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When you work in the perfume business, you have to have a knack for describing scent. Tara Swords, who founded Chicago-based Olfactif, has this talent, and hearing her talk about her perfumes in beautiful, lyrical terms is as transportive as it is poetic.
Olfactif is a niche perfume discovery service for women and men, and as you might guess, her office space smells amazing. The service offers 3 ways for customers to explore perfumes: There’s a curated sample subscription, samples you get to select, and full bottles.
Once a month, subscribers receive hard-to-find luxury offerings from artists around the world. And the samples aren’t as petite as you might think: Each vial has enough for about 40 sprays.
“Most of our customers are new to niche perfume when they discover Olfactif. They come to our site and don’t see celebrity scents or the typical department store fragrances, so they’re not sure what to expect,” says Tara. “We know that if we make it easy for them to step inside this world, they’ll love it.”
Here are Tara’s tips, gleaned from marketing her awesomely scented niche world:
Olfactif uses automation, or emails sent at designated times, to free up time for strategic work and bigger-picture thinking. When people sign up for the list, they receive a welcome email with a special offer, which Tara says new subscribers take advantage of every day and is a great way to familiarize newcomers with niche perfumery.
The company automates other messages, too: When customers order a certain sample of perfume, Olfactif follows up later with a promotion for the full bottle. “To do that manually would take hours every week, and when you’re running a startup, extra time is something you don’t have,” says Tara.
Subscribers also receive a happy birthday message and an offer just before their big day. “When you have thousands of subscribers and just 365 possible birthdays, you’ll likely have many customers celebrating every day. So this saves us important time daily,” she adds.
Olfactif’s ideal customer is someone who wants to try out new perfumes, but perhaps doesn’t live near enough a perfumery to obtain samples. “Our clientele is fascinating,” says Tara. “They’re interested in the artistry behind scent creation, like who made it and why? Are they from a long line of family perfumers in France, or are they artisans based in Portland?”
When the company first launched, it worked with a public relations team to help get the word out, which led to a lot of love from publications like InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, SELF, Men’s Health, and more. “It wasn’t cheap, but we knew it was a good use of resources because we were doing something new and newsworthy, so we knew that PR outreach would be successful,” Tara says. “Any PR we’ve gotten since then has been organic, but that press coverage lives online so it continues to bring us new customers all the time.”
But finding their customers is still an uphill battle for the business: “B2C companies don’t get anywhere without scale, so it’s all about awareness—and awareness is hard to achieve,” says Tara. “Our biggest challenge has been finding the right ways to get the word out and doing it in a cost-effective way. When you’re bootstrapping, you never have enough people or capital to get this stuff done, so it’s a constant challenge.”
One game-changer for Olfactif was getting into an accelerator at Chicago’s 1871, a digital startup community with more than 400 burgeoning businesses that’s allowed Olfactif to brainstorm and network with other owners. “It was life-changing,” says Tara. “We’re raising our seed round right now, so we’ve reached a really exciting time in the business.”
“My best advice is something that I’ve had to learn along the way: Don’t wait for perfection,” says Tara in reference to her product, marketing, and everything in between.
On the product side, Tara recommends coming up with your minimal viable product, or MVP, to get feedback from early adopters—and then continually improve it based on the feedback you get. For marketing, she suggests dabbling in a lot of different marketing vehicles to figure out what works best and test different messaging within those vehicles. “The bottom line is that you probably don’t know what perfection looks like until the market tells you, so start ‘asking’ the market by trying different things to see what’s most effective,” she says.
“Make something perfect enough, then send it into the world and tweak it continually. You’ll make it better as you go. But if you hold out for perfection, you’ll miss your chance.”