There are some indie brands that embody the cultural zeitgeist of our time, which, if harnessed, is powerful currency. This influence cannot be incubated by a design firm or acquired through digital ad spend—it is created as a byproduct of the intuitive sense of the founders. Boy Smells is one of those brands. From its inception in 2016 as a bootstrapped candle side hustle born in the founders’ and real-life partners Matthew Herman and David Kien's kitchen, Boy Smells has aimed to challenge the gender binary through scent by artfully blending "masculine" and "feminine" fragrances to capture the intricacies of the individual, exclusive of how they identify, and challenging the fragrance industries’ male, female, unisex marketing paradigm.
In 2021, Boy Smells is experiencing explosive growth, catapulting them from indie darling to a challenger brand with a growth strategy. Wholesale currently constitutes 55% of the brand's total sales, and the brand witnessed a +305% YoY increase in wholesale business with an expanded footprint in 100 Nordstrom stores nationwide as well as launches with Space NK UK and North America and FIKA Canada. DTC sales have increased 450% increase since 2019.
Meet the brand that's getting it right, as founder Matthew Herman and new CEO David Duplantis share the path from irreverent indie brand to a challenger brand with big plans for growth.
When the brand launched five years ago, the conversations around gender expression were not as commonplace as they have become. Tackling the traditional gender norms of the beauty industry and, more specifically, the fragrance category was certainly a whitespace opportunity, but it goes much deeper than a positioning strategy to create differentiation. Can you share a little about how the DNA of the brand has evolved?
MH: By speaking about our values more and pushing that to be a part of our brand narrative, it has crystalized the filter by which we decide if something is brand right. By embracing our genderful identity, celebrating the gender spectrum, our brand DNA has evolved in step. Our scents further push the duality of traditionally masculine and feminine olfactive structures. Our photography is more bountiful and spectral in color. And the way we speak to our customers is more genuine and provocative.
Studies show that 1 in 5 millennial consumers identify as LGBTQIA, and Gen Z's view of gender has evolved even further. While many brands struggle to find an authentic voice and platform to connect with this new generation of consumer, it feels intuitive for Boy sSmells. Can you share how you have built not only the connection with this consumer but a platform to generate awareness for causes that are important to you?
MH: Each Pride we do a collection that benefits The Trevor Project, the nation's leading suicide prevention and crisis intervention hotline for LGBTQIA youth. Last year we gave $47K, and this year we gave $100K, an amount equal to some of the largest corporations' Pride contributions. We have a responsibility that encompasses from social to environmental. These values reflect who we are as a company and who we are as human beings. The customer is smart and they smell inauthenticity from a mile away.
For our Pride campaign we cast Tommy Dorfman, Gottmik, Symone, Leyna Bloom, and Brandon Flynn. These are individuals we admire and who we think represent our genderful values. Perspectives we believe are pushing the conversation forward.
To add to that, singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves embodies our genderful ethos in our eyes, as she is being her most authentic self in the country music industry, which is very male dominated. She is redefining the expectations of her gender in her industry. That's why working with her for our Slow Burn collaboration candle is a no-brainer.
Everything ladders up to breaking down the constructs that hold us back based on gender and supporting a world where our customers self-define their identity.
Boy Smells started as a side hustle that turned into a full-time job and has grown into one of the hottest indie brands in the fragrance category. There are so many indie brands that take the industry by storm and then disappear—often it’s because they don't have the capital and/or business acumen to manage the cash flow necessary to build the inventory and invest in marketing requirements to fuel growth. Can you share how you have self-funded the launch and sustained the growth you're seeing so that it all reached profitability?
MH: That is a very simple answer. We have low overhead and have grown the business incredibly mindfully. We started Boy Smells in our kitchen, which grew to envelop the dining room, then the living room, and then it took over the entire house. My partner David Kien left his job after the first year, then I followed about a year later. We had no investment other than what we initially put into it and no safety net. We put every cent of profit into more inventory. Honestly knowing what I know now, it seems impossible, but we survived off of excitement and grit.
That said, we had one product category in six SKUs all sharing raw materials. Same jar, box, wax, and wick across all the styles. The only thing that varied was the label and scent. It allowed us to be nimble with inventory and upfront costs. The business was much more simple then.
In this investment environment I am sure you are inundated with offers. Would you ever contemplate outside capital? If yes, what would you want in a partner?
