Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Carrie Thorpe

Mail-order pride

By Deborah Holdship
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You’ve got mail

Magic. Delight. Joy.

Imagine if one could subscribe to a service that delivers those elusive qualities directly to the doorstep – in a brightly colored maize-and-blue box. Well, it can happen. Just ask Carrie Thorpe, MBA ’16, creator of ProudBox, presented by M Den. It’s the official mail-order “fan box” of the Michigan Wolverines.

ProudBox is one of the newest contenders in the exploding subscription commerce industry. This fast-growing retail segment generated an estimated $5 billion in sales in 2014, according to a recent article in FastCompany.

A scan of the website MySubscriptionAddiction.com offers listings for 900 different subscription boxes, with more being added all the time. Offerings run the gamut, as busy consumers pay to receive regular shipments of beauty products, undergarments, food, wine, books, and, in the case of ProudBox, items with a significant tie to U-M.

What these consumers are really buying is an experience, Thorpe says. And she’s ready to deliver.

“Pride is a thingat Michigan,” she says. “When you walk through the gates of Michigan Stadium, you get a feeling you don’t get anywhere else. It’s magic. Everyone is connected. There is so much energy. And it’s not just about the game. It’s about the fabric of Ann Arbor, the students, the merchants, the whole experience of being a Wolverine.”

Surprise!

ProudBox Graphic

A ProudBox sampler. View a larger image.  (Image courtesy of M Den.)

Michigan fans who sign up for a three-month subscription by Sept. 30 will receive the “Football Edition ProudBox” throughout the fall. Each box contains products affiliated with U-M and Ann Arbor: licensed merchandise, locally made baked goods and snacks, student and commercial publications, collectibles, and more.

But there’s a twist: The contents remain a “secret” until the subscriber opens the box. And while some consumers may balk at the idea of purchasing a product sight unseen, a certain segment of the market happily embraces it, Thorpe says.

“A big part of the business model is surprise,” she says. “The anticipation and the unboxing is more than half of what excites people.”

To put consumers at ease, ProudBox will unveil the “hero item” in each box prior to shipment, and also will showcase the variety of items that may appear in any given delivery. (Local partners include Zingerman’s, Shinola, Underground Printing, and more, if that helps.) As with most subscription boxes, retail cost of the collective content will exceed the price of an individual box.

Why didn’t I think of this?

ProudBox grew organically out of Thorpe’s experience in the executive MBA Program at Michigan Ross. She’d consulted with an Irish mail-order company for a class project, which required her to research membership and subscription models.

She soon identified an untapped market in college athletics. Some collegiate and professional sports boxes do exist, she says, “but it became very evident those boxes were missing an authenticity to the place, an emotional connection.” As a recent U-M grad whose goal is to stay connected herself, she was confident she could bring that authenticity – and that emotion.

Follow where it leads

ProudBox Junior

ProudBox “Junior.”

Thorpe holds an undergraduate degree in advertising from Michigan State and a law degree from Wayne State. Much of her career prior to business school was in loyalty marketing and trademark law, two areas that meld nicely with her new venture.

“Given my background, I knew that to really succeed I would have to be in lockstep with the University and its preferred partners,” she says. “I had to have the University’s buy-in.”

A serendipitous meeting at Ross with Greg Harden, U-M’s director of athletic counseling, started her down that path. He listened to her pitch and suggested she contact incoming Athletic Director Warde Manuel, BGS ’90/MSW ‘93/MBA ’05. (Manuel also is a graduate of the executive MBA program.)

The AD took the meeting soon after he landed at U-M in the spring. He recognized the potential in Thorpe’s plan, and sent her to Kristen Ablauf, director of trademark licensing in Michigan Athletics. Ablauf also was intrigued and directed Thorpe to another Ross graduate, Scott Hirth, MBA ’92, an owner of the M Den, official retail partner for U-M.

The holy grail

It didn’t take long for Hirth to invite Thorpe to form a joint venture partnership. The entrepreneur brings her background in marketing, curation, law, community partnerships, and business. Hirth’s expertise in commercial retail covers purchasing, pricing, warehousing, fulfillment, shipping, and more.

“Retail is a bear and you have to go where the customer guides you,” Hirth says. “I was impressed by how far down the path Carrie already was. The [subscription model] fits right in with current trends, and it was easy to see how many things we could do together.”

Bottom line? “We’re going to put really cool stuff in these boxes,” Hirth says. “And I know Michigan fans for years have been all about getting really cool stuff.”

The first batch of product left M Den’s Ypsilanti warehouse in mid-September. Thorpe says ProudBox will fulfill three-month subscription orders that come in by Sept. 30. And the crew may be nimble enough to accommodate latecomers with an amended shipping schedule.

Advertising and social media support will come from M Den and other merchants with a vested interest in a box’s contents.

Shipping and receiving

As part of her deal with M Den, Thorpe retains the right to her trademark, ProudBox, LLC. This fall she piloted a student-centric ProudBox at Michigan State. Consumers had the option to purchase one-, three-, or five-month subscriptions at tiered pricing to support students during welcome week, midterms, and finals. Fulfillment for this line happens at Thorpe’s house, where she and a small team (including her husband and 11-year-old son) assemble and pack the boxes.

Each student box contains cards that say, “I got my ProudBox and I love it” and “Hey, I’d like a ProudBox.” Recipients and friends are encouraged to post photos to social media. Rewards for referrals include premiums, freebies, and more.

School spirit

Long term, Thorpe is looking to scale throughout the Big Ten. Shorter term, she expects to launch a basketball season box, as well as a “junior” box (targeting kids 12-and-under), and a U-M student box next fall. The possibilities are endless: She has plans for holiday boxes, championship boxes, and boxes for fraternities and sororities, to name just a few.

She’s even going for zero-waste, with a shipping box that reverses to a decorative style.

The accelerated pace of the venture is a bit overwhelming, Thorpe admits. She’s never been busier, but she’s never been happier.

“They always say, ‘Do something you’re passionate about,’ and I’m actually experiencing that for the first time,” she says. “This is a great business to be in. It’s a happy business. A lot of my [executive MBA] classmates said, ‘How lucky are you? Now you get to stay connected to this place.’

“Honestly, that was the biggest driver for me. The inspiration for the whole thing was born out of my love for U-M.”

Deborah Holdship

Deborah Holdship

DEBORAH HOLDSHIP is the editor of Michigan Today. She joined the University in 2007 as editorial manager in the marketing communications department at the Ross School of Business, where she was editor of Dividend magazine for five years. Prior to working at Michigan, Deborah was associate director of publications at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. From 1988-2001, Deborah worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, where she was a reporter and editor at Billboard magazine and an associate editor and video producer at LAUNCH media. Follow her on Twitter: @michigantoday.