This post was sponsored by Love, Sylvie. All interview questions came out of my own curiosity about the brand. There are a few affiliate links; I may receive a small commission if you choose to subscribe or buy Love, Sylvie perfumes at no extra cost to you.
Whenever I meet a founder, I’m curious about their backstory.
What are their personal lives like? How do they run their businesses? Why did they choose to start that specific company?
Kristen Dumbeck is the founder and CEO of the cruelty-free subscription perfume brand Love, Sylvie. Instead of producing a single scent and convincing customers to make it their “signature”, Love, Sylvie develops three scents per season — twelve per year — and encourages the perfumes to be swapped out depending on the occasion. Customers can subscribe quarterly for $40, or purchase each season’s collection separately for $50.
The Love, Sylvie Winter 2018 Collection: Yule, Noe, and Adair.
I met Kristen at a blogger event earlier this month, and was floored when she revealed that she was running a company that was constantly developing new scents. I’m fascinated by the business side of all operations (I’ve been known to nerd out over books like The Lean Startup), so I couldn’t resist interviewing Kristen and asking her a ton of questions. Fortunately, she was happy to answer all of them. Her story is fascinating and I’m so excited to be sharing it with you today.
This interview runs pretty long and we get pretty deep, so find somewhere cozy, grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy!
What’s your backstory?
I grew up in Erie, PA, which is a small city on Lake Erie with a somewhat midwest-feel. As a teenager, I told my parents that I wanted to study finance and their response was, “oh, so you want to do taxes?” I had to explain to them that finance and business encompassed a lot more than taxes.
I went to a small liberal arts college, Susquehanna University, where I spent 4 years convinced that I wanted to be an investment banker on Wall Street. When senior year came, I applied at over 100 banks with two degrees and a 4.0 GPA, and received no interviews offers. It was 2013 and the economy was still recovering. During graduation week, I finally received an offer from Hamilton Lane, a private equity firm in Philadelphia.
I barely knew what private equity was, but I learned quickly and spent the next three years analyzing hundreds of multi-million-dollar investment opportunities from around the world. That experience taught me how to analyze businesses and industries and spot opportunities for growth.
Truth is, I always had a soft spot in my heart for entrepreneurship. During my last year at Susquehanna, I won an entrepreneurship contest for pitching my prom dress rental idea. At Hamilton Lane, I was exposed to a number of entrepreneurs and was always so inspired by their energy and vision. The companies with heavy involvement from the original founders seemed to possess so much more energy and dedication.
Knowing I wanted to branch out and start my own business (but not really knowing what to start) I applied and was accepted at Wharton’s MBA program.
That same year I was applying to business school, I experienced so much life change. I met my now-husband, Ricard. He had worked at large perfume houses throughout Europe and moved to the US with the idea of selling perfume direct-to-consumers online. Then, at Hamilton Lane, I was offered the opportunity to change roles entirely and move to a newly-formed Innovation Team. The role was part corporate VC (focused on private equity software solutions) and part junior project manager of a new software product, Cobalt, in collaboration with the startup Bison.
In reality, the day I was about submit my acceptance and secure my spot at Wharton was the same day I was offered the opportunities to switch roles at Hamilton Lane. What a day! In the following weeks, I managed to secure the ever-so-rare one year deferral from Wharton and start my new position at Hamilton Lane. By day, I was launching a new B2B software product and by night, I was researching the perfume industry.
By the time I arrived at Wharton the following year, Ricard and I already had a business plan, market research, and some packaging prototypes for Love, Sylvie. I spent my year at Wharton perfecting the business plan, creating pricing models, and interviewing people on campus.
How old are you now, and how old were you when you realized you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I just turned 28.
I was about 19 when I first started thinking about entrepreneurship. For me, it was one of those back-of-your-mind type of thoughts, the same way people often say things like “oh, I’d like to write a book someday.” One clear memory that stands out is from studying abroad in China at age 19. I befriended a local Chinese student whose father owned a successful jade jewelry business and whose mother owned a drapery business. He was helping his father expand the jade business while going to school, and he often pestered me with the idea of starting my own company — claiming I’d be a great entrepreneur. Having grown up in a relatively conservative place, the thought of starting my own business seemed vastly risky and utterly daunting. Who would give me money for my ideas?
