14 Frances Shoemack
After a failed search for a natural perfume that was chic, modern and long-lasting, Frances Shoemack decided to do something about it. In 2012, she founded Abel, her own perfume company based Amsterdam. What started as frustration turned quickly into a mission to create the world’s best natural perfume.
Her holistic business philosophy doesn’t stop at 100% natural ingredients but also guides the way she runs the company. Together with master perfumer Isaac Sinclair, a growing team and fan base, Abel challenges the status quo in the industry. Hear how Frances built a fragrance brand (without external funding) that changes the way the ‘world’ thinks about natural perfume.
Simon: Hi, I'm Simon. Welcome to The Idealist's, a podcast where Silja and I talk business with the realists of tomorrow. In this week's episode, we'll take you to the world of sense and perfumes, a mystery in itself with a long history dating back to the old Egypt's.
Silja: Also mysterious is the way today's perfumes are made. Many scents are a mix of synthetic chemicals with no requirements towards labelling. And the all naturals out there are not quite chic, modern or long-lasting. Frances Shoemack decided to do something about it. In 2012, the former winemaker started a perfume company in Amsterdam and named it after Dutch explorer: Abel.
Simon: Francis has a holistic philosophy, not only when it comes to perfumes and natural ingredients, but also how she runs her business. Together with her master perfumer, Isaac Sinclair, Abel is on a mission: Blend the pleasurable world of perfume with a conscious simplicity of nature. You might call it an act of proving that indulgence doesn't automatically mean a negative impact on the world.
Silja: We met Francis on a gloomy December morning in Amsterdam right after they've packed all the boxes to move the whole company to New Zealand. But before we dive into the whole story, let's go back to the start. Was there a moment in time where she flipped the switch and decided to turn this adventure into a business?
Frances: I've got a very vivid memory of calling my husband and saying, can you come and meet me at lunchtime? I was working full time at the time and sitting on the canal and saying, I'm serious about this. I'm resigning today. Not really asking for support, but kind of telling that I want support. And that was in the very early stages. So I'd been kind of quietly working on the business for six or nine months, I think, and got to a point where I felt like it was something I really wanted to pursue. And then there was a second moment, which was about three years later, and it was, yeah, like a year and a half into the business. And so maybe just to give context: I got pregnant with my eldest son the week after we launched the business. I had always said, I don't want to have children until I've got the business off the ground. And I was very fortunate that that happened quickly. But it also was a bit of a curveball as well. And so I had a moment, yeah, a year and a half after the business launch where I was putting my son into daycare. And until that moment, I'd been kind of juggling the two, I guess, with babysitters. And the question I kind of asked myself was, is this a serious business? You know, at that time, it was still running out of our apartment. I was on my own with it. I had a lot of, you know, our perfumer and so on, you know, but the core, the daily business was just me. And it was also tough, you know. It was tough going. And so I did a lot of soul-searching at that time where it was either I pursue this properly, you know, and turn it into something that is worth my energy over my children. And you know, obviously, my children still get my energy. But if someone else is looking after my children, then for me to pursue a business, I have to have my heart and soul in it, and I have to be very proud of it. And so that was a second moment where I decided to go kind of all in. So the first time we launched from our savings and very like as they say in New Zealand "Smell of an oily rag". I don't know if that translates. And then the second time it was, okay, we're going to relaunch, and we're going to do this properly. We sold our house in New Zealand to finance the relaunch and really kind of went all in, built a business plan that was around a proper business. So, yeah.
Simon: And how far were these moments apart?
Frances: Three years, probably. My memory is hazy is the truth, but I think the original kind of deciding. Yeah, let's say three years.
Silja: So you kind of had two starts?
