On paper, Commodity has all the trappings of successful beauty brand in 2018: It's a luxury, gender-neutral, minimalist, Instabait, global beauty startup that's seen massive success with Sephora customers. The description sounds practically auto-generated, like it's the result of a millennial beauty-themed round of Mad Libs. A scroll through the brand's Instagram feed doesn't exactly contradict that; Commodity's carefully curated range of perfumes and candles housed in black-and-white packaging is the stuff beauty influencers drool over. But the story behind how it came to be is more surprising.
Helmed by Konstantin Glasmacher, co-founder of HauteLook and Sole Society and CEO and Managing Director Ash Huzenlaub, Commodity was actually created on somewhat of a whim by two entrepreneurs with no experience in the field of beauty. (Huzenlaub previously worked on Sweet Leaf Tea and co-founded a baby e-comm site.) It was initially conceived of as an online platform for fragrance e-commerce when it first launched in 2014. Four short years and a total reimagining of the company later, the London-based brand is in a period of rapid growth, now being sold in nearly 500 Sephora doors across seven countries, as well as direct-to-consumer via its e-commerce business in 29 different nations.
Huzenlaub took some time recently to catch up with Fashionista over the phone and tell the story of Commodity's rapid industry rise. Read on for the highlights.
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Can you tell me about how Commodity first came to be?
In Oct. 2014 I was sitting in a cafe in Chelsea [in London] and started randomly talking with a gentleman across from me. His name was Konstantin Glasmacher, and he was the co-founder of HauteLook, which became part of Nordstrom. He had also done Sole Society and a number of other businesses. He was a successful serial entrepreneur, also from a German background and living in London, so we had a lot of commonalities and just became kindred spirits.
Earlier that year, he had made a sideline investment in a Kickstarter concept, which was going to distribute fragrance exclusively online. Now, you've seen a lot of initiatives that have done that — you've seen Scentbird and Phlur and plenty of others. So here he was in 2014 with a logo, a two-page website and no retail distribution. We put our heads together and decided to create a lifestyle brand around Commodity. That's what we did in October 2014, and by March of 2015 we were given an opportunity to test our fragrances in 24 Sephora stores in the U.S.
At that point, what were the online direct-to-consumer sales looking like?
Oh, it was less than $300,000, it wasn't really a fragrance business; it was meant to be an online platform for selling fragrance. I think the real winner in that category was Scentbird, even though it wasn't the same business model as Scentbird, which uses other brands' fragrances. We decided to create a lifestyle brand around our own sensibilities, and that's what we got to work doing.
Did Sephora approach you?
Yes. The U.S. fragrance team leadership there has really championed the idea of bringing in high-end, niche fragrances to curate an experience for people in their stores. They're constantly experimenting, but their core group right now is Commodity, Atelier [Cologne], Nest, Juliette Has a Gun, even Tom Ford and [Maison Margiela] Replica. We got an opportunity in March of 2015, and Konstantin and I had no beauty experience, but we certainly had business experience.
So how did you navigate bringing the business from a small, direct-to-consumer online setup to a major retailer like Sephora?
What happened was six weeks after we launched in March of 2015, we got a purchase order for 100 doors because the product had sold out. They'd bought six months worth of inventory and it was gone within five or six weeks. So Konstantin and I knew then that we had a business. We were high-fiving each other.
What were the next steps for growth, once you knew you had established a business?
We were in London, and we knew our market was in the U.S., so I set up an office [in New York City] and we've grown [our team] over the past three years. Once we got that PO, it really kicked off [working] 18 hours a day, six days a week for the past three years. For two years of that it was just Konstantin and me and some very good consultants. We started to build a team in July of 2016. We now have this core group of eight or nine people in New York and then Konstantin and me in London.
That success that we've experienced through Sephora and through e-commerce has allowed us to attract really interesting people; we brought people over from LVMH-[owned] Fresh, from Becca Cosmetics, MAC Cosmetics and [a publicist] from Alison Brod.
Was it a priority to make sure all of the products were gender-neutral when you were first conceiving of the brand?
We're never going to tell people whether they should wear one of our fragrances [based on their gender]. Arguably our most "masculine" fragrance is Whiskey, and that's my wife's favorite. We never sat down and said what was important for the brand; we thought about, what do we want? We don't want to be told what to wear. We've got this amazing team, we've got people that have come from the beauty space and all of them had experiences at some point in their careers where there was overhyped marketing around their products. We want to take what we think smells amazing, put it out there and let people decide for themselves if they want to use it.
Who has the main demographic been?
The majority of our distribution today is in Sephora, and Sephora in the U.S. has a demo of greater than 90 percent female and less than 10 percent male. So the majority of our customer base is female, but if you look at our e-commerce direct sales, it's even 50/50.
What does the future of the company look like?
There's no limit to Commodity because we never tried to position ourselves as just a fragrance brand.
It seems like you're clearly in growth mode right now. Looking at some of the other brands that you mentioned as your peers and competitors — Tom Ford, Atelier and so on — those are niche brands, but they're owned by large companies — Estée Lauder and L'Oréal, respectively. Is it a goal to sell Commodity to one of these bigger companies in the future?
That's not even a thought right now. The exciting thing for us now is that we're getting traction and finding success in the fragrance market for the brand identity that we wanted, which was to be minimalist and to allow the product to speak for itself. I give great kudos to our designers who do great work. What we're really trying to do is not distract the consumer from what the product is, whether it is our fragrance or candles or whatever else we may create in the future. We want them to not be distracted by the marketing.
Right now, what am I thinking about? Hotel amenities launched on Nov. 15. You'll start seeing Commodity in prestige hotels around the world. Candles just launched. We started with five, and we've got another eight over the next 18 months that will be rolled out. There's lots going on, and as long as we're staying focused on all of these moving parts I don't even need to think about the long-term game plan.
Given that this was your first foray into the beauty industry, how does it compare to the other industries you came from? Did anything surprise you?
In this space, I have been amazed at the camaraderie amongst the founders and CEOs, especially amongst niche brands. We don't treat each other like competitors. Everybody is pretty open to being helpful to each other.
Once I got that green light from Sephora that we were going to go into another hundred doors at the end of 2015, the first thing I did was book plane tickets. I met with a lot of the other founders that we were going to be in that space with and also others in niche fragrance or skin care that had had some success. Without fail, there was not a single brand that shot me down. The founders, the CEO, the board members, the investors — they were more than willing to sit down. What I've found in the beauty space is that we've kind of got this built-in advisory group. My advice to anybody starting a beauty brand is to use it. You don't see that in other industries.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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