However, the seed was planted and started growing. From working at Hamilton Lane, I gained an inside view of the fundraising process. All of a sudden, entrepreneurship seemed more of a possibility and less of a fantasy. It was really more about believing in myself and feeling like I could see a path to success, which I think is true for many female entrepreneurs. I’d say I was about 25 when I committed to the idea of becoming an entrepreneur.
When did you start development for your business idea, and when did you launch?
I covered this in the first question!
After one year at Wharton, I spent my summer researching perfumers across the United States. We signed our contract with our perfumer in August 2018 and launched in November 2018.
Were your parents, significant other, and those close to you supportive of your decision to start Love, Sylvie? If not, what were some of their biggest concerns, and how did you deal with that?
My parents (and most of my relatives) come from a place where you typically work at the same company for 40 years. Changing jobs is seen as risky, going back to school is risky, so becoming an entrepreneur… it’s almost beyond comprehension. To be totally honest though, I feel like my entire adult life has been one big surprise after another. From studying abroad in China and Brussels (when our family vacations didn’t really reach beyond Virginia), to managing million-dollar investment opportunities, my parents are a little overwhelmed with the fast pace of my life. Entrepreneurship is just one more aspect of my crazy life. They’re of course very happy to see me succeed in whatever I choose to do.
Ricard is involved almost daily on the business as an advisor. While we started it together, he’s since gone back to work full time and really handed the reins to me.
You launched pretty soon after you moved to a brand new city. Did the move affect how you felt during launch?
Not really, since we had already been working on the idea on and off for two years. The biggest shock of moving here is the lack of a social network that I had in Philadelphia. The entrepreneurship life is already pretty lonely, so moving to a place where you literally don’t know a soul was daunting. However, I’ve forged some amazing new friendships that I’m really excited about.
What’s the story behind Love, Sylvie? Is Sylvie your nickname or the name of someone close to you?
We really wanted to “personify” perfume. Since purchasing perfume online requires an extra leap of faith in the eyes of the consumer, you really have to be able to talk about the scents and the brand in a way that’s relatable. Brand personification is quite common in many other areas (Warby Parker glasses, Casper mattresses, etc) but hadn’t really been brought into the perfume space yet.
We researched hundreds of names and Sylvie was a clear winner. Sylvie means “from the forest” which I love because we’ve made a commitment to using a high amount of natural ingredients. It also has a friendly, energetic, and international vibe that I thought suited the brand.
I’m always asked why the company isn’t called “Love, Kristen.” I’m tempted to respond, ‘well, when’s the last time you said “Hey Jeff” instead of, “Hey Amazon Alexa?”’ In reality, I didn’t want my face all over the brand. I’m not a perfumer and this isn’t a brand for expert perfume snobs, it’s a brand for everyone. By choosing a different identity, I give the brand room to take on a new persona. I’m excited for “Sylvie” to usher in a new era where perfume becomes a wardrobe accessory rather than a bulky, burdensome, commitment.
What made you choose the perfume industry in particular?
Because it still operates like it did 50 years ago! A long time ago, large perfume houses managed to convince the public that each person should only have one ‘signature’ scent to wear throughout their lifetime. This, of course, drove intense customer loyalty and ultimately, huge sales.
Consumers today are extremely well-informed and in search of both practical and high-quality products to enhance their style. Niche and indie perfumes are grabbing market share as they often offer better quality ingredients and cleaner, more relatable branding than the diamond-covered ads of Dior. Still, nearly all niche fragrances are ultimately looking to drive sales through retail distribution in stores like Sephora. This obviously increases the cost to the end consumer.
We’re different. We offer amazing quality perfume in a more convenient way because we’re travel-friendly and ship directly to your home. Because we’re direct-to-consumer, we can offer vastly more variety and value for the same price as purchasing a large bulky bottle of perfume.
Why did you choose to make Love, Sylvie have a subscription model?
I’ll first note that our subscription is optional, but you do receive a discount for subscribing. Who doesn’t like to open something new every few months? Receiving a new collection of fragrance every three months just makes so much sense because it arrives about the same time that you’re swapping out your wardrobe.
What are some production challenges you’ve run into so far? Is it hard to produce twelve scents a year?
Incredibly hard. Most perfume brands develop one, maybe two, scents per year. The development costs are quite high but I help to streamline the process by carefully outlining the fragrance profile of each collection before we start. This at least gives us a jumping-off point.
