March 16

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Bootstrapping a Clean Fragrance Business and Why It Is All About Authenticity with Rosie Johnston

By Mimi MacLean

March 16, 2021


If you curious to learn how to get a fragrance business into Sephora while working a full-time job and having kids, this is the episode for you! Rosie Johnston has built an incredible business while doing just that. Rosie was wearing her handmade clean fragrance 11 years ago when she had the realization she could turn it into a business focused on clean and sustainable perfumes. Her clean fragrance business was founded with the mission to create a non-toxic, transparent alternative to fragrances.

Episode Contents

Mimi: Welcome to The Badass CEO podcast. This is Mimi Maclean. I’m a mom of five, entrepreneur, Columbia Business School grad, CPA, and angel investor, and I’m here to share with you my passion for entrepreneurship. Throughout my career, I’ve met many incredible people who’ve started businesses, disrupted industries, persevered, and turned opportunity into success. Each episode we will discuss what it takes to become and continue to be a badass CEO, directly from the entrepreneurs who have made it happen. If you’re new in your career, dreaming about starting your own business, or already an entrepreneur, The Badass CEO podcast is for you. I want to give you the drive and tools needed to succeed in following your dreams.

Hi, and welcome back to The Badass CEO. This is Mimi, and today we have on Rosie Johnston and she is the CEO of By Rosie Jane, one of the first clean fragrance bands that started in 2010 in Los Angeles. She can be found in Sephora and many other retailers around the country. If you’re looking to bootstrap your business or start a business on the side and carefully grow it to a million dollar business, this is the episode for you. To get your top 10 tips every entrepreneur should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips.

Memories of Starting Up her Fragrance Business

Fragrance business - field of yellow flowers
Photographer: nine koepfer | Source: Unsplash

Rosie, thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it. It’s been a long time since I actually was selling your perfume in my store. It was like 10, 12 years ago or something like that.

Rosie: It’s crazy.

Mimi: I know. So that’s why I loved your perfume. I still do. And I just wanted to get you on to hear your story and talk about your journey.

Rosie: Yes. Well, thank you for having me. I’m super excited to be here, and yeah, when I saw your email come through and you were like, “Hey, do you remember me?” I’m like, of course I do. You were one of our first stores, I think.

Mimi: Oh really? I didn’t realize you were that new.

Rosie: So we launched By Rosie Jane in like, I’m going to say 2010 officially, but it wasn’t the professional kind of thing, I guess that we are today, until probably 2015.

Mimi: Right. So you started about 10 years ago. What do you mean by you just kind of got going in 2015?

Rosie: Well, I think we’re really a bootstrap kind of brand and company. We have no investors. It really is me from the beginning. So we’ve kind of baby stepped our way to where we are now. When we had additional money, that’s when we would sort of be like, hey, let’s do a [inaudible 00:02:51] marketing campaign or let’s update our packaging, or now we have a little bit, everything’s going well, so it was, I officially launched in 2010, with Leila Lou fragrance, but I had no money. I rang actually a friend of mine, the friends and family. And we had just come out of the crash of what, 2008, and I had done like a little cheek and lip gloss that I had sold, which had done pretty well.

Asking for a loan

Rosie: But then in the crash of 2008, we lost pretty much all of our independent stores. We were just in baby stores. So in 2010, I had been wearing a fragrance that I had mixed for myself as a makeup artist. And a colleague of mine was like, “This is a great product. People ask you to make it all the time. You should sell it.” And I was like, “All right.” So I rang a girlfriend, or actually a friend of my husband’S, and I was like, “Will you lend me 2,500 bucks so that I can buy some packaging and stuff to sell this fragrance? I mix it in my house now, and I hand type the labels, but I feel like maybe we need to do a proper box and labels.” And he was like, and by the way, I said $2,500. And I was like, “And I’ll give you 20%.” And he said no.

So I was like, all right, well, I’ll just do it anyway. And so we didn’t do the box. That’s when I was like, you know what, it’s probably more eco-friendly not to do a box. So we did a swing tag. I had little stickers printed at Kinko’s, and that was the beginning.

