How She Did It: Melissa Fensterstock on Launching a Luxury Perfume That Doubles As a Pesticide
Melissa M. Fensterstock holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise from the University of Cambridge, and a BA in Neuroscience from The Johns Hopkins University. She has worked primarily in life sciences and luxury consumer products and is currently Senior Director of Corporate Development at Immune Pharmaceuticals a publicly traded biotechnology company.
Yet, Melissa and her husband Michael Fensterstock are also the co-founders of luxury perfume Aromaflage, which uniquely doubles as a pesticide, inspired by their travels abroad. I sat down with Melissa to discuss her journey towards launching Aromaflage, not only the challenges of creating demand for a new brand but also the opportunities that lay ahead for this essentially new category: fragrance with a function.
Tiffany Pham: What inspired to expand beyond healthcare to founding the luxury brand Aromaflage?
Melissa Fensterstock: I am a mosquito magnet and was tired of spraying myself with chemicals, smelling toxic, and scrubbing my ankles before retiring for the evening. I knew there were many others out there who faced a similar problem. My experience in healthcare has prepared me for many of the aspects of building a luxury brand. Both are consumer products, R&D driven, and operate in regulated industries that depend upon clinical testing. What is most challenging about biotech and pharma are the very long development timelines and large sums of capital required for commercialization due to heavy regulation. It can take 10 years to bring a novel drug to market and with that comes a high failure rate. By having condensed development timelines for beauty and retail, more time can be spent testing, iterating, and learning to improve future product runs.
Pham: What was your plan of action once you decided to launch your own company?
Fensterstock: The genesis of Aromaflage originated on a vacation to Southeast Asia with my husband Michael. After returning from our trip, the first step was to legally establish our company and to file any required legal protection, such as trademarks. At this point, it was already January and bug season was less than six months away! We needed to establish our supply chain and source more than 8 components from 3 continents. Many of our suppliers had large minimums and lengthy lead times so we needed to act quickly but prudently to manage our inventory risk. Once we sorted out our supply chain, the next call to action was determining our sales strategy and mix of ecommerce and brick-and-mortar retail. Our gut told us that the approach should incorporate both. We established our list of key retailers and starting reaching out and securing preorders. Simultaneously, we generated buzz, reaching out selectively to prestigious print magazines, online media, and bloggers.
Pham: What were some of the tactics you used to get Aromaflage off the ground fast, and have it be offered by luxury hotels to their clientele as well as featured in countless high-end publications?
Fensterstock: First off, Aromaflage works, is elegantly designed, and people love it. As any salesperson can tell you, having a great product makes the sale that much easier. That being said, a great product will not sell itself and requires hustle hustle hustle. Our story is compelling and Aromaflage addresses a common problem with a straightforward solution. Since we are trying to innovate and create a new beauty category, fragrance with a function for the outdoor lifestyle, buyers and hoteliers have been receptive to the concept. We are not competing head to head with products on the shelf, so in many ways the sell isn’t as challenging. Luxury hotels want to offer their customers something special and unique on their 5 star vacation. Exposing vacation-goers to new, creative brands is a great way to make a vacation more memorable. Years after a trip, I still associate scents that I discovered on my travels (such as a citrus Bvlgari lotion) with refreshing showers after a long day at the beach. Scents evoke powerful memories.
As for press, we did not hire a PR agency. Top press firms carry large retainers and are not necessarily performance based. A start-up does not have $5K per month to burn. We bootstrapped by drafting our own compelling email with professional photos and understood how Aromaflage could be of interest to the given readership. We were prudent in when we sent out product. Beauty and lifestyle editors have a roomful of untouched, unopened, never to be seen, gifted product – how tragic. We did not deliver product blindly, but rather when an editor expressed interest, a beautiful package was then delivered and with prompt follow up. Follow up is key, as editors can receive upwards of 40 packages per day. Press also begets press, so starting with a few clutch pieces of press allowed us to leverage that coverage but also generated new press leads (although it never seems to be enough). Press can lead directly to sales, but generally helps build brand awareness and credibility.
