Turning a passion into a business is something many people dream about.
In today's interview, Lizzie Ostrom explains how she managed to do just that. Named the 'Heston Blumenthal' of perfumes by YOU Magazine, Lizzie took her personal passion for scent and the fascinating history that surrounds it and founded the fragrance events company Odette Toilette.
This unique idea found a ready gap in the market and provided people with a fun but informative way to learn about perfume that hadn't previously been available. The demand turned out to be huge and since her first event in 2010 Lizzie hasn't looked back.
Last year I went along to one of these events - Scent and Scandal. A fascinating and indeed scandalous look at the lives of the elite and the perfumes that they would have worn as they romped through the nightclubs of London during the early part of the 20th century. Along with champagne and afternoon tea this was an afternoon of delight, intrigue and great fun. Sampling vintage perfume, sipping bubbles and chatting with friends whilst absorbing stories of a glamorous era since passed - well immediately I was hooked!
So I wanted to get to know a bit more about the woman behind the idea and this now flourishing and exciting events business with such a difference. To learn what led her into the world of scent and how she took that from pure passion into productive business.
Lizzie you have a very unique and interesting job, could you tell us a little bit more about what you do?
I host events all about scent. Just like you might get a wine event or a lecture series, I do the equivalent with perfume. The business encompasses public ticketed events on all sorts of themes (I'm just planning an evening called The Aroma Ritual Night at the Anadz Liverpool Street's Masonic Temple), together with corporate workshops, private parties and branded events, often in partnership with drinks companies. So in any month I might be planning an indulgent afternoon event on the perfumes of the 1970s, a workshop for a team of architects, and a session for a team in brand development looking for inspiration.
How did you begin working with perfume and scent, what is it that drew you to this career?
I got into this through my hobby - or rather - my compulsion to keep trying new perfumes. So rather than start in the fragrance industry and spot an opportunity, I came at my job from the point of view of a passionate consumer who felt something was missing in the communication of scent. To that extent it was a self-generated job. All those years sampling fragrances and reading about it, which had seemed so indolent and non worky, eventually turned out to be highly productive! It all worms itself out in to usefulness in the end.
How did your company begin?
It all began through when a friend of a friend was opening a venue and looking for evening events. I just instantly had this idea flood over me for an evening learning about perfume in a very relaxed, sociable environment, and really bringing out the culture and history of scent, not just learning about ingredients. It really was one of those moments. I knew exactly what it had to be, so clear was the vision, and it was just a matter of pulling everything into place to create the atmosphere I was aiming for.
What was it like putting together your first event - the excitement and the challenges?
Bloody terrifying. I tried to cancel it or postpone it. But it was too late! The biggest step was publicity. Once it was out there was no going back. My main challenge was in finding an expert speaker to join me. To my great fortune, James Craven from perfume shop Les Senteurs agreed, and the whole team there were incredibly supportive in providing perfume samples and general advice. James is now a great friend. We still work together regularly and his energy, creativity and ideas mean a great deal. Much of the excitement came from finding this kindred soul, and in building ideas together for the night. And then of course - people came! They came! It was magical.
What do you love most about what you do?
Being right in the middle of an event. I love giving presentations, talks and experiences, and being able to have that connection with an audience - especially when you're discussing something as emotive and personal as scent. It's a performance really, with all the thrills and insecurities that brings.
The research around new ideas and content is also very pleasing. Put me in the British Library reading rooms or give me an old issue of some random magazine from the 1960s and I'm happy - making connections between scent and anything from teenage culture to film history.
If anyone has a unique idea for a business but is too scared to take the leap and give it a go what would your best advice be?
Don't take the leap. There's no reason you need to - especially at first. I started with one event which is what it took to show there was interest and relevance for my idea. So work out something little that you can get going with. Crucially, it needs to ensure you have the buzz of happy customers who have paid, even if just a few, and cut-price. Without that comeback, you're more likely to get dispirited.
My second piece of advice is on the importance of intuition. It's so important. If you're fizzing inside when you think about it, then great. If there's not this overfrothing of optimism and excitement, then sit with it for a little while; don't be too drastic.
Finally, share your idea with friends but not as a pitch, as an interest and be as specific as possible. When I did this early on, it was amazing how often a pal would email me a link to an article about perfume, but not just any piece - specifically relating to the zanier end of the industry. They were so tapped into my interest that five different people would send me the same article! Looking back, this was good. It meant that those around me instantly got what I was about. If they knew it well enough to send me relevant stuff, then I knew I had enough focus to communicate my niche. Plus it was helpful as free market research!
Does running your own business and being your own boss leave you much time for work-life balance – is this important to you and if so how do you achieve it?
It's hard, this one. I've not got it sussed. In terms of time I'm pretty good at taking time off and, from the outside at least, not working when I should be resting. But I can't stop thinking about work, and that's the psychological toll. When you work for yourself there can also be huge guilt in taking time off for a holiday, as if by having an organisation or boss sanction it, it's deserved, whereas when you give it to yourself, there's anxiety.
I honestly think there is too much talk about juggling, and not enough about sacrifice. All those stories from captains of industry getting up at 4.30am to squeeze in their personal trainer before they make their daily green juice. Whatever! I hate that dogmatic ideal about early rising, of maxing out the day. It's frankly sinister.
The thing I've probably sacrificed is going out as much in the evenings, partly because I do after-work events anyway for my job so to go out too much beyond that would be exhausting. I realised that if I don't have at least two or three evenings Monday - Friday just pottering about at home and looking after myself or getting some exercise, I'll start to crack. It only takes a couple of weeks at that intensity to really feel out of control. So I really protect that time, even if there's something supposedly unmissable going on.
What does the future hold for your business and what is it that you are most proud of and excited about?
So most excitingly, I've just finished my book which is out in the autumn. I was an utter pleasure to write, but of course completely isolated, and the thought of someone I don't know reading it feels bizarre - though welcome!
Thank you to Lizzie for sharing an insight into what I think is such a wonderful and exciting business. If you ever get a chance to go along to one of her events then it's a real must - a distinctive and special kind of way to spend an afternoon or evening of your time.
If you have an idea burning away inside of you but just have no idea whether or not to pursue it as a viable business then I hope (and really believe) that Lizzie's advice will come in useful in helping you think through the process and what it takes to move such an idea into a reality.
Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for Lizzies upcoming book - I'm certainly excited to take a look when it comes out in the autumn.
For now farewell for the day. Have an inspired and happy Monday and see you again soon!