By his own admission Martijn van Rooy has not always been a perfume head, but was once someone who simply wore the same fragrance day in, day out until the bottle ran dry. He, like many others, had a “signature scent”, but when I met the Parfumado founder he explained to me that this is something fast becoming a thing of the past.
“You can have [a signature scent] but you should never stop wearing other stuff”, he told me. “One fragrance is very specific for a mood, an occasion, a season, and if you just have one that’s really dull”.
And judging by the meteoric rise of Parfumado throughout 2018, there are plenty of other people that agree with him. The subscription-based perfumery grew from 0 to 10,000 subscribers in little over a year, and here we will look at why the Amsterdam-based company has experienced such rapid growth.
After speaking to van Rooy about his thoughts and experiences of the last year, it became clear that he has identified and sought to address two problems that exist within the perfume industry, giving Parfumado an edge on the rest of the industry.
The first problem is the sheer number of new fragrances that enter the market every year. Before starting Parfumado van Rooy was responsible for business development and marketing for a niche perfume brand, and here he experienced first hand the difficulties faced by new fragrances trying to reach the noses of potential customers in an increasingly crowded marketplace. He estimates that over 1000 perfumes enter the race every year, and when niche brands have next to no budget for marketing compared to the Chanels and Diors of this world, they really have no chance to compete.
“It’s very difficult for a new brand to gain attention and let interested people smell [their] fragrance,” he told me, “because that’s the most important thing, that the fragrance is being smelled.” The result is that the majority of people never even hear of the new additions to the market, let alone smell them, subsequently sticking to the names they already know and leaving the smaller brands to gather dust on warehouse shelves.
The power of Parfumado lies in its ability to connect people to a much broader range of perfumes. The platform builds personalised “scent profiles” of every customer, based upon reviews given of previous purchases Parfumado can predict whether someone favours ‘woody’ over ‘citrus’ scents and makes recommendations accordingly. These recommendations level the playing field between niche brands and industry giants by shifting the focus from marketing campaigns to the actual fragrances themselves - if a scent matches a profile it will be made visible to a customer regardless of which brand it belongs to - and hence Parfumado customers are exposed to many more fragrances than they otherwise would be.
The second problem is price. Full-size perfumes are expensive and whilst people may want to wear a different fragrance every day of the week, as van Rooy evangelises that we all should be, it is just not feasible for many. To bring the price of perfume down Parfumado sells 8ml samples rather than full-size bottles for a monthly fee of €14.95, giving the customer just enough for a full experience of every scent.
“[Sampling] did exist but it was not really a category, not really a business”, van Rooy told me, demonstrating his insight into the industry that has instigated Parfumado’s ascent. “People want the chance to experience perfumes for a little amount of money”, he said, admitting that the Parfumado price “is an amount, but it's so much less than the full size product. People are willing to experience this for a month for €14.95”
The combination of providing a catalogue of recommended perfumes for prices that are lower than other stores has been the real winning formula for Parfumado. It is a model that has enabled people to grow a collection of scents and wear a different one every day - something that many would like to do but was previously only possible by spending time discovering fragrances and investing in a number of expensive bottles.
Parfumado and Ask Phill
During the early stages of gathering information and forming ideas for a subscription-based perfumery, van Rooy approached Ask Phill about building the Parfumado website.
“The thing that attracted me most to Ask Phill,” he told me, “was that I had some concepts online that I really liked and Paul and Martijn knew these already and they really loved them too.” Admitting that he has very specific ideas about what he likes and dislikes, the common tastes and interests made it easy to reach consensus on decisions and created a good working relationship between the two companies. A relationship that was further bolstered by the fact both companies were still in their infancy.
“They were just starting and I was starting too so it was easy to propose my idea and see if they were interested,” van Rooy said to me, adding that the freshness of both groups and the fact that everyone involved was learning new things at every step made them “eager and willing to work hard”.
Parfumado and Ask Phill set about co-creating the ecommerce webshop that would allow subscribers to choose a new perfume to be delivered to their home each month. Whilst it was Paul at Parfumado who physically built the site, there were detailed discussions at every step and over every decision, resulting in a truly joint effort. Of course along the way problems arose but these were always met with a strong determination to make it work.
“The thing with Ask Phill,” van Rooy says, “is that they really learn by investigating themselves and they learn [new skills] themselves. Especially Paul with designing, he’s just checking out what others do and he tries it himself and if it’s not nice in the first draft then he works and works and after a while he’s capable of doing this at a really high level.”
The checkout calendar is a prime example of this DIY attitude. Parfumado customers receive a new fragrance of their choosing every month, and they are encouraged to decide which fragrances they would like a few months in advance, meaning the checkout process must behave differently to normal expectations. It needs to be a system in which customers can make multiple orders for delivery in specific months all at the same time, whilst having the option to go back and change their decisions before the delivery date.
Needless to say this is not something that can be achieved as default with Shopify, but rather than act as a deterrent this encouraged Ask Phill to discover that the boundaries of the platform can be moved. Working with van Rooy they developed a shopping calendar that is unique to every subscriber and allows them to add and remove perfumes for each month as they see fit.