Pham: What were some of the personal and professional challenges you faced, transitioning from corporate research and development to founding a luxury consumer brand?
Fensterstock: Times associated with relaxation and vacation now meant work. Trips to tropical places meant opportunities to secure new hotel customers. Summer beach time was replaced with road trips to the Hamptons and Nantucket. I think the only safe place for a true vacation is now an iceberg cruise in Antarctica.
Professionally, the greatest challenge was that my only insight into luxury consumer products was my experience as a consumer. Understanding a market need and spotting an opportunity is only the first chapter. Branding and marketing are much of the game, as consumers are sophisticated and discerning and pricing and positioning is unintuitive. A brand must be built and cultivated over time. Branding is not a science, unlike the formulaic approach taken in healthcare.
Pham: You’ve mentioned you’re looking to start a new category: fragrance with a function. What do you see as the future of this sector?
Fensterstock: We are trying to solve a number of real-life problems with practical, beautiful solutions. Our first fragrance doubles as insect repellent. The next logical product line-extension is an outdoor candle that also repels bugs, launching this summer. Citronella candles are an eyesore and smell noxious. We are looking to build out other natural products that are not tied to the insect repelling theme, but that are rooted in a leisurely outdoor chic lifestyle – think your Cabana Boy on the go.
We hope to be the driver and creator of this new category, fragrance with a function. Consumers are looking for flexibility, creativity, and optionality from their purchases. By starting with our fragrance product line, we hope to expand into other lifestyle products. The vision is to build upon the power of essential oils to deliver healthful, functional solutions. I would ultimately love to create a new corner in department and cosmetic stores.
Pham: What successes have you achieved so far at Aromaflage, in line with your perspective on the future of luxury beauty and retail? What new opportunities are you working towards?
Fensterstock: A trend we have seen in retail the rise of businesses with a social mission, such as Warby Parker, Maiyet and Bombass. We too believe in doing well by doing good. Aromaflage is hand-mixed by Burmese refugee women who are house, educated, and employed. Incorporating parts of the supply chain from the developing world is by no means a simple task. Over the next few years, I believe we will continue to see this business model expanding from consumer products and into other sectors.
Our society has become increasingly aware and conscious of ingredients in everyday consumer products. While the green and organic movement can be extreme and expensive, a large segment of the population is now educated on safe and natural alternatives to chemical laden products. What we loved most about Aromaflage when we discovered it on our travels not only was that it worked, but also that it was free of harmful chemicals and toxins. In beauty, from skincare with Indie Lee to hair care with Briogeo to nail care with Zoya there are a number of emerging beauty brands founded by women who are passionate about healthy living and who deliver products with results. As we are seeing, if given access and choice, consumers gravitate towards natural, effective alternatives.
Given the complexities around manufacturing and prototyping, I am hopeful that we will be able to leverage 3D printing technology at some point in the near future. Long lead times and high production runs limit our ability to create small runs and improve upon our product. What can take 6 months to achieve through traditional methods can be achieved in a matter of minutes with 3D printing.
Pham: Do you have any advice for other business professionals aspiring to start their own luxury consumer brand?
It takes time: There is no magic bullet. Everyone wants to rush success, but building a brand requires patience.
Everyone has an opinion: Have a select few advisors that can really add meaningful value to your brand.
A brand is all about trust and loyalty: Make decisions that help build your credibility, driving repeat usage and sharing.
Limit your fixed costs: The fewer retainers, salaries, and overhead the better when revenue is unpredictable at the start. Find people who are willing to be flexible with startups.
Understand the origin of your demand: Is it press driven, repeat, referrals? Understanding the drivers will help inform underlying business decisions, investment, and strategy.
Fast growth isn’t always the answer: There is something to be said for growing slowly, honing the product and its messaging.
No business is perfect: Every business has its challenges and unanswered questions.
Tiffany Pham is the Founder & CEO of MOGUL (www.onmogul.com), an award-winning platform connecting women worldwide to top trending content.