Frances: Yeah. With Abel, we have like a 1.0 and a 2.0, and I think people who've been on the journey the whole time, which is quite a few people, even our brand manager was involved in the 1.0. She started out as babysitting my son. And I got talking to her and said, hey, you're super smart. She was doing a thesis at the time, and she became a really big part of it, you know. She's been full time for nearly four years now. But yeah, the 1.0 and the 2.0, if you see photos, they look completely different. The heart and soul of the business are still the same, but we opted in a second time if that makes sense.
Simon: If you talk about the heart and soul of the business. When you talk about running a business holistically, is that also something that changed within those years of running Abel? Or is this something where you see, okay, this is probably never gonna change because this is baked into our DNA and this won't change at all?
Frances: Yeah, good question. And I think some things do change. It's difficult with a business; with your own business, I think, you know. No one's holding you to annual reviews or performance reviews or, you know, no one's kind of monitoring your behaviour as you do with your team.
Simon: There's no investor on board. You are your own investor.
Frances: Yeah. Not for us. And so in some ways, I always think one of the biggest challenges is making yourself celebrate the success along the way because whenever a success happens, let's say, you're already onto the next thing you know and it doesn't feel like a success. It sounds silly, but you know, and so your benchmark is always changing. And so your definition of success is always changing. I think in many ways, your definition of what's holistic or the way that you operate your business, is also always changing. I like to think for the good, you know. But. Yeah, so I don't know is the answer. I didn't write down what they were at the time. Now, maybe we should all write down every year or something like that.
Simon: Maybe that's also an interesting space to explore that this might not come from a place of rational thinking, but more of a place of intuition or place of, you know, subconscious decisions.
Frances: Absolutely, absolutely.
Silja: And also bringing different people on board along the way will change the navigation as well.
Simon: How many people are you?
Frances: We are three. So we're three full time, and it's a conscious decision as well to keep small and tight. We have been five and we're growing. But I didn't start a business to be a manager. So the way that we're building the business and we do have to we need to take on another person very soon. But I've found that the more people that came into the team, the less I was doing and the more I was managing. And I think my footprint on the brand and the product, you know, needs to be there in a sense. And so what we do outsource, you know? I get asked a lot about, so what do you do internally and what do you outsource? And the way that we've been able to grow the way that we have is we've outsourced anything that's not our core skill set. So we haven't built our lab. We work with laboratories and things like that. We have distributors in all of our markets. So we couldn't, you know … like I said before, we're in about 35 countries. If I had 35 people on the ground in each of those countries, that's a completely different business. Yeah, right.
Simon: And if you say you want to have yourself immersed in day to day business in that sense to build the brand, work on the products. Do you think as a founder this is something you want to change? Or do you want to keep that for as long as possible to work on the core product?
Frances: I want to keep it as long as possible. That part is my passion. This year, I've spent a lot of my time out in the markets because that's super important. I think you can't give your baby to someone and say, sell it. So I've done a lot of that this year. And that's not my core passion. It's insanely rewarding because you travel around the world and you see your baby on the shelf and, you know, in beautiful stores. And so it's incredible in that respect, but it's not what gives me energy. So actually, I've told a few people I want to move to New Zealand, become a bit of a hermit, in a sense. I want to get really close to the product again. I've got lots of cool ideas for developing them more. So I want to get closer, actually. I don't want to get further away.
Silja: And if we speak about the product and creating the product, how does the relationship with your nose look like then?
Frances: Yeah, very poor at the moment. He's a total creative. I hate phones. You know, we're actually both introverts. So if I'm not picking up the phone and calling him often, we don't talk. He's in Sao Paulo. But yeah, we have an amazing relationship actually. I say in general, we work really together in the sense that we have very different roles and different things to contribute, you know. I respect his role as a master perfumer so much. And so he really is able to own that part of the process. I'm not a perfumer. And I have no intention of training to be. And so, yeah, that's really his role in our business. And then my role is that I'm a lot closer to the brand, you know. I know who we are and what we're trying to achieve. I know our customers. And so when we get together to work on a perfume, yeah, it's a really nice kind of meeting point where he can bring the technical expertise and the creative from the perfume perspective. And I can kind of bring… and yes, he laughs. I always come with mood boards, you know, but we have a totally different skill set. So that's good.
