To Sell Candles Online, This Founder Made Her Social Media Pages a Sensory Theme Park
Abigail Stone Park founded Otherland by giving founders and consumers a "scent" experience through the screen.
The world doesn't need another candle brand," people told Abigail Cook Stone, a former art buyer for Ralph Lauren. But Cook Stone disagreed. She was an avid candle consumer, and she'd looked high and low for one that was aesthetically exciting, smelled more like vine-covered pergolas and minty cocktails than motel bathrooms, and was sold at a price that she and her friends could afford. As far as she could tell, no such candle existed.
At the time this revelation came to Cook Stone, she was making her way through Columbia University's business school while working at the seed-stage fund Founder Collective. After graduating in 2016, she and her now-fiancé, Sayyid Markar, started an online candle brand called Otherland. But that's when they got a whiff of trouble.
"It was like, how do I get over this hurdle of customers not being able to smell the product when the scent is the number one purchase driver in stores?" says Cook Stone.
Solving that problem — and all the challenges that followed — would come to define her brand.
Step 1: Raise excitement.
Because customers can't sniff candles online the way they do in a store, Cook Stone decided that instead of presenting a large product line, Otherland needed to feel exclusive. Its candles would drop like fashion capsule collections — each designed by a different artist with its own story to drive social media hype.
Step 2: Fund a crazy idea.
Cook Stone set out to raise $1 million, but she had no finished product and no proven concept to show investors. "Everybody said no," she says. Then Hayley Barna, a professional acquaintance and cofounder of Birchbox, made a game-changing suggestion: "You need something that investors can interact with." To demonstrate the market gap Otherland would fill, Cook Stone packed a ton of cheap and overpriced candles into a suitcase. "I hauled that thing up and down the stairs from my six-floor walkup for every pitch meeting," she says. It worked. "Just having reference points that people can smell and have an ew or ahh," she says, "gets them more engaged in your pitch and imagining what the future of the product could be."
Step 3: Sell with (other) senses.
Once Cook Stone had candles, she had to sell them online — by stimulating every sense she could through the screen. Otherland's Instagram feed became an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) theme park, full of evocative videos. To convey her Valentine's Day collection, hands plunged slo-mo into chocolate cake, upending ruffles of creamy pink and red icing. To capture her Spring Awakening drop, baby ducks splashed in a bowl of crystal clear water and flower petals to the rousing sounds of a string quartet.
Step 4: Expand the audience.
In early 2019, a Nordstrom buyer slid into her Instagram DMs. At the advice of a mentor, Otherland kept the initial buy small; integrating with a large retailer isn't easy, and it's better to sell out quickly than have a product sit there. This also meant that she needed to build brand awareness — so in early 2020, Cook Stone began reaching out to high-profile women to do live "fireside chats" on Instagram. She'd spoken at a Girlboss Rally and asked Sophia Amoruso, who said yes. So did fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, whom Cook Stone had met at an event. An investor connected her to Arianna Huffington — and that led to regular shows and media coverage.
Step 5: Zero in on your ideal customer.
While Nordstrom was exciting, Cook Stone's dream was Sephora; it squarely hits Otherland's target demographic. She'd sent many unanswered emails ("okay, probably 15") to the company, and one day she went screaming — screaming! — to her team: She'd gotten a reply. Otherland launched at Sephora in November 2020, and the two retailers helped drive 250% year-over-year growth. For her Series A raise, she was no longer lugging that suitcase. "As a woman especially," she says, "you have to shift from this idea that you're asking for money to the idea that you're inviting people to get rich on your rocket ship."
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