Unsure About Letting Go

fragrance business - tipping sparkles from martini glass
Photographer: Amy Shamblen | Source: Unsplash

Mimi: So you were a makeup artist before?

Rosie: Yes. I really stopped doing makeup at the end of 2018, sort of beginning of 2019. I sort of officially retired.

Mimi: So you were doing this all at the same time.

Rosie: All at the same time. I was really scared to let go of makeup, because I mean, I had a great career. I had an agent, I was like what you would define as a celebrity makeup artist. And it was a great income supplement. So the fragrance and everything had always sort of been almost like a side hustle, really. And then it became more legitimate, and as Leila Lou gained traction, and we were really one of the first clean fragrances. So that term didn’t exist when we launched. But when I made Leila Lou, because I had had my daughter in 2007, it really was this true kind of organic experience for me. And then, but yeah, so I was doing makeup the whole time and I was scared to give it away, because I was like, what if everything falls in a heap?

Mimi: Okay, this is really interesting. I love the fact that we’re talking to you, because I think most people who start businesses are doing it the way you’re doing it. It’s really hard to get financing, and a lot of the people I’ve talked to in the past have gotten financing, either angel investing or VC money. And so the fact that you’re bootstrapping it, I’d love to get to the nitty gritty. So have you been paying yourself all this time?

Story of bootstrapping and needing to do it all

Rosie: I mean, I was paying myself like $30,000 a year in the beginning, and then I really sort of started being able to give [inaudible 00:05:59], and that’s from what, 2010, I was paying myself a little bit, but that’s why I never gave up makeup until the end of 2018, because I was like, if I don’t have to pull an income and pull that out of By Rosie Jane, why would I do that? And then what happened was it just got too big and I just got too busy to be able to…

Mimi: Do both, to do both.

Rosie: And that’s when I was kind of like, listen, I’ve got to go all in.

Mimi: Why have you chosen to bootstrap it versus trying to do a friends and family round or an angel round, especially now that you have a product that has been proven, it works, you’re in Sephora. You could probably easily get money and grow it much faster. So why have you chosen not to do that?

Rosie: So there’s two reasons, actually. And two is, one, it’s actually, even though we have a proven product and we’re in Sephora and we have great growth and we’re doing really well, it’s actually really hard to find someone that is, you know, just getting money given to you is not hard. But we wanted to work with someone, when I first initially thought, okay, do we start bringing in money, I wanted someone to come on that was not just a silent, big money person that just was going to be like every month, where’s my money, where’s my money, where’s my return?

Finding a Financial Partner who Values the Story

fragrance business - sample packs
by/rosie jane sample packs

Rosie: We’re kind of on this journey, and it just didn’t feel like who I am as a person to suddenly take what it feels like, it’s very organic, and really kind of cool story about the way that we create products and the timeline that we do it, to suddenly just jump in and suddenly be like, “Okay, you know what? Now we have 50 different sets, and we have 100 different fragrances,” which is what VC happens.

Rosie: And the other one is Sephora, actually. Sephora, who completely different to what I thought, said to me, “Listen, if you can bootstrap it, do it for as long as possible. Stay away from VC money.”

Mimi: Especially VC. I mean, if you did friends and family angel is different, because you don’t report to them. You don’t owe them anything, pretty much, when you get smaller rounds. VC, I agree. Even when I had a VC person who came and spoke, she equated it to cutting off your big toe. She’s like, “Giving money to a VC, you’ve just got to think of it as equivalent of cutting off your big toe.” So if you’re willing to do that.

Rosie: And I feel like it’s probably a little more significant than that. But it ought to be part of your plan, right? And if that’s what you want to do, and you want to get in, make a lot of money, if that’s what happens, and get out really, really fast, then that’s what you need to do. But for me, that was never my plan. I mean, initially there really wasn’t one. And then now, it’s to really kind of grow through fragrance into lifestyle and grow with a strong voice, a strong point of view brand.