Simon: Coming to your background in winemaking or the wineries. Is that something that helps in that relationship, talking about, you know, scents and talking about fragrances and talking about how to create something like that? How would you say that your background translates into the work with your partner in Sao Paulo?
Frances: Yeah, I think it's been a help in so many ways. My background in wine and I believe there are a lot of similarities. It's funny. So he's from New Zealand. He's the only master perfumer from the whole Australasia region ever. Very cool guy. And his backup, if he couldn't find a way to be a perfumer because there are only 50 or something master perfumers in the world. So it's this very small group. His backup was to do winemaking, which is interesting. We both had this kind of triangle of interests: wine, perfume and architecture. And I think they all sit at the intersection of art and science and they're all about building something, you know. A lot of the way that we approach our perfume-making and what makes us different from others in the industry is that we really start with the ingredients. In wine, they say you can't make good wine with bad grapes, you know. A chef would tell you the same thing. And so when Isaac and I sit in the laboratory together, we are more like a chef at the market. Like, oh, look at these ripe tomatoes. They're just perfect today, you know, like, what should we make with them? And that's kind of how we start. So we find the most beautiful ingredients, and then we create a fragrance around that. Whereas traditionally with perfume, it's more I would say most perfumes are created to match a creative brief, you know, and the same way…
Silja: They define the end goal or the vision of this product, and then they try to come as close as possible.
Frances: Yeah, exactly. And we've done that with one perfume. And that was Pink Iris, which is our perfume we launched this year . And it was way, and above the most difficult to work on, I think, because I had this thing in my head that we had to create this classic beautiful floral, you know. And from the get-go, Isaac was saying like; we don't need to do a floral. It's not us. It's not Abel; it's not contemporary. And, you know. And so the that was the most fraught creative process. It took three years to develop that perfume. I'm really happy with the result. And I think I'm more proud in a way than with the other fragrances because it was such a challenge. But yeah, it definitely went against the grain of our creative journey.
Simon: When you flip it and say, what's the positive thing about it? It's a constraint. And constraints can also fuel your creativity in a way that you have to adapt to certain new circumstances, even though it might just quote-unquote, become top of your head. A feeling of, OK, we have to do it this way or another way now.
Frances: Yeah, I'm a big believer in that. We often get asked: Don't we find working with only naturals too limiting, you know? Because if you work with the whole perfume palette, there's something like 5000 ingredients. If you work with naturals, that's around 300-400, you know. And so often in the perfume world, I get asked, don't you find it constraining? And I always say, I think, yeah, constraint breeds creativity. So for us, I agree entirely.
Simon: And just very pragmatically, how can I imagine you? Is there a market where you can go and smell the ripe oranges? How does this work?
Frances: Isaac works for Symrise, which is a German company. It's one of the five big fragrance houses in the world. And so we're really lucky. Like when I first approached Isaac to work with him, I didn't know any of this. I was totally new to the industry. But if we were having to go out and source all of our ingredients ourselves, it would be almost impossible, you know. And that would be a full-time job in itself. So we work with Symrise on sourcing all of our ingredients. And so actually this was super lucky. They are very sustainability-led. And they also have a big focus on raw materials and naturals. So we can work with their lab technician. You know, we can work with their latest natural science that they're already investing in. But no, we sit together in Paris in the lab, and one of his lab technicians brings us out whatever we want. It's more like they roll it in for us.
Simon: That sounds like paradise! A paradise for a creative. Crazy! What is then the main difference between your product compared to what he usually develops?
Frances: The ingredients.
Simon: So it comes down to the ingredients?
