Most venture capitalists probably aren’t looking at perfume deals. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for fresh thinking in the fragrance industry—especially for startups tapping into the growing appetite for all things “natural.”
On Wednesday, Skylar, a Los Angeles-based beauty brand that has developed a line of “safe scented products,” announced that it has raised $8 million in Series A funding. (The round brings its total funding to $11 million.) The investment was led by FirstMark Capital, whose partner and managing director, Beth Ferreira, will now join Skylar’s all-female board. Also participating in the round are Upfront Ventures, Amplify LA, Gingerbread Capital and several individual investors, including the Honest Company’s Brian Lee, who co-founded the baby brand along with actress Jessica Alba.
“I learned a lot about natural products there [at the Honest Company],” says Cat Chen, founder and CEO of Skylar and one of the Honest Company’s first employees. (Chen is not the only alum who has left Alba’s startup, now valued at $1 billion, and started her own natural products line.)
The idea for Skylar came about in 2017, after Chen realized her infant daughter was allergic to her “traditional” perfumes. She began researching the (unregulated) fragrance industry and found out that potentially harmful chemicals like phthalates were widely used in products. Knowing her daughter wasn’t the only one with a sensitivity to perfumes, Chen realized there was opportunity for a new brand—one that would be more cautious about the ingredients it uses—in the perfume business, which is estimated at $46 billion worldwide.
Chen enlisted an expert “perfumer” she knew from her Honest Company days, Sarah Horowitz, to start tinkering with perfumes that would be free of parabens and toxic chemicals. She researched suppliers (the fragrance industry is not set up for sourcing “naturals,” according to the entrepreneur). She raised some money from friends and family, and eventually set up shop in her garage, fulfilling orders from online sales and driving to the post office each day to send her perfumes to customers. It took off, and pretty soon, investors came sniffing around.
“She has a marketing sensibility and knows how to build an audience,” says Ferreira, the FirstMark Capital partner who is joining Skylar’s board. “And this is a product that is made by women for women.”
Of course, there’s a tech angle too. Chen says she is utilizing data to better serve her customers (yes, that’s what all startups say). She is also using tech to make her brand more sticky: Skylar customers can fill out a “scent quiz” online, but to receive their result (which Skylar scents are the best fit for them), they must provide their email address.
It’s still early days for Skylar, and if there’s a lesson to be learned from the Honest Company’s trajectory, it is this: running an “all-natural” company has its unique pitfalls. Alba’s company’s growth hasn’t been without bumps, after all—including lawsuits claiming that the company’s products weren’t quite as “natural” as they stated. Still, there’s a reason VCs smell opportunity. If the Honest Company’s $1 billion valuation is any indication, there is room for disruption in products we put on our body, and the move to more natural is real—as long as startups like Skylar can live up to what their branding promises.