MH: We recognize that we will not be able to scale much longer without outside capital. Right now, it would be more damaging to the brand to not consider it. But any partnership with an institutional investor would have to align with our vision and values. Hiring a seasoned CEO is a huge step for a founder-led start-up, especially in such a competitive market where it feels like a land grab for senior talent by venture-backed brands. What was the impetus for the decision, and what did the process look like? How did you compete?
MH: I randomly and by coincidence met David Duplantis through friends in Mexico, and I totally lucked out that he was in a place where he was focusing on mentoring people he liked and saw potential in. That mentorship turned into a meaningful trust and belief in each other, so when we decided to explore senior leadership, David asked if we would consider him for the opportunity. We immediately said yes!
How did you know David Duplantis was the right person for the job?
MH: We had the luxury of having known each other for 18 months at that point, and he was already advising the brand in an official capacity. We just decided to make it official. I guess you could say we dated first before getting married.
With more than 25 years of experience driving growth and transforming iconic specialty retailers such as Banana Republic, J.Crew, and Coach, what was it about Boy Smells that drew you into the beauty start-up world?
DD: I've long been intrigued by early-stage businesses, and in particular those that fill a void in the world and also deliver excellent products that bring joy and happiness to consumers, and in the case of Boy Smells, allows consumers to celebrate their identity. It was by chance that I met Matthew and David about a year ago, and we've had a natural connection from the beginning and it's been a privilege to advise the company and mentor them since. My passion and legacy is brand building, and this is an opportunity for me to apply my knowledge and skills across all aspects of retail management and development in order to continue to drive the Boy Smells business on a trajectory of exponential growth.
The brand has ambitions of being a "full-fledged lifestyle brand,” which is a term that has become rather ubiquitous. Given the growth trajectory of the brand, I have to imagine there is a strategy to back this publicly stated goal. What does a Boy Smells lifestyle brand look like? How do you plan to get there from where you are now?
DD: Today, our genderful world includes candles, fine fragrance, and our line of undergarments called Unmentionables. Our customers have responded well to each as a part of their daily rituals and self-care. We continue to have opportunities in those categories and our roadmap as a lifestyle brand has us venturing into new products and categories that are an important part of our daily rituals. We are debuting hand soaps and lotions in 2022, and there are many other products in the pipeline that we believe fit nicely into our genderful universe.
Any key objectives or strategic initiatives you'd like to share for the next 12 months?
DD: In addition to new product categories in development, as well as further developing our business in international markets, we are focusing on strengthening our foundation across all areas of the organization to support sustained profitable growth. Specifically, we are strategically adding additional resources in the form of human capital and technology, and have already begun to explore investment partners.
International distribution seems to be an obvious opportunity. How much of your current revenue is international? Boy Smells is so much more than the product it sells; how will you localize the brand's genderful ethos and queer value set?
DD: Boy Smells products are available for purchase globally, with about 25% of our wholesale sales coming from outside of the US. Today's most important international markets are the UK, China, Canada, and Australia, where we have plans to propel growth next year and beyond.
In regards to localizing the brand's genderful ethos, we know through social listening and analysis that Boy Smells is leading the genderful conversation globally, which is very exciting and speaks to a broader opportunity to amplify our brand message even louder than we are today.
In China, fragrance is a nascent category witnessing explosive growth. Do you have any insights you can share about how the category is evolving in the market?
DD: China is a unique market with abundant opportunities, and we're pleased to have a good start there with distribution at Lane Crawford and other premium retailers. In 2022, you will see a stronger Boy Smells presence in China through different distribution channels that will enable us to tell a compelling genderful brand story and drive exponential growth.
From the outside looking in, it feels like the business is at an important inflection point. What does success look like for the brand?
DD: Matthew, David Kien, and I have a shared vision for what the Boy Smells brand can ultimately be, and we're laser focused on executing that vision. Unlike many early-stage businesses that are in it for selling out, we are each energized by the opportunity to bring a new, forward-thinking concept to the world that is a celebration of identity and self-care. Once Boy Smells and genderful are household names and words, that will be success!
MH: Success means articulating Boy Smells to its fullest creative potential at each touch point for the customer. It means developing new products that excite us. And it means bringing a genderful identity to your self-care and daily rituals.
Boy Smells is the brand I wished existed when I was growing up. Something that celebrated uniqueness and being different. It took me a lifetime to see what makes me different is my superpower and my uniqueness as beautiful. I hope Boy Smells is contributing to a world where the constructs that hold us back do not exist at all.
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