Frances: Yeah. I mean, he works on some big commercials. He just did a perfume for Zara, for example, you know, like Shakira. He's in Brazil. And for him, he always says that you know, he considers himself like a songwriter. And, you know, day to day, he's working on a lot of top of the pop hits, you know. For Abel, we are like his indie punk rock band, you know, he can be creative. So it's the ingredients, but it's also the fact that we're not trying to create perfumes that are loved by everyone, you know, and with a conventional perfume … normally, it will go to thousands of focus groups before decisions are made. And you know, to win in a focus group, you have to be insanely generic. Right? And so, yeah, we don't try to be like other fragrances. But also I think the ingredients stand us apart anyway.
Simon: Talking about that kind of mainstream perfume industry and the market which is out there, then just from an outside perspective, you can see something is moving into the direction of more kind of identity-based brands. Also from the bigger companies which pay more attention to how is this not over-advertised, but more of a niche product and trying to get also into that sphere of super high end and super brand experiences. If you say, Le Labo, for example. I think they started out initially as an independent house but were bought or something.
Frances: They were bought by Estée Lauder, but they were independent for I'd say maybe nearly ten years. So they're older than most people think. I think most people only discovered them once they were Estée Lauder, you know. Yeah.
Simon: And what do you think about that? Because on the one hand, you can say, okay, they had this great perfume house for ten years, and they were working on, you know, good stuff. And then someone comes along, buys this and now would have on the positive side may be a very big lever to make that international and to make that available and to have showrooms around the world and, you know, just scale that. Is it attractive to you in the sense of how Abel could see the future? Or is that something you would say, okay, this not our beer?
Frances: Yeah. Look, I'll be 100% honest with you. Running a business is difficult, you know? And so and it doesn't matter, you know if the business is going well, that only adds more strain, you know, financial strain. So our biggest challenge, one of our biggest challenges has been trying to fund the growth, you know, of a product-led business that's super difficult. And so, yeah, like some days I think: God, it would be nice to sell our business. Because sometimes you just are tired. You know, if I'm the only business person that feels this way, but I feel like there will be others. I think sometimes it just feels relentless, you know? But the truth is, I started the business as a way of life, kind of, you know. And I didn't start it to make money. So then selling it to have money like it doesn't have very much appeal for me. What I really want to do is to find a way to run the business that it feels a little bit less relentless and a little bit less stressful. So that's kind of where I want to take the business, actually. Maybe that means I need … I've been holding off with finance, and we've been kind of hustling our way through this long. And maybe that means that we need partners or investment in some way to create the infrastructure that we can grow in a more kind of, I don't know, safe way or something — but selling the business? Isaac, our perfumer, is friends with the Le Labo guys. They were ex-Symrise, the company I told you about. And I know, one of them, he lives in California and surfs every day now, you know. Yeah. Maybe there is traction in that. But I actually love what I do, you know. And so I would prefer to find a way to continue to love and grow with what I do than to sell it in order to do something else.
Silja: To make it sustainable for you as well as a person or business owner.
Frances: Yeah. Exactly. I think you know it's about: Do you want to sell a business in order to be happy? I would rather be happy doing the business.
Simon: Has this also then, I guess, a lot to do with your decision to move the business from Amsterdam to New Zealand? Where you grew up and where your roots are and also take the people with you?
Silja: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that big change for Abel?
Frances: Yeah, it is a big change. I don't know how big a change it's going to be. You know, so for the short term, in theory, nothing has to change. Actually, you know, we have a production and distribution set up in a way that it doesn't have to change. But I see a real opportunity for Abel where we can put down roots in New Zealand in a way that… maybe it's different if you're from Europe and you live in a different European city because you're quite close to home. Living here but coming from New Zealand, we've always known that should something happen, you know, like a family member gets really sick. We would probably pack up bags and move, you know. And so that's always, for the best part of a decade, that's been in the back of my head that this could happen. And so I've also set the business up that way. But the beauty of going home is I have all these dreams, you know, of creating like going back to my winemaking as well and creating like the perfume equivalent of a boutique winery and hotel. You know, like how cool would that be if we can grow some of our own ingredients and produce it on the site? I know my mum does a lot of ceramics. You know, if we could have someone hand-making our ceramics and things like that, you know, I think there's gonna be so many opportunities for the business to evolve in New Zealand that, you know, it could happen in Amsterdam, of course. But maybe it's my reluctance to really put roots here that has meant that it couldn't happen that way.
