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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Sticking to one scent feels stifling and outdated; however, perfume bottles are expensive, impractical for travel, and last forever.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!

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.