Because we’re running small batches right now, the bottles are filled by hand in the United States. Right now, that’s actually cheaper than bottling it through machinery given the small production runs. When you think about it, filling a tiny bottle takes nearly as much effort and time as filling a large bottle, so the costs of of the small sizes are quite high.
Do you have a direct role in the creative side of your business? Who decides which scents are shipped out?
I work hand-in-hand with my perfumer to craft the collection. For the Winter 2018 Collection, we went through 15 different iterations. It’s quite a joint project. She’s bringing over 30 years of award-winning industry experience. I’m bringing the trends I see in the industry (unisex fragrances, understated top notes, etc.) as well as the vision for a collection. Typically, perfumers don’t craft fragrances with collections in mind, so it’s a new challenge for the two of us.
Did you design the boxes, vials, and cards that came in the box?
Yes! I went through a few iterations because I tested the packaging with over 80 in-person interviews. I wanted to make sure it had a high quality, slightly glamorous feel without being too over-the-top. Glamorous, yet somehow, relatable.
Why did you decide to name your first set of scents “Yule”, “Noe”, and “Adair”?
They’re all winter-themed and I feel really reflect the mood of each scent. YULE is often another name for winter solstice, which to me seemed fresh and exciting, like the start of a new year. NOE is short for Noelle, meaning “Christmas” in French. The warmth of the scent just really felt like a cozy holiday with friends. Adair is from Old English meaning a “place near the oak trees” and evoked this mysterious, yet sophisticated tone.
Did your background in business school and the finance industry helped you with the business side of Love, Sylvie? Do you recommend that other young entrepreneurs get some experience in the field they wish to be in before striking out on their own?
I believe that entrepreneurship is a pretty unique journey overall and there’s no ‘correct’ path. For me, the best part of my background in finance and business school was watching how other entrepreneurs achieved success or more importantly, failed.
Overall, there are many key takeaways that can be self-taught, like those found in the books Crossing the Chasm and The Lean Startup. I don’t feel like a background in finance or an MBA is at all necessary to starting a business. While it was undeniably helpful to me, I anticipate that a totally different career and background would have been helpful to me in another way. Entrepreneurs take on so many different roles which require a myriad of skills, so in my option, any challenging life or career experiences essentially help prepare you for entrepreneurship.
Do you produce scents based off of specific memories you have?
No. I’m more focused on crafting a collection which offers a wide variety of scents for different occasions, yet still works together to be layered. It’s quite a balancing act. There are some scents I wanted to include in the Winter Collection but I knew they just didn’t work well with the other scents in the collection. Maybe next year!
What’s your favorite part of the business to work on?
I love designing the brand. The colors, the look and feel of the packaging, the website … I love it all. I’m a highly visual person. Love, Sylvie has definitely allowed me to pour all of my creative energy into designing a beautiful brand.
What’s the best way for you to get your head back in the game when you feel a lot of doubt and fear?
Usually I call a friend for a while and then bury my head in my work until I find more validation and hope for the business.
What’s your morning routine like?
What’s a morning routine!? This may sound crazy, but I tend to work best on 26-28 hour days. Meaning, I tend to work for 19-20 hours and then sleep for 7 hours. I’m sleeping and working at all hours of the day at this point, but hoping that will change in the future.
Does it ever get lonely as an entrepreneur? What do you do to feel connected with others?
Yes, but having a cat really helps! I seriously do have full-on conversations with him…
Obviously my husband is a big source of daily support. I’ve also forged some amazing friendships with people from a diverse range of backgrounds (entrepreneurs, product designers, graphic designers, bankers, etc) who frequently give me advice on the direction of the business. While it doesn’t curb the loneliness entirely, it helps a lot.
Do you have a strict schedule you follow for the day?
Nope. I basically try to accomplish whatever is most important for the day until I collapse with exhaustion, sometimes falling asleep on top my laptop. It’s basically like waking up feeling like your pants are on fire daily.
What was your proudest moment as an entrepreneur so far? Was it worth giving up the corporate grind?
I received one letter last week from a breast cancer survivor. She wrote to me saying that she loved the scents and that it meant so much to her that we avoid the toxic chemicals found in many other perfumes.
It was the first moment that I realized that I’m not just crafting great perfume, I’m changing the way that women see themselves. When you wear an amazing fragrance, you stand just a little taller. It’s so important that we achieve those moments with fragrance that is safe and consciously-crafted. ♚