Silja: You see the company as a platform.
Frances: Yeah, I do. I mean, we're moving to Wellington. And when I was there six months ago, it felt like there were more microbreweries in Wellington than cars. And I thought, how cool have we, amongst the microbreweries, can create this micro-perfume-factory, you know? So I kind of I see all these ideas, which is exciting. Yeah.
Simon: Which is an inspiring way to look at it because you have the freedom to decide that way. There's no one holding you back and saying, okay, this is not going to happen, we're going to replace you with another person just to run the business financially sustainable.
Frances: Exactly, which is why I have hustled so long without finance.
Simon: Yeah, and just before we talked a bit about what comes first when thinking about the future of a business. And we delve into that. One way to go about it is to view the business from a financial angle and make a decision according to that set of, okay, what brings the most profit in the end? And the other way would be to view it through the product or through the brand. From your way going forward and now relocating to New Zealand, what do you think … Has this always been the way that you may not have the financials as your primary decision making filter in that sense, or is that something that changes now over time as well?
Frances: No, it's always been the way. And like I say, I really didn't, you know, we sold a house in order to fund it. It's not money-making. You know. At the time, I remember talking with Isaac Alper and he was like, don't sell your house. You can't like, you know, this is so stupid and risky. So we didn't do it to make money. I mean, you have to make money. Sorry. It's like the double-edged sword. You have to make money to stay alive as a business. So it's finding that balance. But I think more and more, the longer I do the business, I realize where I get the joy, you know, and the joy is not from a huge order. That's a buzz. Don't get me wrong. Like if a huge order comes in or a big new customer, that's exciting.
Simon: But it fades quickly.
Frances: Yes, it fades quickly, honestly. You know, like within four minutes probably. Whereas where we would get the real joy is, you know, hearing about a new store that we opened in. My colleague was in New York last week or the week before. And we've just gone into two new stores there to Totokaelo and Need Supply. Earlier in the year, I was in New York, and I said, those are two stores that I want to be in, you know.
Silja: The beacons in a way.
Frances: Yeah: so those kinds of things bring joy in a different way. And they are not stores that sell a lot of perfume, you know, there. When you start out, what is it that you want to achieve? And I think the creative process brings me joy. And staying true to the spirit of the brand that brings joy, so. What was your question, finance? Yeah. Clearly, it's like I say, you can't ignore it for a second. You take your eye off the financial side of the business, and you're fucked, basically. I hate how much time I spend on this side of the business. You know, at the moment, it's probably a quarter of my time is taken up with the money related stuff.
Silja: And as a small company, you integrated, for example, 'giving back' with an initiative like 1 % for the Planet, which other founders would say we're not there yet to give back. And you decided early on to integrate that, even though you say you're hustling, you're trying to make it. How do you make a decision like this? To say, okay, we're maybe not there yet, but I want to integrate this into the business!
Frances: I did the 1%. I mean, the truth is we were doing that before I was paying myself a salary. So I guess it's priorities. I was on holiday, and I was reading the Patagonia book [Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard], probably like loads of other business founders out there. We were already doing like giving a meal for every bottle we sell. But the contribution of that is much less. We've been doing it for a few years now, and I always thought, I'll do 1% or more focused kind of giving as soon as we like turning a decent profit. And then reading his book on holiday, I kind of thought actually there's just no excuse. You know, we pay so many bills, you know, if you look at 1% as a tax. It's just an environmental tax. Like it's kind of the lowest denominator in a way. Like if every business just had to do that and if all that money went into planting trees, you know, we might be in a bit of a global reverse situation. So it's just trusting your gut, I guess.
