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Breaking Into Beauty: How Scentbird Found Space Where There Was None

Business

The beauty business is a crowded market from focused retail stores to department stores to online shops to subscription boxes. One might think there wasn't room enough for even one more player in the game. But Scentbird founders Mariya Nurislamov (CEO) and Rachel ten Brink (CMO) thought otherwise.


With a background in Applied Mathematics, Computer Science and Marketing, Nurislamov was COO of Neuvey, an IT outsourcing company and co-founded Beta Week, an invite-only IT conference based in Moscow prior to founding Scentbird with Sergey Gusev (Founder & COO) and Andrei Rebrov (Founder & CTO).

Brink, who holds an MBA from Columbia Business School, spent over fifteen years in Global Marketing leadership roles at L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, P&G and Elizabeth Arden before embarking on this endeavor.

Mariya Nurislamova. Photo Courtesy of ScentBird

They took a gamble in October of 2014 and they played their cards just right. Investors flocked and sales soared. Why, you ask? Because the brand considers themselves a tech platform first. An interesting position and one that has paid off “scentsational" dividends.

1. From where did the idea for Scentbird come?

Mariya Nurislamova: Scentbird was created with the simple notion of offering choice when it came to personal fragrance.

As a true fragrance lover myself, I oftentimes found myself wanting to try something different. I didn't (and still don't) believe in a “signature scent" because I like to mix things up – sometimes I want a floral scent and other times I want a musky scent, it's just the way of life. I then would embark on my search to find a new fragrance and realize that in order to find my next perfume I have to dodge salespeople at the department stores, sniff numerous scents until my eyes watered, and then pay for an entire bottle that I never finish.

Sticking to one scent feels stifling and outdated; however, perfume bottles are expensive, impractical for travel, and last forever. We had many conversations with women who found themselves in the same situation that I was in saying, “I like the scent but I'm so bored of it. But there's so much left that I feel bad buying something else." That's when we came up with Scentbird, a way that would make it fun and be engaging to try new scents in a small sized atomizer filled with a designer fragrance of choice that lasts 30 days for only $14.95 a month. We knew very early on that there just had to be a simpler, more pleasurable way to discover different fragrances so we used that as our fuel to create Scentbird.

2. Did you feel as if something was missing in the beauty market offerings?

Rachel ten Brink: Absolutely. Perfume is supposed to be an indulgent, sensory experience, yet we found that shopping for perfume to be anything but easy.

We knew very early on that there just had to be a simpler, more pleasurable way to discover different fragrances so we used that as our fuel to create Scentbird.

3. What made you think it would work despite the exceptionally crowded beauty and beauty box market?

Andrei Rebrov: Like many new businesses, we had identified an issue and created a solution. But only after trial and error did we eventually realize we were on to something special. Scentbird was developed with two major things in mind, the customer and the current fragrance space. There are no “one-size fits all" when it comes to finding a perfume or cologne and the marketplace didn't seem to grasp that concept at the time.

What makes us different from other subscription boxes, is that our customers have the ability to choose what they want. Every time. If they need a suggestion from us Scentbird's unbiased approach to recommending perfumes combines analytics with highly visual design to help direct them with recommended choices. There is some serious technology we developed called, TrueScent that helps pair the person with the fragrance of their desires.

4. What were your first steps in terms of getting Scentbird started? Technology? Product? Distribution?

Rachel ten Brink: Technology. We started Scentbird as a recommendation engine where we took 500M authentic consumer reviews. Instead of industry terms, we did a semantic analysis based on real consumer language (e.g- “I love it but it smells like grandma"- what other scents are consumers describing with these words?).

5. Where did you get your funding for Scentbird?

Mariya Nurislamova: We were lucky to be funded by Y Combinator in the early days and that really helped open up our network. Demo Day was instrumental in terms of meeting investors and getting our message across. It was reasonably straightforward from there.

6. Why do you think Scentbird has done so well in terms of funding?

Mariya Nurislamova: Truthfully, we have been very capital efficient, so didn't have to raise much. The strong unit-level economics and high margins really help tell our story and do most of the work for us. Recurring revenue stream and fast growth also help when it comes to raising outside capital.

7. How do you account for the speed at which Scentbird has taken off?

Sergey Gusev: The fascinating thing about Scentbird is that it appeals to a variety of people.

Scentbird is not only great for those perfume addicts who know exactly what they want or love trying new scents. It's also good for people who have no clue what they want in a fragrance and need a little help figuring it out.

Having an appeal to the masses is key. Our growth is due to a lot of hard work of course, but focusing our energy on consumer feedback and actually implementing their needs is what keeps us strong. That's one of the reasons we recently launched our own namesake line of scented hand creams and shower products. Our consumers wanted more fragrance and based on a poll including over 1 M consumer insights we created unique scents like Earl Grey & Blackberry and Rose & Prosecco into everyday luxury products.

8. What do you believe is the magic formula in terms of creating, maintaining, and managing a team that can create the kind of success you've experienced?

Mariya Nurislamova: As a startup, when things get tough, I always remind the team that the darkest hour is right before the dawn and we need to focus on the prize, not the hardships of getting there.

By staying in a focused, positive, and driven mindset, we have been fortunate to have grown rapidly and hope to continue to grow!

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Politics

Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.


When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.