“We talked about how fragrance is as essential as soap, how the right scent could make a woman feel empowered, confident—and that got us excited about starting our own line all over again. This time, we decided to just go for it.” —Kristin Smith
In 2004, Kristin Smith and Alycia McCain were conjugating verbs in a Spanish class at Liberty High School. After graduation the two friends went their separate ways, but ended up pursuing the same career: esthetics. They reconnected as each settled into her career here in Bakersfield (Smith at Inspire and McCain at La Dolce Vida), chatting, hanging out, talking about their futures, and discovered they shared a common dream: the wish to do something more with their knowledge of body care, skin care, and make-up. Then one night during the course of an email conversation, they decided it was now or never. The time had come for them to flex their entrepreneurial muscles and start a business that would launch them into the beauty industry in a big way.
Their introduction to the world of beauty products is fragrance, and Smith & McCain Fragrances is making a bold promise to their customers that they will, as McCain puts it, “totally deliver”: to develop sensual and captivating fragrances that mix with a woman’s personal chemistry to make her feel beautiful.
“Being beautiful is directly tied to the way you feel, and if you love the way you smell, you’re going to feel confident and attractive,” Smith explained.
Smith and McCain’s olfactory journey began years ago, just after they began their careers as estheticians, when they first started considering starting their own line of fragrances. But according to Smith, “the timing wasn’t right.” Then last year as the two were emailing back and forth one evening, the subject of starting their own line somehow crept into the e-conversation.
“We started ‘talking’ about how much we enjoy making women feel beautiful and gorgeous, and how the right fragrance could do that and much more,” Smith recalled. “We talked about how fragrance is as essential as soap, how the right scent could make a woman feel empowered, confident—like they are growing into their womanhood, and that got us excited about starting our own line all over again. This time, we decided to just go for it.”
Beginning with an up-front budget in the range of $25-30k, the two began working to create their own unique brand of “prestige perfume” (perfume that is sold in high-end boutiques and department stores), using money from their own pockets.
“We’ve put everything we have into this,” McCain said self-assuredly, “and feel lucky that our businesses are successful enough to allow for us to pay for everything without outside help.”
“People have offered us money,” Smith interjected, “I’ve even had someone offer me $100,000. But we want to be a pure representation of empowered women: women who’ve saved, worked hard, did it themselves. At the end of the day I want to high-five myself and high-five Alycia.”
Smith and McCain haven’t wavered from this self-made attitude, even as they faced the inherent ups and downs of starting a business. But it wasn’t the financial risks of following their entrepreneurial dreams that were the most difficult to navigate. Getting all their ducks in a row for distribution of their fragrance proved to be more of a challenge.
“The hardest part has been getting people to talk to us. Pretty much every business we needed to establish a relationship with before we could produce even one bottle [like perfumers and bottle-makers] didn’t want to talk to anyone who doesn’t plan on doing a run of at least 25,000 units. And if you aren’t already established, they really don’t want to talk to you,” McCain said, adding that she’s lost track of how many people in the industry declined to speak with her. “Luckily we aren’t shy and have asked every business we were able to talk to a million questions. They gave us referrals and led us to the distributors we are now using.”
They both agree that they hit the jackpot when it comes to finding a perfumer. The perfumer is the key player when it comes to building a fragrance line, since he or she can either create a scent that has people holding their breath as you pass by, or enjoying the artisanal blends of fine ingredients wafting through the room. Fortunately the Smith & McCain perfumer created a remarkable scent that entices the senses, Smith said, which they’ve dubbed The Invitation.
“We chose our fragrance through the process of elimination,” she explained. “We told the perfumer what we hated so she could keep those scents on the shelf. She created six scents from ingredients we loved, varying the blends of top notes [the part of the perfume to form a person’s initial impression], middle notes [the heart of perfume containing the scents that become more pleasant over time], and base notes [the main theme of a perfume]. We would test each scent, and if one of us didn’t like a scent, it was off the table. We’d wear the scents we did like and ask our clients, ‘which do you like?’ Number six, The Invitation, was the hands down winner. The Invitation is a delicious fragrance—alluring, inviting, not over-powering. It’s a scent that can go from day to night, that begins with hints of apple and black coconut, then becomes more sensual through the day as it warms, giving off the fragrance of amber musk, lily of the valley, caramel, and wood.”
“We discovered the way the fragrance changes while we were taking a hot yoga class,” McCain recalled. “After the class we were both like, ‘wow!’ It was the black coconut scent that really stood out because it has a bigger molecule that allows it to stay on skin longer. I love how scientific it all is.”
“As you can tell, McCain is the brains of the outfit,” Smith chuckled.
“I may be good with the behind-the-scenes things, but anything with a screen freaks me out!” McCain laughed.
It’s because they bring different strengths to the business that they feel they’ll be able to weather the ups and downs of a start-up. And there have been ups and downs. Even the fun times, like playing the “Goldilocks” game to find the perfect fragrance, have their own challenges.
“It turns out vanilla isn’t just vanilla,” McCain said flatly. “You hear ‘vanilla’ and you think ‘okay, vanilla.’ You know what vanilla smells like. Well, it’s not that simple when you’re in the perfume business because there’s like five different vanillas. And they all have a totally different scent. It’s so crazy.”
Finding out there is a breadth of scents linked to each aroma was just one of the little surprises that came up during the development phase. More and more seemed to crop up as they got closer to actually producing their first run.
Their first pound of “juice” was wrong, Smith recalled. “It still smelled good, but I knew there was something wrong. We found out the perfumer actually had her assistant mix the formula, and her assistant’s math was off. The perfumer went back and redid the formula one drop at a time, and the next batch was perfect. It’s crazy what a couple drops here and there can do to the smell of a perfume.”
“I really had no idea what I was getting into,” McCain admitted. “There were so many problems with details. It took us a while to find just the right bottle. We finally fell in love with the most beautiful bottle; then we were told it was too big. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll order a smaller size,’ but of course it was not that easy. They didn’t make a smaller size. So we had to find another bottle. Then it took us a month to find lids, pumps, and collars [they all have to be ordered separately]. Then we had to find somewhere we could do a small run. The process was a pain, but we got through it.”
Painful though it may be, most entrepreneurs will tell you the secret to success is being able to micromanage the details so you can get what you want, even if it would be easier to go in another direction. Smith and McCain knew this inherently, and are resolved to follow their gut instincts to preserve the integrity of what they create from the inside out no matter what.
“From the very beginning, we stayed true to ourselves. We know what we want, what feel is right. We’ve learned that we have to take everything day by day, and be flexible because we are developing a niche for our product,” McCain said. “What we’ve done so far has been way harder than we thought it would be, but that just makes us more proud of what we’ve done. We work crazy long days, and have to balance our jobs, business, and family [McCain and her husband have a new baby in the house], but it’s totally fun and absolutely worth it!”
“We’ve put our faith in ourselves and in the brand we are building,” Smith added. “Sure, I get butterflies when I think about the possibility of getting big too quickly, or fizzing out after a strong start. I’m also nervous about our soft launch of The Invitation in September, our big launch in November, and a future where Smith & McCain includes other fragrances, make-up, and skin products. But I think we are going to be just fine. Things may not go exactly as we’ve planned, but I’m okay with it. We are an amazing team—even though we can go off the wall when we get together—and our first fragrance is so freaking amazing I could put it in a can of Coke and it would sell.”
So their time in that Spanish classroom was not wasted. Though they may not be able to remember how to conjugate the Spanish verb “hacer,” they’ve built a friendship that would lead them into doing big things. And now they can practically smell their success.
Photos courtesy of Smith and McCain Fragrances.