Box to SubSummit: The world of recurring revenue with John Haji

Samantha Lloyd

John Haji is a subscription guru and serial entrepreneur with a decade's worth of experience in the ecommerce and recurring revenue space. His background in think tanks paired with his entrepreneurial spirit has positioned him for success within the subscription industry. Formerly, he was the Co-Founder and President of The Gentleman's Box, the premier subscription service for high quality men’s care. He has been recognized by Crain's Detroit as one of the "40 Under 40" award recipients in 2019.

John is also the co-founder of SubSummit, the largest and leading conference devoted exclusively to the subscription commerce industry. Clearco is sponsoring SubSummit in June and as John’s former subscription box company, The Gentleman’s Box, was an ecommerce brand Clearco worked with closely, we had to share the story.

Thanks for doing this interview, John! Tell us about your former subscription box business you cofounded, The Gentleman’s Box:

John Haji: In 2014, my partners and I started a subscription box company called The Gentleman’s Box. It was a premier subscription ecommerce focused on men’s apparel and care - shipping out fashion, lifestyle, and similar accessories on a monthly basis.

We started the company as a way to help people build confidence and encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone by styling them with the latest trends, at an affordable price, with the added subscription box luxury of having it arrive directly to their door. 

The Gentleman’s Box was acquired in 2020 after 400,000 orders shipped by Jeff Zieders, CEO of the Cigar Club.

What was the fun part of running a DTC subscription box business?

John: We got to build a community around the brand, highlighted different individuals every month and got to know subscribers personally. I also surrounded myself with great partners and amazing team members that I not only could inspire and motivate, but learn from myself.

Can you talk to us about the challenges and learnings running a direct-to-consumer (DTC) subscription box company:

John: There are many challenges when operating a subscription box business. You need various products to fill a box and these products have to continue to delight customers month-over-month.

One of our key challenge areas was inventory management. We also had to be cautious of the cost to acquire a paying customer as well as retaining customers, while ensuring we were enhancing the customer experience.

There are so many moving parts to running any business, and a subscription box is no stranger to those, so just navigating effectively and efficiently is key.

What were some of the new learnings you were able to acquire when running a DTC subscription brand?

John: I was a health sciences major in college, so running an ecommerce brand was all new to me. Everything from supply chain, logistics, curation, digital marketing, and even everything that comes with operating a business such as managing finances and teams and human resources (HR) I had to learn from the ground up.

The logistics of building an ecommerce brand can be a lot in itself, even more encompassing with an ecommerce subscription brand. You are navigating trying to get a customer to buy into a product but more specifically, a recurring product. There’s a double barrier of acquisition there. 

What were the times of high growth like for The Gentleman’s Box?

John: The first couple of years we experienced great growth because we were first to market in our space. The landscape of digital marketing, such as working with influencers and affiliates for ecommerce, was much different and less expensive than it is today. We were acquiring customers for less than $10.00 USD at one point. We worked with an influencer once that brought us 1,000 new subscribers in less than 24 hours - I’ll never forget seeing the orders come in that day. By the end of the six years, we had over 400,000 shipped.

To hit this growth, omnichannel marketing was important. We were constantly testing many channels across paid media on social, email marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), affiliate and influencer marketing, text message marketing, and more. We tested until the channel no longer performed or didn’t make sense against high performing channels. For any new channels, we would test, analyze the results, improve where we felt we needed to, then test again.

Talk about when Clearco entered the picture and how Clearco supported The Gentleman’s Box

John: Cash flow is critical when running any business - operating your business with cash flow and finances at the forefront is important. Certainly, ecommerce businesses have a lot to invest in for inventory and marketing, so having cash-on-hand is key to success.

We had to project months out on inventory because of the suppliers we worked with. We needed to have cash on-hand for deposits in advance. That cash flow we had available was better suited for marketing initiatives rather than inventory.

We got to a point where we best understood, through data, most of our costs of operation, such as what our average cost per acquisition (CPA) was or our gross profit margin. We used that benchmark data to predict what subscriber growth would look like and what monthly spend would look like. Once we figured that out we knew that we would need to infuse the business with cash in order to not pigeon hole our growth because of inventory expenses.

Funding our inventory invoices and receipts is where Clearco came in. Clearco helped our subscription box ecommerce business grow to the next level. We could properly manage the back end of the business with the supply chain and procurement process without sacrificing growth on the front end by having Clearco fund inventory so we could free up cash flow to invest in marketing, operations, and more.

You launched a conference focused on the recurring revenue sector - tell us about SubSummit.

John: Launching SubSummit happened in 2016, while we were just a couple of years into running our own subscription eCommerce business. We were essentially looking for a conference out there to connect with other like minded folks in the industry (e.g FabFitFun, BirchBox, Harrys, Dollar Shave Club, etc.)

What is SubSummit?

John: SubSummit is the largest and leading event for DTC subscription brands across six different verticals of the subscription economy:

  • Ecommerce subscription box
  • Subscribe and save
  • Membership
  • Digital product or service
  • Media or publications
  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

Who should participate in SubSummit?

John: The ideal ticket holder for SubSummit is an ecommerce or retail merchant that has a subscription model built into their business. As well, any vendor that offers a solution catered to supporting growth for DTC subscription brands should be attending, participating in, or sponsoring SubSummit to reach their target audience. 

If you could run another ecommerce brand today - what sector of DTC would you focus on?

John: I have two young girls, currently aged 2 ½ and 11 months. Being a father has opened my eyes to all the types of products centered around parents, newborns, and children. Another interest of mine is in sports, so something in the golf or pickleball space - I am addicted to those two.Otherwise, I often get asked, if I could start another subscription business, what would I sell. The answer is always the same: any product that is depletable or replenishable. Those types of goods have a better chance of success in the subscription world as they are typically products of need versus a want.

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Samantha Lloyd
Director of Marketing, Clearco

Samantha Lloyd is the Director of Marketing at Clearco. A longstanding marketer in the business-facing technology industry, Samantha focuses on accelerating startup and transformative growth at companies. In her free time, you can find Samantha dreaming of the ocean.