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Abigail Stone is the founder and CEO of Otherland, a candle company that's considered to be the Warby Parker of self-care. They spent a year testing hundreds of fragrances, mixing waxes, and experimenting with wicks to create their Core collection of 5 scents (which smell amazing, if we do say so ourselves). Abigail formed the brand from her own need to have a more accessible (and less pricey) candle with a focus on fresh scents and beautiful branding. Read on to find out how she started her venture and how she continues to make strides in the self-care industry by innovating the candle experience.
Hi Abigail! Please introduce yourself and give us some insight into your background, and being an art buyer for Ralph Lauren before business school.
Hey all! I'm the Founder & CEO of Otherland, a modern, direct-to-consumer luxury candle brand that launched this past December. I'm originally from Boston, where I picked up my love of art at an early age from my creative mom, who used clever tactics, like making "Jackson Pollock Splatter-Batter Pancakes" to teach me! I studied Art History in college and afterward moved to NYC where I worked in eCommerce for Ralph Lauren. After realizing fashion wasn't my passion, I moved into the Art Acquisitions department, where I bought artwork for decorating the stores and showrooms globally. It was a fun and creative job--Ralph Lauren is the master at creating visually-immersive lifestyle worlds that change with every season, and that's something I'm striving to create with Otherland.
Describe the lightbulb moment you had when coming up with Otherland.
I always knew I wanted to start my own company and so I went to Columbia to get my MBA and transition into the startup world. I worked in venture capital at a seed fund (Founder Collective) and also at First Round Capital's Dorm Room Fund when I took a deep dive looking at direct-to-consumer startups. That's when I had my ah-ha moment! I found myself burning candles every day--from first thing in the morning when I did my daily meditation to coming home at the end of the day to unwind. I felt there wasn't a brand for me--I preferred the fresh fragrances from luxury brands, but they were too expensive to burn every day, and their minimalist black-and-white designs left me wanting more. On the other end of the spectrum, the more affordable brands had artificial, cloyingly-sweet scents and too cutesy designs. I saw an opportunity to build a modern brand with a focus on art--a consumable, experiential objet d'art (visual, olfactive, tactile)--while incorporating storytelling and community through digital channels. Hence, Otherland!
How did you prepare yourself for rejection when looking for investors, and how did you stay optimistic after dealing with naysayers?
Part of being an entrepreneur is becoming so obsessed with your vision that you have this deep, unshakable conviction that this wild idea of yours will work. I graduated from Columbia and set out to raise my 1st round of funding. Then the NOs came. It was a challenging summer of rejection--I would haul my Away suitcase filled with 25 lbs of candles down the 6 flights of stairs in my walk up, go to pitch meetings, haul it back up & repeat about 2-3 times a day, only to be met with rejection--sweaty and frustrated (although my arms have never looked better!). Investors would say, "there are a million candle brands out there, how could yours really be THAT different?" or, "we like the margins, but come back to us when you have a brand." Someone even said to me, "so how many more months are you going to give this before you get a real job?"--seriously! The strategy that worked for me was to take the NOs and rejection and use them to "fuel my fire" to prove those naysayers WRONG. I'd even print out the rejection letters and hang on my desk. Having the encouragement of people like my mom and founders I looked up to, like Nadia Boujarwah & Lydia Gilbert of Dia&Co, helped me keep my head in the game. I convinced myself it wasn't a matter of IF, just WHEN.
"The strategy that worked for me was to take the rejection and use it to "fuel my fire" to prove those naysayers wrong."
What is the one element of Otherland that has trumped the rest and helped the company grow to what it is today?
Art. So much of what I saw in the candle market was either minimalist or too cute, and I saw an opportunity to use art in the product as a way of storytelling to create something beyond merely a candle with x, y, z fragrance notes. This opens up the door for content creation and building community and engagement with our customers and followers. The world of Otherland is about color! pattern! maximalism! -- we want it to be a conversation piece that transforms your space and mood. We work with incredible artists for every new season to tell that collection's story. Our spring collection was all about springtime awakening of flora and fauna, while summer is about a vision of "The 90s Beach Club of the Future," where we worked with an artist who used 3D architectural rendering software to create a tropical, futuristic vacationland. The fun part is that we've set up the business and packaging design system to re-invent the vibe via new artwork for every new season and launch. It's a new way to consume art and switch up your space!
Otherland is much more than a candle, and holding an Otherland box alone is love at first sight and touch. Can you give us 3 tips for creating a product that's not only useful but beautifully branded to take it beyond the product level?
- Be a Tinkerer! To create something truly original, try to cultivate your curiosity around product and packaging. Study sites like thedieline.com and become an expert on the existing packaging on the market for your category. Beyond just candles, I would make small purchases from cool e-commerce brands so I could test out their unboxing experiences and build a personal archive of packaging and finishes I liked. I'd then get out my heavy-duty scissors and packing tape to re-engineer components to adapt to candles to explore and experiment. This really helped me when we began our industrial design process, and especially as I was unfamiliar with language like "E-flute corrugate"--I'd bring the references with me and point to what I liked.
- Understand that "brand" is more than a logo--and invest appropriately. I define brand as the relationship a company has with their customers, from logo all the way through to packaging, engagement on social media, even customer service. As a digitally-native brand, delightful packaging that gets the product safely to the customer is table stakes -- it has to go above and beyond to catch people's attention and be truly memorable (and worth Instagramming). Our biggest investment has been in design, and it's been worth every penny. We're not re-inventing candles--they've been around for hundreds of years!--but we're innovating around the experience of buying and enjoying them, and packaging is a big part of that.
- Find the right partner. A lot of the vendors and manufacturers I met with were resistant to, literally, out-of-the-box solutions. It's SO important to find the right partner that has an entrepreneurial mindset and is willing to put in the time and effort to help create a product that is differentiated and original. You want to find the manufacturer that gets excited by new ideas and has that "tinkerer" mindset to test and experiment.