Business 08 July 2017
While traveling on her honeymoon, Melissa Fensterstock was a mosquito magnet in Southeast Asia. Tempted to try what the locals created and trusted, she started using a native repellent. Not only did it smell great, but it worked, preventing the usual bulging welts she experienced in the hot, sticky summer months. She found herself inspired by this surprising product, and with a rich background in business and biotech, she started to form an idea.
What pushed her to truly dive into her entrepreneurial calling, however, was that earlier that year, her then-fiance (and now husband and business partner) had to have emergency open-heart surgery. Today, they both see that as their wake-up call.
“He had been in top notch shape, even was a professional squash player just a few years prior. We knew we wanted to create a brand that had to do with healthy living,” Fensterstock shares. “We both wanted to have ownership over our careers and commit ourselves to creating something unique and of value. What better way to control your own destiny than to run your own company.”
Women often are more risk-averse than men. That being said, in order to grow, pivot, and evolve, we must all take risks and incorporate the learnings into our businesses.
Once they were back in the States, they pursued the start of Aromaflage, a company that specializes in perfumes, candles and oils, all of which fight against bugs, while smelling great.
Fensterstock took the time to talk about her company’s success and what’s coming next:
What a cool concept. What’s your background? How did you land in this beauty-meets-health industry?
“I was always interested in the intersection of science and business, in particular, commercializing science. I was on the pre-med track and in the ninth hour decided it was not for me. I couldn't tolerate the blood and gore!
My first job after my BA in Neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and my MPhil from the University of Cambridge, was at a boutique strategy consulting firm. It was a great way to learn a lot about the healthcare industry and work with senior leaders in the healthcare field. The problem I always had with consulting was that as the consultant, you're just thinking hard and recommending solutions, not implementing them. I wanted to operate a business.
From consulting I went to work at Stryker, the medical device company. As you may know, it is consistently rated as one of the top companies to work for. The people were great and the work was interesting. Although I already had a master's degree, many of the jobs that interested me required an MBA. I knew I needed to get an MBA under my belt and applied to the top programs. I was thrilled when I was accepted to Harvard Business School. It felt surreal and I still remember every detail of finding out.
If we could get covered in the New York Times or if we could get our brand into a major department store, our business will be revolutionized!
Aromaflage Photo Courtesy of CDN
Business school is a two-year program and internships are required between the first and second years. I always felt that finance was a weak point of mine, so I figured the most tangible skill set I could garner in a summer would be an investment banking skill set. I worked for the summer at JP Morgan investment bank in the healthcare banking group. I worked harder than I ever had and learned a ton. That being said, I certainly was far from the best banker, and felt similarly about banking as I had felt about consulting.
I really wanted to be in a business, making decisions, and creating something as opposed to recommending solutions or executing transactions.
For personal reasons, I wanted to be back in New York. At the time, and still to date, there are not a ton of life science companies in the area, despite the local development initiatives. I joined a health technology company called Elsevier in a general management rotation program. It was a fantastic opportunity to move across the various business units and work with senior leadership across the company.
One day I received a call from a former boss of mine who was running a NASDAQ, publicly traded biotech company. He wanted to know if I wanted to run corporate development for him (out-licensing and in-licensing of assets). I felt that I would thrive in a smaller, more intimate environment where I could have real impact on the bottom line. Biotech is quite risky and either companies crush it or implode. The company took a turn for the worse and it felt like the right time to leave.
It was then that I joined Michael at Aromaflage full-time. The company was growing and I wanted to give it my all, not treating it as a side project any longer.
What sets Aromaflage apart?
“Most perfumes are all about the celebrity and the packaging. We take quite a different approach with an emphasis on function and quality of ingredients. We have pioneered the category - fragrance with function.
Our products are free of harsh chemicals and carefully formulated based on science. Our flagship line of products are fragrances and candles that naturally repel mosquitos. They have been tested and are effective. Quite in demand these days!
We have also launched a sleep fragrance that is designed to help induce sleep and promote restful, deep sleep. In addition to our scientific angle, we have worked with fine fragrance houses - the ones that make many designer fragrances - to craft a well-balanced, sophisticated, yet effective line of fragrances.”
What’s surprised you most about becoming an entrepreneur?
“The ups and downs and the importance of securing many small wins. One day you feel like you're on top of the world. The next day you might be ready to quit. It is a cycle that never seems to cease. I've learned so much about resilience and persistence. My thick skin can get me through almost anything.
It’s all about amassing small wins that eventually will amount to something meaningful. There is no silver bullet or replacement for brute force and hard work. I always gave more credit to milestone events: If we could get covered in the New York Times or if we could get our brand into a major department store, our business will be revolutionized! While these wins do add up, there usually is not one thing that will transform your business. I really believe it's all about moving the ball forward, one roll at a time, and keeping your head up through the steps forward and steps backward knowing that you just need to keep continuing to execute on your vision."
We love that. What’s been the most rewarding moment?
“The most rewarding moment was seeing our brand featured in a Daily Candy mailer just a few weeks after we launched our company. We had just started out and had no clue what the demand was for our perfumes. We had hundreds of hundreds of orders and had a proof point that people did in fact want Aromaflage! We totally weren't prepared for this spike in demand and hustled all night long for days on end to fulfill orders, even dropping packages off in person in NYC. All had hand written notes.