In the beginning, I definitely, I borrowed money from my dad, so I did a little bit of friends and family, but it was more like, “Hey, we need a publicist. Could you pay for my publicist for a month?” It was kind of more along those lines.

Lessons learned

Mimi: So what do you think is the hardest lesson you’ve learned so far in your fragrance business?

Rosie: Gosh, I mean, there are so many things that I’ve learned, but I think it’s to really trust my own instincts, right or wrong. I feel like I knew something, that there was stuff that I knew that I wanted to do, and then you get talked out of it for another reason. And then even the stuff that I feel like I would have been wrong about, I feel like it would have taken me to something that could have taught me a different kind of lesson. That is probably the hardest thing, is I have a little bit of the imposter syndrome. So I definitely…

Mimi: I think a lot of CEOs and a lot of women, especially successful women, have that. I did a survey one time on my Instagram feed and that came back as like the number one thing, was their insecurity and imposter syndrome.

Rosie: It is crazy. And I still, I mean, every day, even I started an Instagram, so like a personal Instagram outside of By Rosie Jane, just so that people could kind of be like, okay, because we’re a brand founder story, and I was like, let me start an Instagram so I can kind of show a little bit about my life. And even when everything I do on that, I’m like, is this really who I am? Like, what am I doing? It just feels, yeah, I always feel like I’m impersonating myself a little bit.

Mimi: I like that, impersonating yourself.

Rosie: But yeah, definitely, it is crazy, because you suddenly think, is everyone just going to be like, “I’m sorry, did we just wake up, and who the hell is By Rosie Jane? What is this fragrance she’s making – what’s this fragrance business?”

Mimi: Now, have you had to pivot a lot? I mean, I know a lot of you were direct, you were selling a lot to retailers, and obviously the past nine months, retailers have been decimated. You already had an online presence, but have you had to pivot more towards that and go direct to consumer?

Rosie: Yes. I think for anyone starting a business, in all consumer products, you really, you know, I would say the same, cutting off your, probably half of your leg, if you don’t have 50% of your focus, at least, on direct to consumer. For me, it’s like the blockbuster thing, right, with Netflix. It’s like, you don’t have to go all into it. We’re a fragrance business. Particularly fragrance, people were really scared of it, because you have to smell it. But there’s ways around it, thank goodness. And yeah, I think you have to have both. I think more than ever omni-channel is more important.

Mimi: What ways around it? You just mentioned there are ways around it. Did you send out samples? How do you do to get around it?

Rosie: Yes. So in the beginning, actually, when we first started setting up our .com, which I’m going to say is five years ago, four years ago, maybe, yeah, we did, like if you signed up for our mailing list, we would send you a free sample pack. And we didn’t really know what we were expecting. It was just sort of like, this seems kind of like the easiest way to get people to try our fragrances.

Leveraging the Clean Fragrance Business

fragrance business - clean ingredients
Clean fragrance business – transparence, integrity, authenticity

Mimi: What advice do you have to be able to get into these big boxes, like Sephora?

Rosie: I mean, honestly, I think it’s about authenticity. We did not take any particular steps with the goal of getting into Sephora. I think what happened was is that clean beauty became such a strong movement that they couldn’t ignore it anymore. And so they opened up to clean skincare and clean makeup, and then fragrance was just next in line. And there aren’t that many clean fragrances. I think we really were always focused on the story of By Rosie Jane, the products of By Rosie Jane, our integrity to sustainability and cleanliness and transparent ingredients.

Mimi: So do you do all your own shipping, or do you have a fulfillment company?

Rosie: Yes. So we do all of our own fulfillment and have since the beginning. And I think that’s one of the keys to our survival, actually, is that our overhead and our outlay was not that big. So if really the shit hit the fan, I knew that I could just run it still out of my basement. It would be a lot more work, but I could still do it.

Personal coping strategies

Mimi: Okay, so you are a mom and you’re trying to do it all, be the CEO and be a mom. Do you have any advice? Because I think a lot of women, even if they don’t have children, they’re managing a lot, either parents or situations going on in their life. Any advice that you have? Any tricks, like do you have a morning routine, any favorite apps, anything that kind of keeps you all together?

