Frances Shoemack has a simple goal — make the world’s best natural perfume.
Her vehicle for that is Abel Odor, the natural perfume company she founded 8 years ago after a failed search for natural perfume.
“There was this burgeoning niche perfume industry but there was no one who was thinking about where the ingredients came from,” says Frances.
“So I decided to make a natural perfume that would stand up to the world’s best, while giving thought to where ingredients come from, how good they were for you, without compromising on ethics, design or aesthetics.
“My background is in winemaking — I had started at Villa Maria and then moved to NZ Winegrowers in more of a marketing role.
“Then my husband and I moved to Amsterdam and started a marketing job for a software firm. Not long after I started the role, I realised that I didn’t love marketing for marketing’s sake — I wanted to market a product that I was passionate about.
“We did what all good Kiwis do when you’re living in Europe and we went to new places every weekend and I fell in love with visiting fragrance houses. I started thinking about starting a perfume project — I was a natural consumer so it made sense.
“This wasn’t long after I’d started this new job. I’ve often said that if I had landed in a job that inspired me, I wouldn’t have started Abel Odor — I was seeking inspiration.
“I knew I wanted to start a business — I was thinking of starting either a cafe or a perfumery. I began to investigate the feasibility. I had a series of things I was looking for. I wanted to have some freedom, I didn’t want to need investors, and I wanted to be able to do this with a family. I wanted to build a long-term business. I guess my background in wineries had exposed me to many second generation family businesses — they built deep roots and I wanted to do the same.
“In the end, I landed on a perfume business because I wanted to be able to come home to New Zealand and run it from here if I needed to. That was a lot harder to do with a cafe,” laughs Frances.
“In May 2012, I was excited about this idea of starting a perfume business and thought I wouldn’t be able to do this alongside my marketing job. I told my husband and his initial reaction was a bit like ‘do you have to?’ — but he realised that this was something I was passionate about and he’s been nothing but supportive since.
“I called my boss (he was UK based) and resigned. And he said to me ‘Nothing goes from zero to a hundred overnight — why don’t you work part time until you get yourself established.’ It was amazing that he was willing to support the early days of Abel. So I dropped to three days a week at that job until 2013 when we launched.
“In my initial research, I found there was a hyper negative attitude from the establishment towards natural perfumes. I knew that if I was going to do this, I needed to do it well — it needed to be world class, so I started working with a master perfumer.
“After about a year and half after starting Abel, I realised that the business was not what I wanted it to be. I had been doing it by myself, I’d had our first child and was pregnant with our second, I was working out of our apartment, and while we had some lovely retailers, we weren’t selling well.
“I did a bit of soul searching. I had a strategy session with my sister who’s a creative and my husband, and we asked ourselves ‘is this what we want? Is this too hard and we should move on? What could we do differently?’
“I decided that the idea was right but we could do it better. The vision was the same but the execution needed to change. Everytime I looked at the brand I wanted to change something, and most of that was a result of trying to do the first iteration on the smell of an oily rag.
“Four years after our initial start, we launched Abel Odor 2.0. We were all in on this iteration. We went through the rebrand and sold our house in Auckland to fund the relaunch. We had to make this a success.
“My whole approach became ‘what do I need to make this successful?’. So I approached my favourite designer in Amsterdam to rebrand, and we brought on a sales manager to find new retailers. I put everything we had learnt the first time around to make this work.
“Since then, we’ve really gone from strength to strength, growing our retailer network and further developing our scents. At the beginning of 2020, we relocated from Amsterdam back to New Zealand, establishing our global headquarters here in Wellington.”
I asked Frances what current challenges she faced in the Abel journey.
“The glaring one is obviously Covid. We’re a retail business. We are stocked in 300 stores across 33 countries in Europe and most of Europe is still closed. And we’re hearing of more of our retailers closing,” says Frances.
“But we’ve come out stronger — we still grew as a business last year. All of this has forced us as a business to evaluate margins, product lines etc. and ensure we’re managing everything well. It’s much easier to let things that aren’t working well or operating efficiently slide when we’re in good times.
“And while we’re in the luxury and wellness space, we’re more insulated than you’d probably expect. We have a very loyal customer base because our product makes people feel good. Customers have referred to us as their ‘daily dose of delight’. So even as people are watching their costs in this current environment, we remain in a strong position.”
The perfume space is a very crowded category — I asked Frances what advice she’d give to a business pushing into a crowded category.
Says Frances, “I think every category has a niche. You just have to find that niche. We were the first modern natural perfume in the world, and started in this space before there was even really a market. So even in a broad category, there are still opportunities to do something no one else has thought of.
“But you also need to do something for the right reasons. We’ve been asked many times to launch hand creams and those sorts of things — but we don’t think there’s a genuine need for more hand creams, so it’s not something we’re interested in pursuing. Don’t just launch a product for the sake of it.
“We’ve instituted a rule — our product line is capped at seven products. If we want to launch a new perfume, we have to ‘kill a darling’ so to speak. It keeps us honest — it places pressure on the new. If you’re always releasing something new, there’s no impetus to make it awesome.”
I asked Frances what advice she’d give to someone looking to launch their own business.
“Do something you’re connected to and you love. It’s going to be hard so you need to love the idea. Businesses that look like a flyaway success, aren’t. Nothing happens overnight — so I’d say go for it — start that project, investigate the feasibility, start building something unique — but know it will be hard work.
“Another key I’ve learnt is the importance of working out what you want your end game to be. If you have a vision for where you want to go and what you want from your business, it makes it easier to know what to work on and what opportunities to say no to.”
I asked Frances what’s next for Abel Odor.
“While we’ve relocated our global headquarters back to New Zealand, we currently produce and run our global fulfillment out of Europe. We want to launch New Zealand made production, and I love the idea of starting a microfactory here in Wellington to run Abel.
“We want to be putting down roots here, be part of the community and work towards the long-term.”
Originally published at https://www.knooknz.com on February 10, 2021.