Simon: Do think about putting a name on the way you run that business? If you just summarize, you know, having that holistic view and trusting your gut with business decisions and having your intuition guide you through how products are made, not focus groups. What would be a good name for that new way or a different way of running a business?
Frances: Mhm, I don't know. Maybe mindful of something? The truth is if I'm stuck on a business decision. I kind of like to think: Looking back in 10 years, what will I be proud of, you know, in terms of the decision I made? And I think that's kind of an easy way to look at it, you know. If it feels like something you will be proud of in 10 years, it's the right call. Even if it's a risky decision, you know. Even if it goes wrong still in hindsight, you look back and say, okay, maybe it wasn't the smartest, but I did it for the right reasons, you know. And I think if I don't ever want to make decisions that I didn't make for the right reasons. I don't know what I'd call it: Intuition-Led? Or something like aware or conscious? Sorry, the worst thing is that they are buzzwords right now.
Simon: Sure, sure.
Frances. So it feels it detracts from the meaning. But on their own, they're all really valuable words.
Simon: Because if you think about it, then what it is, I think it should be, and it could be common sense when a human is behind a business decision and not a corporation. Right? If you can track that down to a single person, then you could say, okay, this person acted this way and decided this way. So it's very easy to judge.
Frances: Because they are connected to it. Yeah!
Simon: So, the de-humanizing of corporations is probably one reason why.
Frances: I think that. When you see where things have gone wrong; it's not like one evil person made a horrible decision. It's a whole bunch of people made small decisions that they were not connected to, you know, and nobody saw the bigger picture, perhaps. Yeah.
Silja: There is no alignment between all the mini-decisions taken along the way.
Simon: Yeah, it's very easy to point fingers to big business and say, okay, that's bad, and other things are good. But it could be one question to take home: How can we humanize the business decisions in a way that they are responsible? That people are responsible for one decision that a corporation makes.
Frances: I mean, the Dutch have a very … the polder decision-making process, which, you know. That's very old. But maybe it's a really interesting kind of case study for me because I understand I'm also not anti-corporation. You know, maybe there's a way in which before decisions are made, like groups from the society within that business, are all given a chance to kind of argue it out, you know, and at least that way it would bring issues to the table, I think. And like you say, humanize it a little bit.
Simon: And just to zoom out a bit. You talked about the hotel or the pottery or the winery.
Frances: I mean, our US distributors were like: When are you opening a hotel? I was like Jesus Christ!
Simon: What did I say?
Frances: 25 years.
Simon: Yeah. I'm not asking you for a dream plan, but what would be the things that spark joy within the next years?
Frances: Yeah. I think things like this, you know. I've got this kind of vision of transforming some old factory into like a little micro perfumery where people can come and have a glass of wine or beer and smell some perfume. Maybe we have grown some things there. I don't know. So for me, that feels like a tangible short term, you know. Well, not short-term like the next six months, but maybe the next two years, maybe three years realistically, I think, and we're not in a hurry. For this move, I also want to take my time, you know, like let's wait for the right space. It will find us, I think. So, yeah. Something like that, I think, could be really cool.
Simon: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, rate the show on Apple Podcasts, follow us on Spotify or maybe just tell someone about it. You can find all episodes on theidealists.co! As always, here's our last question: Who should we talk to next?
Frances: Our kind of original creative director Joachim Baan. Do you know Joachim? No? Joachim Baan?. I think he's creative, but someone who has, if not a business brain a very holistic way to look at the entire process. And I think he's got some super interesting ideas and thoughts and is an amazingly cool guy. I think you should talk to him.
"You know, in wine, they say you can't make good wine with bad grapes. A chef would tell you the same thing. And when Isaac and I sit in the laboratory together, we are more like a chef at the market."
— Frances Shoemack [00:13:20]
14 Frances Shoemack
13 Rob Wijnberg
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8 Carel Neuberg
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