Startups

Pinrose Tries Selling Perfume by Algorithm, No Charlize Therons Required


Pinrose fragrances

Photograph by Horsefeather Labs

Pinrose fragrances

Some of the most glamorous ads on television or in magazines belong to perfume makers. Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron, and other A-list stars are used to conjure up a sense of fantasy that helps people feel better about spending hundreds of dollars on a few ounces of scented liquid. It’s an effective, not-terribly-original way to sell a premium product, and also a reminder that the perfume sellers have the fat margins needed to pay spokespeople millions of dollars.

A pair of Stanford Graduate School of Business alumni—sound familiar?—have come up with a lower-cost, less-glitzy approach to selling perfume that they think is more in keeping with the lifestyles of modern women. Erika Shumate and Christine Luby launched their startup, Pinrose, this week with 10 scents that cost $50 each.

Shumate (left) and LubyPhotograph by Scott SuiterShumate (left) and LubyThe founders created the scents themselves and, as Silicon Valley startups so often try to do, cut out the middleman by selling direct via the Web. The fragrances have playful names, such as Rooftop Socialite and Campfire Rebel, and come with a booklet that describes which personality type they will likely appeal to. “We didn’t want this very heavy-handed, serious approach where you walk into a mall and get sprayed in the face,” Luby says. “There is room to have a brand that is fun and speaks more to our generation.”

Pinrose has something of a technology twist. There’s a “scent finder,” which presents customers with a series of questions and then uses an algorithm to pick out three scents that should prove appealing. Shumate studied the psychology of scent in college and applied her expertise to develop the questions and fine-tune the algorithm, and the founders claim the system works about 75 percent of the time. In the future, they hope to mine a person’s Instagram (FB) feed or Pinterest board to come up with conclusions about the scents specific women will like.

The larger sales pitch revolves around an attack on the idea of a signature fragrance. Women have been cajoled into picking one perfume that “defines” them and sticking with it for years. Shumate and Luby contend that women should be able to hop from fragrance to fragrance depending on their mood. “We’re going to create even more custom scents,” Shumate says. “There are brides who want a special scent for their wedding day or their engagement. Scents are tied to our memories, and this lets you go back later and recall those times.”

The perfume industry is smaller than you might think. It’s centered in New Jersey and France, where there are basically four companies that make the fragrances. Another handful of companies then buy “the juice,” as it’s known in the industry, and sell that to other companies, which just put their brands on the bottles. Pinrose works with perfumers to come up with each scent, then buys the liquid by the kilo in large drums. All told, the market for perfume is about $6 billion in the U.S. and $30 billion worldwide.

“We went to some of these traditional companies and were like, ‘We’ll bring scent online,’” Luby says. “They said, ‘We don’t understand the Internet. How do you smell through your computer?’ It’s a super old industry that has always operated the same way.”

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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