Rosie: I’m going to say a lot of alcohol, a lot. But I mean, luckily, I actually have a very supportive partner. My husband also owns a business. He’s a contractor. He builds pools and does all that, but we are able to juggle a lot, and we have a wonderful nanny that helps us with the kids, as well. So we do it alone, but not really. We’re sort of like…

Mimi: Well, do you get up early before everybody else? And like, I don’t know, run a marathon, meditate, I don’t know, whatever.

Rosie: I used to, but since COVID, everything has gone out the door.

Mimi: I know, with everyone home.

Rosie: Right? I used to wake up at about six o’clock in the morning and I could get maybe an hour of emails done, have a cup of coffee, start school lunches, do all of that kind of crap. But now everything’s…

Mimi: Well, the kids haven’t been in school since last March. I mean, it’s almost been a year since anybody in LA has been in school. So they’re home. You’ve got lots of bodies.

Rosie: The one thing that I try and keep consistent is working out, and it’s not every day by all means. I do meditate. I’m a big meditator. But again, it sort of has to fit into my schedule. So I try and do it two days a week. I generally end up doing it normally one, but working out I’ll do at least three times a week. I’m a walker and hiker. I have my headphones on. I listen to really cheesy nineties music, which is like women empowerment music. That’s my favorite. All the songs I listen to are like get through it, you doubted me, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Or it’s like this [inaudible 00:15:11].

When I get to work, I’m like, all right, I’ve thought of 50 new ideas and this is what we’re going to do. And that store that said no to us, we’re going to tell them to go eff themselves, and we’re going to do it anyway.

Mimi: Oh my God. You’re funny. No, that’s true. So what would you say are your biggest challenges right now?

Why Growth is a Challenge

Sample of fragrance by/rosiejane
Sample of clean fragrance by/rosie jane

Rosie: I mean, I think growth is always a challenge. You’ve always got to outdo yourself. But I think for us, it’s also about brand exposure is becoming harder and harder. And also, of course, getting product into the hands of people. For us, it’s really about getting the story and the whole idea of By Rosie Jane out there. I think that’s our big challenge. We sort of reached this milestone [inaudible 00:15:54] is incredible, and now I feel like we almost have to do more work that we did just to get there.

Mimi: Now, do you have an affiliate program now?

Rosie: We don’t, no.

Mimi: See, that’s what you should do, because then you can take advantage of all the influencers.

Rosie: Ah, the hardest thing is the man hours, right? So we want to set up the affiliate program, but we are a small team.

Mimi: I think it’s just like a plug and play type of thing. I don’t think you, you know, there’s just a company that does it, but you just kind of…

Rosie: Really?

Mimi: Yes. I’ll get you the name. And then the affiliates, I mean, all the influencers go to that website. There’s a couple of them. They go to the website and then they just pick what they want to represent or have samples sent to them. It’s just a way of having your own sales force.

Rosie: Yeah. I mean, and that’s where everyone’s looking, but it’s competition right now. But you know, I also think it’s hard, because I was talking with Jennifer, who is our marketing director who helps me with all of the social media stuff, and I was whining about being part of the white noise. Like, are we just contributing? I watched that documentary, The Social Dilemma. It was like, oh my God, this is horrendous. Are we just part of this [crosstalk 00:17:05]?

Mimi: No, because you put on your Rosie Jane perfume and it just puts a smile on everyone’s face, because it’s so bright and cheery.

Sticking to Values and Authenticity

Rosie: And that’s where it comes back to authenticity. It’s like, no, I’m not just pushing out something that isn’t real. We are really committed to clean ingredients and pushing transparency in the fragrance business.

Mimi: I mean, that’s why I got involved with Beautycounter and invested with them early on, because that’s something that’s near and dear to my heart, just food and then also products. A lot of the things I invest in are clean, and it’s because, I don’t want to call anybody out, but there are a lot of big name brands that will make lipstick in Paris and reformulate it for the United States, which is healthier in Paris, because they have much more strict guidelines. So you know they already make it cleaner. And then they formulate it for here, just so they can make it cheaper.

