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Sticking to one scent feels stifling and outdated; however, perfume bottles are expensive, impractical for travel, and last forever.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!
"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."
In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.
And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.
Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.
But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…
Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.
Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.
And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.
And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.
We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.
Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.
And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.
The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.
And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.
I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.
As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.
Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.
We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.