From co-founding Netflix to his new role as CEO of Quarterly Co., Mitch Lowe has made it his business to bring the magic back to the mailbox. Quarterly Co., for the uninitiated, is a subscription service that sends you curated packages from influential contributors. It's like receiving a personal gift from your celebrity bestie. Lowe sat down with AdFreak to talk about Quarterly's latest celebrity addition—Bill Nye, the science guy—and why you won't be able to subscribe to your favorite brand anytime soon.
AdFreak: Tell me about adding Bill Nye as a contributor.
Mitch Lowe: He's someone that so many people have grown up with. He's the kind of guy who's always imaginative, and we really loved his idea of trying to make the world a better place by science. So we were attracted to his passion and vision. He's just so creative, and in like five minutes of conversation he came up with so many interesting ideas. Some people have sort of gotten to a point in their careers where it's just sort of a job, but he's still so passionate, and he's been doing it for so long.
How do you curate your curators? Do you choose the contributors, or do the contributors choose you?
We choose them. The flavor we're looking for are people with large followings who are passionate to the point that people really want to know more about them. Huge, huge celebrities are probably too well known. People already know too much about them. But there's a level where people are just really knowledgeable about their key area so much that people want to be inspired by them. So the first criteria we look for is people with large Twitter and Facebook followings. And then we look for the category they're in and the length of relationship. Just recently we hired a person who is responsible for seeking out our kind of contributor.
Bill's packages will contain a collection of tools to change the world and raise awareness of environmental issues. Changing the world was the mission of his TV show, and he did. How do you think he'll change the world with his Quarterly packages?
I think what he'll do is change the perspective and understanding of the people who receive the boxes because he'll be giving you that tactile understanding of the science that people are talking about. From global warming to all the big environmental issues, you'll get a tactile meditation into the issues. Instead of reading an article about how global warming is affecting us, you're going to be able to understand that firsthand.
You've changed the world yourself a few times with Netflix and Redbox. Will we be able to subscribe to you soon?
I am passionate about business and about young people starting in business, but I'm just more of an execution guy than an ideas person. I'm very rarely the originator of ideas like Bill Nye.
C'mon, you're telling me you never thought about what your theme would be?
(Laughs) Probably exercise and hiking. I love the whole meditation of hiking.
Of course, contributors don't go it alone. Tell me a little about the assistants that Quarterly assigns to each contributor. What's their role?
What we believe is that the contributor should play the major role with the ideation and the creativity behind each delivery, but they really aren't a buyer or manufacturer. So we assign them a contributor talent manager to take care of all that. We find one who has a passion for that particular genre. The contributor says they have this idea and this is what they want to do next quarter, and the manager goes out and finds the items and gives the contributor options for how they could make the idea work.
Do you run into a lot of limitations for what can be selected for a box, and how do you deal with interstate commerce inconsistencies? For example, if Bill Nye wants to add a favorite wine to the box, Florida subscribers are out of luck.
I wouldn't say we're experts on this, but over time we're learning about the things that are not shippable as well as items that don't tend to go well. Like barbecue sauce doesn't go well in a glass bottle. So our CTM will say, great idea, but in the past we've had three out of 10 of those things break in shipping. And of course we don't ship alcohol, we don't ship flammable things. For Tim Ferriss's first package, he had a supplement that we discovered last minute we couldn't ship to Australia, so we had to come up with a replacement.
What's the worst shipping experience you've had so far?
There's this product. It's a foam—an aerosol can that sprays foam marshmallows. We were told that like five out of 100 exploded inside the shipping containers, spraying marshmallow everywhere. But the funny thing was, most of the people who received the packages that exploded ended up saying it was a great way to try it, because they had to clean up the product with their fingers as they went through the box.
Exploding marshmallows aside, what's the psychological effect of receiving a personalized surprise package, even one you paid for?
I think it takes people back to their childhood. When they receive a gift, it has some type of visceral positive feeling. I'm getting a gift. A present. Someone is actually sending me something. I can't explain it, but I've seen it before when I was with Netflix. We would stand outside and watch people open up their mailboxes and look for the reaction when they got a new video. And we saw this smile just spread across their face. People just love receiving boxes. It's probably because we're moving so fast into a digital world and everything is delivered digitally nowadays. There's not enough physical contact.
That's true. And so many people, particularly brands, are looking for a way to deliver that physical feeling of connection. The moment I saw the site, I thought of a million different ways that brands could use this platform. Do you envision that happening?
We thought about it, and we think there's an opportunity there, whether it's a movie or a product release. But there's a lot of other people who do that, and so we're really focused right now on delivering a personalized experience that feels like a package you received from someone you know. There has to be a connection there.
We're not there yet. We continue to try and personalize things, and sometimes we remove a category because we realize we can't make it personal enough. For example, there was a Dog Lovers Quarterly package. And the problem was, every dog owner has a different size or type of dog. So we couldn't just send one size of thing. One size collar, one size toy, one size treat. Our overall goal is to continue to personalize that package so it's fairly customizable to each person.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you if BarkBox had something to do with discontinuing the Dog Lovers package.
(Laughs) It's really just a point of customization. We really believe in making the experience as personalized as possible.
Speaking of the boxes, how do the individual contributors advertise them? I noticed BoingBoing's Mark Frauenfelder gives sneak peaks of his boxes. Do you give them any guidelines for how to advertise?
We all agree that you should keep it a surprise. But we do give all our contributors our best advice for reaching people through social media, so we show the best examples on Facebook and tweeting and Instagram and blogs. Most of our contributors are actually more sophisticated than we are.
Do you know how Bill Nye is planning to announce his Quarterly box to his followers?
I don't think he's going to be wearing a Quarterly T-shirt on Dancing With the Stars, but you never know.
Well, now that you've called him out, he has to!
That, I would love to see.
Want to know what Bill Nye's first, world-changing package is going to contain? You'll have to subscribe and wait just like the rest of us.