Rosie: And cheaper by like, this is what’s so crazy, is when you look at it, cheaper by like [crosstalk 00:17:59].

Mimi: Pennies.

Rosie: Yeah.

Mimi: But for them, it’s how many lipsticks they sell, but still, it’s like really? Just do what’s right. You know what I mean?

Rosie: I know. And even if you don’t want to do what’s right, at least put everything that’s on and in your product on the packaging so that people can choose. It’s a big thing here. It’s so frustrating to me, even within the clean space. I know that there are people out there within this space that are greenwashing and cleanwashing everything.

Mimi: Because there’s no standards right now, so they can get away with anything. There’s nothing. No one knows what organic means in this arena.

Rosie: No, and clean, as well. That’s the whole [inaudible 00:18:38] and the parabens, phthalate free, we of course are those. But people just grab it. I develop fragrances for other body products. So not a lot, but a couple of other brands that I’ll create a fragrance to go in their product. And I specifically did this one. They didn’t want it clean. I was like, “Great, perfect.” And then they started advertising it as clean and natural fragrance. And I was like, “It’s not. You’ve got to stop saying that. It has a natural ingredient in it, but just one.”

What have you had to give up?

Mimi: Exactly. It’s not. So I was just talking to another CEO right before I got on this with you. And we were talking about how, when we hear these people’s stories, everyone’s sounds so easy. When I’m talking, like today, you made it sound very easy, like it’s easy to start.

I’m going to ask from now on this question, and my question for you is what have you had to give up?

I don’t think people realize when they go into a venture how much they have to give up and how hard it really is. So I would love to hear your answer to that, what you’ve had to really give up and to kind of express how hard it really is to people.

Rosie: I mean, I think probably the thing that I’ve had to give up and that you continue to give up is my own personal downtime. When you’re an entrepreneur, it just doesn’t exist. Whether you’re on vacation, whether you’re at home, whether you’re sick, getting married, giving birth, you are still, everything stops with you. So I think you give away a little bit of your peace of mind when you become an entrepreneur.

I agree, I hear so many founders’ stories, and I’m like, God, did they just go from like a hundred grand to like five million in a year? How the hell did that happen? And yeah, they do. They take out all of the gray area.

Mimi: So it makes it sound easy and fun. Like, oh, I want to do that. That sounds like fun, she’s so much fun. I want to just do what she did.

Rosie: One person wrote about the product, and then, my God, and then now I’m just cashing the checks. It’s all golden.

Mimi: And no one knows what really they’ve had to give up along the way.

Rosie: Yes. So for me, that’s been the biggest thing. There’s no real escape. Like even when I gave birth, as soon as I got home with the babies, I had my laptop next to me, you know, two days old, a day, 24 hours old, you’re just like [inaudible 00:21:09], so I think you give up that.that is probably the biggest, but then what’s crazy is you sort of, you do gain a lot as an entrepreneur and owning your own business, and a clean fragrance business at that.

Mimi: You don’t have a boss.

Rosie: You don’t have a boss. You have freedom. You can be late every day to work.

Mimi: Any words words that you want to end on? Any last minute advice or tips, pointers?

Rosie: I mean, listen, I would advise anyone to be an entrepreneur. I think it’s wonderful. It’s great to have children and work for yourself. And it sounds terrible, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, but don’t think too big and too far ahead. Just try and get to the end of that week. Like, I’d really like to sell 20 products this week or whatever your goal is.

Mimi: Right, right. Get into five more stores or whatever. Okay, so if anyone wants to find you, they go to byrosiejane.com, or they can go to Sephora.

Rosie: Yes. That’s it.

Mimi: Thank you so much for coming on. This has been awesome.

Rosie: Thank you.

Mimi: Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the Top 10 Tips Every Entrepreneur Should Know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review, as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them, so email me at Mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week, and thank you for listening.

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