At this point in time, we have processes in place to handle this type of spike in demand such as a warehouse and fulfillment center with automation. Hearing all of the positive customer feedback and love for our brand has made it all worthwhile!"
What advice would you give to other aspiring female entrepreneurs?
“Take calculated risks. Women often are more risk-averse than men. That being said, in order to grow, pivot, and evolve, we must all take risks and incorporate the learnings into our businesses. When making decisions, I often ask myself: 'If I make this decision could it bankrupt my business?' If yes, I don't do it. If it's a risk that will provide a learning experience but we could financially continue should it fail entirely, I consider it.
Think about what type of business you are running. In a self-funded, bootstrapped company you must be concerned with not only revenues but profit. Profits are what will keep your lights on and business alive. Those who are venture backed can afford to focus on revenue and operate a loss. They are very different business models which impact the decisions you make on a daily basis.”
“We will continue to grow our retail distribution but our next focus is to invest in digital marketing and grow our e-commerce business. We are beefing up our content strategy as well, trying to provide a more holistic experience for our customers.
As for being a woman, I'm happy to be a new mom. It has been the most rewarding, yet challenging experience of my life. Given that I have been running Aromaflage, giving birth didn't give me a break from the business.There was no such thing as a real maternity leave. I was back up and running within days. That being said, I want to try to find the happy medium of continuing to push forward and prioritizing my career while also being the best mom I can be. I know that people talk about work-life balance. It is a bit of a myth. I think it's about staying focused on the task at hand at the moment and doing it to the best of your ability. Too often we are in one place but already thinking about what's next later in the day or what's on our to-do list. My personal goal is to stay focused on the moment and give it my all."
This post was first published 7/17
4 Min Read
Sometimes the person you have to stand up to is you! There I was, rewatching the Miss Universe 2019 competition. Which I do for inspiration from time to time. (No, seriously!) There is something about seeing women on stage, in full-on glam mode, and speaking with confident assuredness that really lights my fire!
I have seen this Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa win this crown so many times before, but something about this particular viewing, her delivery or her words, touched something inside me a little differently. At that moment, I truly believed, with complete conviction, that she lives what she speaks.
The announcement was made, the audience cheered, and the crown was awarded. The light was dazzling,, she looked stunning, almost blessed. The judges made the right call with 2019's queen.
Reflecting On Myself
Suddenly, the YouTube video ended. And I was left looking at a black screen. In the darkness of that screen, I saw my reflection and I began assessing what I saw, asking myself, "What have I been doing with my life?" It may seem like an overly dramatic question, but at that moment, I had to ask myself seriously… What have you done? The fact that I couldn't come up with a solid, confident answer gave my inner-cynic license to quickly spiral into self-criticism.
This went on for quite some time, until I got up. I stood up and walked to my mirror to have some serious one-on-one "Queen Talk." I needed to get out of that self-critical mindset, and I know that physical movement is something that help disrupt a way of thinking. I needed to remind myself of who I really was. The negative feelings I was experiencing at that moment were not reality.
Here are a few reminders for whenever you need some Queen Talk!
1.) Comparison is truly the thief of joy.
This saying feels like a cliché. That is, until it's applicable to you. At that moment, this "cliché, becomes self-evident. Comparing myself to someone on a stage with years of experience in an area I know nothing about is not only unfair but straight-up mean. A part of my comparison comes from me wondering, "Would I have the ability, if put in that position, to perform at such a level?" The answer is totally and without question, yes. I excel in the field I work in now, and I know that if I put that same energy towards something else, with practice, I could do just as well. No joy can come from comparing yourself to someone in a completely different field!
2.) Never forget the blessings that have been bestowed upon you.
Every single day, I am blessed to have the opportunity to wake up with all ten fingers and toes and choose to create the kind of life I want to live. There is so much power in that alone, but sometimes it's easy to take it for granted. Let us not forget those who are unable to make that same decision every day of their lives.
3.) Appreciate how far you have come!
I've been very intentional for some time to be kinder and gentler to myself. I need to realize that I am human. Being human means that I will not know everything, and I will continue to make mistakes.But I must let go of the need to always be right. I feel empowered when I can see the growth that I've made, regardless of the mistakes that may come in the future. I don't react to every little thing that bothers me, because I have learned boundaries when it comes to dealing with others and myself. I truly value my time and my energy, and, for that, I am proud.
4.) You Can Be Who You Want To Be
If you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it in reality. I saw myself when I looked at the women on stage, when she smiled, the way she talked, her elegant walk. For a moment, in my self-criticism spiral, I forgot that we are all connected. Debasish Mridha has said "I may not know you, but I don't see any difference between you and me. I see myself in you; we are one." I will not sit in the mentality of lack, there is more than enough opportunity and good fortune to go around for everyone. Her win was not a loss for me, but it can be a nudge from the universe for me to go ahead and dream big!
This Queen Talk was not easy. There may have been some tissues and tears involved but giving myself an honest yet compassionate talk is sometimes what I need to bring myself out of some bad head space. In these moments of doubt, you truly need to be your own best friend.When times get rough, criticism won't always come from outside sources. How you speak about yourself internally is crucial to how you see and feel about yourself. As Beyoncé once sang, "I've got Me, Myself, and I." We must put forth every effort to be there for ourselves. I look forward to more Queen Talks when some negative emotions arise. I am grateful for the person I am today, but I am excited to see the women I become.