Balanced Hustler: Meet Cat Chen, CEO and Founder of Skylar Clean Fragrance
Being an entrepreneur can seem glamorous. We own our schedules, build our companies based on work we love—and sometimes we can even work beachside. But the glamour is second in command to the hustle.
The hustle is what really defines the ups and downs of the entrepreneurship journey. And to shed some light on the work it takes to build a business, I’m interviewing fellow entrepreneurs who are ready to get real about their journeys. I’ll ask them how they manage to balance the hustle with the passion of what they do, and they’ll share what they had to overcome to get where they are today. It’s all in service of inspiring, supporting and illuminating the path for you, and we’re calling it the #BalancedHustler.
Cat Chen has always had natural ingredients on her radar. As one of the first employees and VP of operations at clean living powerhouse The Honest Company, it was her job to. But when she found out that she was pregnant with her daughter, safe ingredients went from a professional responsibility to a personal necessity.
As a self-proclaimed “no-makeup” makeup person, Cat’s signature was and still is perfume. Her love for scents began in middle school, when she owned a big collection from Bath & Body Works (also where she interned 10 years later). When she discovered that almost all perfumes contained highly allergenic ingredients, she knew she had to do something about it. That year, a big idea (along with baby Anne) were born.
Cat set to work creating a clean fragrance line that would offer the fresh, delightful scents we all love, without the parabens, phthalates, glycol, animal testing, animal products or other allergenic ingredients found in most products in the perfume industry. By partnering with a local perfume house to craft artisanal formulas using only safe ingredients, Cat created Skylar: fresh, refined scents to love with ingredients that love back.
Cat took her extensive background in iconic consumer brands and leveraged it to work on building Skylar. At Apple, she led a 50-people cross-functional team in implementing a $2 million planning system. At Activision Blizzard, she led an analytics team within the sales organization to support blockbuster games like “Call of Duty.” She began her career in management consulting at Bain & Company, where she got exposure to different industries including technology, finance, healthcare and consumer products. Born and raised in Taiwan, she received her B.S. in Finance from MIT and her MBA in Marketing and Operations from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
All that on-the-ground experience set Cat up to make Skylar a formidable fragrance company, one without compromise. Skylar perfumes contain high-quality ingredients like flowers, fruits and spices curated from around the world. Each bottle is handcrafted with passion by true artisans in Los Angeles. With Skylar, Cat is changing the way consumers think about fragrance—and that’s why she’s our latest #BalancedHustler.
Fast Facts: Cat Chen
When did you launch Skylar?
In one sentence, tell us why you started Skylar.
To fill the gap in the fragrance industry that did not have great smelling hypo-allergenic, non-toxic fragrance options for women.
How much did you invest to get the business started?
How did you get capital to start?
Are you growing your business to sell? Or this is your dream job and you want to be doing this in 10 years?
Our focus is on providing the best products and experience for our customers and growing the business. This is a dream job, and I look forward to seeing Skylar grow over the coming years.
How many hours a week do you work when you started versus now?
A lot, and a lot.
How many employees do you have?
What two business goals do you have for 2019?
Launch into additional products and channels.
How Cat Balances the Hustle
You participated in the Sephora Stands Accelerator program. How did you prepare yourself to get into that competitive program, and how did it help build Skylar?
We were very fortunate to have retailers interested in selling our brand in-stores shortly after Skylar launched. Retail was always part of our long-term strategy, but we wanted to pursue the opportunity at the right time after building a strong foundation in our e-commerce channel. Whenever the time came for us to partner with a large retailer, we wanted to have a strong portfolio of products and sustainable branding strategy that would benefit both parties. I believe that because we focused on crucial elements of our business our first two years, it made the partnership and transition into this new channel very seamless.
You’ve now launched in Sephora online and in stores. How do you hope that changes the trajectory of Skylar’s success?
We could not have asked for a better retail partner than Sephora. Their presence and authority in the beauty and fragrance space is unrivaled, and we’re thrilled to be partnering with them at this stage of our business. Beyond creating beautifully scented, hypoallergenic fragrances, we put a lot of our resources and efforts into educating our customers. Not only about our brand and products, but on safe ingredients and proper perfume use and application. We hope that by partnering with Sephora, customers would associate and ultimately choose Skylar as their fragrance brand that they can absolutely trust is safe for them.
What does “clean fragrance” mean to you?
To Skylar, clean fragrance means that there are not any ingredients present that will harm or cause irritation to our customers. We choose to formulate our scents to be hypoallergenic and without six specific ingredients that are known to cause adverse reactions to perfume wearers. We carefully select each ingredient and examine their blends to give our customers a variety of fragrances to choose from, but that also promises their safety.
You came from The Honest Company. What did you learn from your time there that’s helped you in building Skylar?
Working at The Honest Company really educated me about ingredient safety and the potential of harmful chemicals being in products that I used every day. Until I became educated about these things, I just assumed that all large brands and corporations created safe products, therefore I didn’t need to do my own research. I also learned that being transparent with customers really goes a long way and that we all deserve to know what we are putting on and into our bodies. It was these values that inspired me to continue this when I created Skylar.
You also have a subscription/membership Scent Club where customers get a unique scent every month. Why that model, in addition to your direct-to-consumer online sales model?
One thing that I love about fragrances is that you don’t have to be limited to just one scent. You can build and create a “scent wardrobe,” if you will, to match any occasion and mood that you are feeling. With our monthly Scent Club, we found a way to go beyond our six signature scents to appeal not just to clean fragrance lovers, but those who may be new to fragrance altogether. Not only are subscriptions beneficial for business growth, it can also create a sense of community among customers. It made sense for us to explore this option, especially since our customers were so eager for us to come out with more scents.
Cat’s Advice to Entrepreneurs
What do you want to leave our readers with?
[I] stored products in my garage, shipped customer orders by driving to the post office every day and answered every customer email [at the beginning]. Being scrappy, being close to the customer, learning on the go and believing that you can do it are very important.
What is your number one piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs?
Start a business in an area that you’re passionate about and where your skills are well aligned. It can be a long and grueling journey, and you need that to keep going.