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Caroline Haegeman: How Covid-19 Provided The Inspiration For Starting My New Business

Caroline Haegeman is in her final year of her studies for a PhD in Oncology at Imperial College London, which includes laboratory research for pancreatic cancer. She was part of a recent BBC News online feature on women who started businesses during the pandemic lockdown. We discover more in this interview about what inspired Caroline to start a new business for the first time and how she and her partner came up with the idea. Caroline also talks about the challenges of combining her PhD studies with running a business that is growing and where the demand for the new product is increasing.

What have been the greatest influences in your life so far and why?

I personally don’t have any one greatest influence in my life. I believe that we are the sum of all of the influences and people who we surround ourselves with and have many influential people in my life. From supportive friends and family who have helped me gain confidence, to successful entrepreneurs who have shared their advice with me – it’s been a fantastic journey to here. I do want to make a special mention to Kickstart London, a student accelerator programme I participated in a few years ago, for giving me a true taste of entrepreneurship and helping me see what steps to take when it comes to starting a new venture. Without them, I doubt I would have been as quick to start my own venture.

You’re studying for your PhD in Oncology and due to the Covid-19 lockdown, have set up a new business. How do you see your future now between the two?
The COVID-19 lockdown was hugely influential in my decision to set up Box42, not just because it provided the inspiration for the idea, but also because with the labs closed and little social life, it was easy to commit almost all my time to setting up the business. 

Now with things going back to normal, running the business alongside a PhD is definitely a challenge! With my partner’s help, we have managed to keep the business going by just working during the evenings and early mornings around our 9-5 work. I’m hoping to finish my PhD early next year – as a priority – which would allow me to focus on the business a little more after that point! 

Tell us a little bit more about your business.
Box42 is a date night subscription box – the first of its kind in the UK. The inspiration for Box42 came during the start of lockdown, as my boyfriend and I were missing our regular date nights out. We couldn’t find any ideas for easy but fun date nights at home, which made it clear this was a gap in the market. I thought a date night subscription box could be a great solution for couples who would rather stay home for date night (which during lockdown was everyone!).

Each box is designed around a unique theme (e.g. Tuscan Pottery Date Night) and contains everything you need for your date, including 2-3 couples activities, snacks and drinks from independent brands, accessories to set the mood, additional online content, a date night guide and an optional dinner menu. 

Although we only started out in May and got our first sale in July, we’ve now grown to the point where we can just barely fulfil the orders we receive every day. It’s been a fantastic learning and developmental experience and I can’t wait to see where it goes. 🙂
Do you see your new venture as only a limited lifestyle business or do you have greater ambitions for it? If so, what are they?

Narrowing down to a date night subscription box business was a very conscious and intentional decision. The gap in the market for couples to enjoy date night at home was glaringly obvious, and it was niche enough that we felt we could do a really good job at addressing it. We also launched a free virtual version of our date night, which couples can do regardless of whether they’re together or long-distance. Long term we are hoping to become a really strong brand for couples. And when the time is right, we might also consider launching a “Mate Night” box so friends can also enjoy an experience together!

Essentially, we know people love having unique experiences and making memories together. We just want to make this easy and accessible for everyone, so it can also be done at home without much planning!

Once you came up with the business idea, how did you decide on what to do next and the actions to take?

Once we decided to commit to starting a business and investing some capital into Box42, we grouped all our activities into three main “buckets” of work needed to make the business work:

a) Website – as an e-commerce business, this was the obvious first step because without a website we couldn’t reach customers or sell anything. Even so, we thoroughly underestimated the world of SEO, and delayed all our initial plans by about one month to focus on getting ranked on Google’s first page.

b) Product – again this was obvious, as we needed a product to sell! We brainstormed ideas and settled on Casino Night as our first date idea. We then worked on designing the box, deciding how many boxes to stock up and then scoured the internet and connected with wholesalers and suppliers to get good quality products for an affordable price in bulk.

c) Marketing – this was the most undefined category of work. We know roughly what we needed to do to put together a Casino Night box and we knew roughly what our website needed to look like. But where to start with marketing?! There was no tangible goal other than “more followers”. We didn’t want to just pay for Facebook/Google ads without knowing whether they would work. So we just worked on slowly and organically growing our following by having faith in our product and engaging at a personal level with everyone who was interested in Box42. 

What advice would you give to other students and young people who have been affected by the changes due to the pandemic?

My one piece of advice would be to look for opportunity everywhere, all the time! Any time you find something that could be improved, you’re probably not alone – so there’s likely a market there to improve it. Identifying such opportunities is a great way to find out how you can really add value to the world, both personally and professionally.

Adversity brings with it more opportunities than ever before. With so many industries disrupted, there is a chance to do things differently, and better. Don’t be stuck in how things have been done until now, but envision how things could be… how they should be! 

Do you also know other young women entrepreneurs who recently started their own businesses?

Through my work at Panacea Innovation, where I was a programme principal for their healthcare and life-sciences, a life-sciences technology translation platform, I have met many other female founders and I actively continue to network in London’s startup world! You meet some truly amazing people and companies.I always love hearing about other people’s ventures!

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