Startup Spotlight: Aspen Apothecary
All Things Venture #056
Hey Everyone, Dez here from All Things Venture. This week has been a doozy for me, so I’m going to keep it short and sweet with the intro. Part of why I love working in venture is because every day is an opportunity to get better. In many ways, venture capital is just like a game. There’s a set of rules that people largely abide by, there’s individual players and teams, and there’s a massive scoreboard (i.e returns) that everyone tracks to see how well they’re doing. The art of finding, following, and funding great startups is one that I’m currently on the journey of, and I hope that along the way I can share my, and others, learnings here through All Things Venture. Frankly - I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a founder with the amount of resources, capital, and infrastrucuture in place that can allow you to get big, fast. And on top of that, I think the country, hell I think the world, would be in a better place if more of our best and brightest had the desire and opportunity to pursue startups/entrepreneurship. Might be wishful thinking, but it’s how I feel.
On that note, today’s article is about Aspen Apothecary, which was founded by Keta Burke-Williams, a recent HBS grad who is looking to shake up the DTC fragrance industry. For anyone interested in consumer startups or the beauty/wellness industry, this one is for you. As always, let’s dive right in.
Keta! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to start Aspen Apothecary?
I’m an Ohio native currently living in New York. My path to starting Aspen Apothecary is all over the place. I’m combining the skills I was able to take from Kraft Heinz and Carnival, and I basically became passionate about fragrance while at HBS. My personal interest in fragrance came from my mom and her perspective of fragrance being an aspect of self care. Ultimately I felt like something was missing in this $39B industry, and I’m excited to bring to life something new.
What is Aspen Apothecary, and what makes you so excited about innovating in the beauty industry?
Aspen Apothecary is a nontoxic fragrance brand centered around celebrating you as you are. Our ethos is centered around this idea of “come as you are.” We are focused on the power of a moment, and the connections of a moment, and we do that through scent. We're really committed to making fragrance in a conscious way, in every aspect of the product, from the fragrance chemicals themselves to the packaging. That's the reason why we exist. After speaking to consumers and large retailers, we know there’s a gap in the market so we're excited to be bringing about the change and the conversation that’s needed.
Can you speak to the customer discovery process you went through?
When it comes to consumers we did initial surveys, primary research, and reviewed analyst reports to confirm that what we were hearing on the micro level extended to macro trends In addition to that, and on a personal level, I wanted a brand that represents me as a whole human. I was fortunate enough to speak to merchants at Sephora, Macy’s, and Credo Beauty. Macy's customer profile is 70% diverse, and they’re looking for brands that have sustainability at the core and tell a different story though the brand. That’s exactly what we provide at Aspen Apothecary.
The best Direct to Consumer brands of today, in a lot of ways, are building community. How does building community influence your decision making as a founder?
Yeah one point on the diverse customers and community we’re building is that we’re definitely building products for the underserved AND a product for people that want to be allies. As much as a black consumer wants to be supported/seen in a brand, there's a white counterpart that wants to be an ally and go on that journey as well. We think about community as providing a reason for our customers to engage with the brand beyond just our fragrances.
When I first saw the brand, I thought of this term I use called “accessible luxury” meaning brands and products that provide high quality, moderately priced products that possess an acute sense of design, style, and craftsmanship. Think clothing brands like Aime Leon Dore for men or Ganni for women. Is that framing accurate for Aspen Apothecary?
Yeah so it’s funny I'm embarrassingly unfashionable so I had to look up Ganni before this interview, but from what I saw it definitely makes sense. I would change the framing slightly and say that Aspen Apothecary is everyday luxury. Accessible means different things for different people, so we want to be mindful of that connotation.
Who is the ideal customer for Aspen Apothecary and why should they purchase their next perfume from you?
We’ve done work defining our target market, but what I’d like to speak about more is the psychographic of our customer. Fragrance is an emotional experience, so I did a lot of digging to understand what connects with our customers on an emotional level. As I’ve mentioned, we view fragrance as being an aspect of self-care so we’ve really gone deep on looking for people who like the idea of smelling good but don’t know where to start. In addition to that, we’ve done a great job of reactivating people who have “lapsed fragrance” meaning they may have spent hundreds to thousands of dollars on fragrance but no longer feel a connection to their purchase. At the end of the day though, our fragrances smell amazing and are locally made. We produce everything in the Bronx so there’s aspects of directly contributing to the communities we serve as well.
What defines success for Aspen Apothecary over the next few months?
Sure, I am a pretty linear thinker so for me there’s three big things 1) we’re fundraising it’s incredibly important for us to bring on the right partners for Aspen Apothecary 2) We’re looking forward to formally launching the brand. When we soft launched it was all through word of mouth, and our first run sold out pretty quickly 3) I’m pretty excited for some of the new fragrances we have in development, and to share those with the world
What advice do you have for any aspiring entrepreneurs?
I would say plan, ask for help, ask again, and follow up. Everything that happens in life is because some made a plan to have it so. I pride myself on being very scrappy, doing a lot w/ a little but not being afraid to reach out. It doesn’t matter if your hit rate is 50%, people are pretty generous to share their time and expertise. People are generally happy to share a piece of their success w/ you. I also think because of how easy it is to drop the ball, while wearing a lot of hats as a founder, do your best to follow up within 24 hours if you can. Lastly, I think the last piece of advice I can give is not being afraid to sell yourself. Don’t be afraid to think big as long as you have a plan to back it up.
Last question, who is the one celebrity, or up and coming beauty influencer you want to partner with at Aspen Apothecary and why?
My dream celebrity is Solange. I think she is awesome because she represents a multitude of things that we're trying to do. Asap Rocky as well, and Beatrice Diamond too. All 3 people are at the intersection of culture and being unapologetically themselves.