This is the first of three installments of The Scent Series, a collection of three stories about a new wave of non-toxic, hypoallergenic perfumes. “Fragrance” is protected as a trade secret, so perfume makers are not required to list ingredients on their labels. But a typical fragrance can contain hundreds or even thousands of chemicals. These three companies are listing their ingredients, and choosing to use only those known to be safe for most people.
Eczema caused Cat Chen terrible discomfort as a 5-year-old child, with itchy, uncomfortable skin that made her feel anything but beautiful. The one thing that gave her comfort, she recalls, was when her grandmother massaged her skin with scented lotions. That olfactory experience transformed what could have been a painful memory to one of comfort and pleasure.
Scent is the sense that’s most closely tied to memory, so it’s not a surprise that Chen became a scent enthusiast. She loved finding just the right fragrance for her mood, and developed a scent “wardrobe.” But in 2017, she discovered her newborn daughter was allergic to her perfumes, and was saddened to think she wouldn’t be able to share her olfactory passion with her daughter.
But Chen happens to be one of the first Honest Company employees, and her business mind went to work. Skylar perfumes was the result. Chen launched the brand in April 2017, and has seen a 2,000% year over year growth. The conversion rate (i.e. turning internet visitors into customers) is three times higher than the industry average. The brand has more than 3,000 five-star ratings on its website, and 25% of customers purchase multiple fragrances during their first purchase.
It’s as close as you can get to an overnight success story in the beauty business. But it makes sense—Chen’s experience at Honest as VP of operations means she knows how to deliver, literally. While she is deeply involved in scent formulations with master perfumer, she also makes sure packages are shipped efficiently. Read on to learn ore about why buying perfume online is better than at the mall, what she learned at Honest, and her Bath & Body Works addiction.
When you realized your daughter was allergic to the scents you were wearing, were you a pretty hardcore perfume enthusiast?
“Absolutely. When I was 5, I developed eczema, which was uncomfortable and unpleasant. My grandmother was the only one who could help me feel better, by slathering her scented lotion on my skin every day after school. This experience showed me the beauty of scents—during a time when I felt anything but beautiful, the scent brought me happiness and made me feel beautiful again. To say I was hooked is an understatement.
As a teenager, I became a mall rat (as teenagers did in those days) and became obsessed with Bath & Body Works. I began collecting all of the different sets of scents. As I grew older, I grew out of Bath & Body Works, but I never grew out of my passion for scents and perfumes. When I found out my daughter was allergic to my traditional perfumes, I felt terrible for her and I was also really sad to have to give up my favorite beauty product. I searched for other options, but couldn’t find a hypoallergenic option that felt elevated, unique, and me. So I created Skylar—for all women and for myself. I understand the power of scents and have felt its impact throughout my life. I wanted to ensure other women got to feel it without feeling bad about the ingredients inside.”
Did you ever discover what ingredients your daughter was allergic to?
“After working with my doctor and doing a lot of research, I realized it was not just one ingredient. In perfumes, there are hundreds of ingredients that can combine to create a fragrance. Many of those ingredients include phthalates, sulfates, allergens, and more. It isn’t just about each specific ingredient, but also about how they interact with each other. This is why we have taken so much care in working with a master perfumer to mix the right types of ingredients, in the right way to craft a hypoallergenic, safe and beautiful offering.”
What did you learn from your experience at Honest that has helped you build Skylar?
“I am incredibly grateful for what The Honest Company gave me. As one of the first employees of the company, I had the privilege of understanding how to grow an idea into a successful business. From learning how to fail fast—working quickly toward execution, learning from our mistakes and pivoting to successful strategies. Or how to scale the business—developing our team and our operational growth strategy.
I use what I learned at Honest daily at Skylar. I was the VP of Operations and as such, am intimately familiar with how to craft the right supply chain, warehouse plan, and overall customer experience to drive growth. Many beauty CEOs are focused on the “big idea,” but I am equally obsessed with the little details. As amazing as a great marketing campaign can be, delivering to our customer every day, with the right shipping speed, product quality, shopping experience, and customer support is what actually creates customer loyalty and a sustainable business from my perspective. I have taken what I learned from Honest and focused on setting the right foundation for Skylar up front.”
What were some of the most important elements that led to your skyrocketing growth since you launched last year? How do people typically find out about you?
“We have had a wild ride thus far. When I first started the company, I started to see a lot of positive feedback about the scents truly filling a need for women. I think this base of women who have supported us and continue to support us is a key factor for how we’ve been able to skyrocket since our launch.
Another key factor is our obsession with the details. We make sure every consumer touchpoint is perfect and this in turn created a large base of customers who loved their experience and shared with others (shown by our 3,000+ 5-star reviews). It set the foundation for our growth over the last year. I think continuing to focus on our customer and finding ways to be where she is has been another large growth driver.