Another Shopify restriction came in the form of recurring payments not being possible using the iDEAL payment system - the most popular system in the Netherlands. This is an absolute necessity for any Dutch subscription-based company and once again the Ask Phill team were not deterred, instead creating their own app that could handle the payments that Parfumado requires.
These two instances of not being discouraged by the shortcomings of the Shopify platform are a credit to both Ask Phill and Parfumado, and their ability to envisage what is really possible. When they took on the Parfumado project, Ask Phill were not the Shopify experts that they are today but through extensive research and a lot of trial and error they began to develop a commanding understanding of the platform - “They became experts because of me”, joked van Rooy.
Once the website was developed Parfumado began amassing subscribers at a blistering rate. When asked whether the success has taken him and the team by surprise, van Rooy expressed a confidence in the business but kept his feet planted firmly on the ground:
“It was in our forecasts but forecasts are really just guessing - positively guessing, hopefully guessing. It was that we expected it, but it was really just for investors, saying you know this is what we’re capable of, this is what we forecast, but it turned out to be realised. It was very ambitious. It’s not that we were surprised by the [growth], but it was a very good team effort.”
There is an understanding of hindsight in this rather modest response, acknowledging that whilst things have gone well for Parfumado it was not destined to be this way. However after speaking to van Rooy about each stage of the growth in finer detail, it is clear that through a combination of industry knowledge and meticulous research and testing van Rooy has created the ideal environment for growing a successful business.
At the very beginning the platform was tested with a skeleton version of the website being offered to the first 100 subscribers, a list comprised of family members, friends and friends of friends. This early period was really still part of the building process and stands outside of the 12 months in which Parfumado rose to 10,000 subscribers. The priority was to identify the bugs that existed within the system and learn how to fix them, and with this in mind van Rooy gave some key advice to any aspiring ecommerce business that wants to work with a design agency:
“Go to an agency that really has a vision and believes in your concept,” he said, “I really felt that Ask Phill believed in the subscription business first off, but also in applying the subscription business to perfumeries”
The early stages of fixing bugs will require a lot of communication between a business and its designers, many things will not work and will most likely require a lot of patience to get right. Having an agency on board that truly believes in the project they are working on will help provide that extra motivation if times get tough.
The first thousand subscribers came within the first two months of the Parfumado site being opened to the wider public. “That was when we started with online marketing,” van Rooy told me, and when asked specifically about advertising through social media he named it as the single most important factor in Parfumado’s growth.
“For the first 10,000 subscribers it’s almost everything because we gained all these customers via social media advertising. Social media itself, our Facebook and our Instagram, is not [as important] but advertising on social media has been key to our growth. The main source of growth.”
As customer numbers started increasing van Rooy was advised to learn as much as he could about their experience of the platform. How they perceived it, what they liked, disliked, and what improvements they would suggest were all vital pieces of information for reaching 5000 customers - the next milestone in terms of growth - because reaching this mark involved a shift in focus from attracting new customers to keeping the existing ones happy and engaged.
Of course new customers remained important, but growth will not occur if past customers do not return. For van Rooy, retention has been the greater challenge and is reliant not only on collecting relevant information but knowing how to act upon it.
“You need to balance focusing on growth and focusing on retention of the customer,” he said, comparing a business with poor customer retention to a bucket that has holes in the bottom - no matter how much water is poured in, the amount in the bucket will never increase. And this is why he now has members of his team solely focused on customer experience and customer satisfaction, ensuring that no holes appear in the Parfumado bucket.
The balancing act between attracting new customers and retaining the old ones has been the focus of the (now sizeable) Parfumado team since reaching 5000 subscribers, and it continues to be their priority now that they have surpassed the 10,000 mark. But for all the marketing techniques, all the growth hacking, the social media adverts, the influencers, the website, behind all of this van Rooy states that the single most important factor to the growth of his company has been the product. Parfumado sell perfume, not exactly groundbreakingly new, but their concept and the format in which they sell it is something very innovative and different to what people have seen before.
“The product you’re selling [must be] appealing, great to use, interesting to use. If the product you’re selling is rubbish, a) how will you sell it? And b) if you sell it, are people going to come back? No.”
With a solid and ever increasing foundation of subscribers, Parfumado has turned its gaze east across the border. 2019 will be about expanding into Germany and “growing as fast as we did here in the Netherlands over there as well”, van Rooy tells me. A sensible next step, and if the same step-by-step approach that characterised 2018 is deployed once again, you just get the sense that the next 12 months will run in much a similar fashion to the previous.
For the expansion to take place the team must increase in size and van Rooy makes plain his ambition to recruit only “the best people out there”. Recruitment is obviously a very important process for Parfumado, and not simply about finding people that are excellent at a specific role but making sure they can contribute to the team and the office environment that van Rooy is very carefully crafting. To close the interview I asked him what he considered his proudest achievement in the Parfumado project and it was not the growth that straight away sprang to mind:
“The atmosphere in the office - walking around you see it’s such a happy place where people have the same goal and vision and are really enthusiastic and ambitious. That is something that I’m really proud of.”
And here there may be a glance at another, more secret reason for Parfumado’s success. Creating an environment that people want to be in, an atmosphere that makes people happy to be going to work, in the knowledge that they will be surrounded by like-minded and ambitious colleagues, is a catalyst for success perhaps even equal to the quality of the product.