We have done a lot of consumer research to understand who she is, what she wants from us, and how she wants to be communicated to by us. We leveraged this to craft our communication strategy, our advertising placements, our product pipeline, and so much more. By keeping our eye on what matters most—our customers and our community—we’ve been able to skyrocket. People typically find us when searching for a natural fragrance, or via social media, through articles about our brand, and by word of mouth. We’re very fortunate that our customers are our best advocates for our brand!”
Why would you say it’s important to find a scent that one loves wearing?
“Scent is the sense that is most closely tied to memory. It’s also closely tied to the part of our brain that feels emotion. It has the ability to change your mood, to make a moment even more memorable, or to bring yourself that little bit of joy throughout the day. We all have our sense of style, and most people only correlate that to your clothing, shoes and makeup routine. I challenge that mentality. What about your ‘scents’ of style? Each mood, occasion, day deserves the right scent to bring your unique personality to the forefront.”
How have you convinced customers to buy perfume online, without having the opportunity to smell it?
“As much as people love to smell scents in person, the current ‘in person’ experience is sub-optimal. Who wants to head to the mall and smell fifteen different scents on top of the perfume you’re interested in in the department store? We think that crafting your scent wardrobe takes time and is meant to happen at home, and tens of thousands of women seem to agree.
We offer a risk-free sample palette that offers all of our signature scents for just $20. When you buy a sample, you earn a $20 credit towards your full-sized perfume bottle of your choice. Consumers are having this olfactory experience in their homes, layering different scents for different occasions and moods, and really ‘living’ in their scents to determine how the different scents suit them has been extremely successful. It’s really repositioned the way women think about scents, and has changed the sample experience from being high-pressure and uncomfortable to being relaxed, enjoyable, and even fun.”
Can you walk us through the process of developing a scent (readers digest version!:))?
“Our scent development is unique. Whereas traditional perfumes are concocted with an elite group of perfume connoisseurs, we take a different approach. We ask the women from our Skylar community what they want to see, and then we make it together.
After the initial fragrance concept is solidified, we sit down with our in-house master perfumer to bring the scent to life. We go to her perfume organ (which has hundreds of different ingredients that she can choose from) and we describe what we want it to be, and most importantly, how we want to feel in the scent. Our perfumer then begins offering different ingredients for us to smell as base notes, middle notes, and top notes. We play, mix and match, and even combine with our signature Skylar scents to ensure the layering combinations are perfect until we find the perfect match. We craft three different iterations and then take those bottles back to our community to smell for themselves. From there, we iterate a couple of times to make it perfect and then lastly produce our full-sized bottles.”
What was your experience before Honest? Did you ever imagine you’d launch a perfume company?
“I definitely don’t have the ‘traditional’ beauty founder experience. I have always been into numbers and data, and my background before Honest revolved around that. I got my undergraduate degree at MIT and MBA from Wharton. I have held roles from consulting with a large management consulting firm to implementing inventory systems at Apple to running sales analytics at Activision Blizzard. Even though I have always been passionate about perfumes, I truly never thought I would launch a perfume company!
I decided to do it when I realized nothing else was out there and I wanted to show my daughter that when you can’t find a solution, you can create one. I think my unique background has allowed me to take a different approach to starting and managing Skylar—a very data driven, fact-based business mentality mixed with the passion I have for the mission that Skylar is on. We are always focused on the fundamentals at Skylar while never losing sight of the fun and the passion behind everything we do.”
How did you come up with the name?
“It took me a while to come up with the Skylar name. There were two ways that I approached how to name the brand: 1) it needed to exude our mission, 2) it needed to mirror the properties of our product. As a female-founded brand, my main brand-building driver was to encourage and empower women to make their dreams a reality, whether that’s by better products, encouragement, or overall support.
One saying that I often recite to my daughter is, ‘you can do anything, the sky’s the limit.’ As I was thinking through the name of the brand, this phrase stuck with me. Then when I thought about what the brand and product stood for—natural, cruelty-free, safe, inviting, accepting—I knew that I wanted the brand to look and feel organic, natural, free flowing and beautiful. One evening, I went to the beach with my family and watched the sunset. All of the sudden, it clicked. The sky, the colors, the natural beauty that can be found in every sunset. I wanted the brand to be named after the sky and our artwork to embody a sky-like nature (hence the handpainted watercolor designs on the packaging). I headed home, turned onto the street I live off of and took a double-take at the name: Skylar. I had found my name.”
Would you say the personal scent industry is changing with customers’ concerns about ingredients?
“I think the beauty industry is definitely changing as the consumer is becoming more and more informed on better, safer ingredients. However, I don’t think the personal care or fragrance industry has been as quick enough to catch up. While we see a huge influx of natural entrants throughout skincare and makeup, fragrance and body beauty have taken a back seat. That’s why it’s so exciting to have the opportunity to fill the consumers’ need as a new brand. Eventually the industry will change as the consumer will have access to better options, which will force the broader industry to adapt. We’re proud to be at the forefront of this changing tide in the industry.”