Executive Q&A: Mariya Nurislamova

The CEO and cofounder of Scentbird and Deck of Scarlet, Mariya Nurislamova, offers her invaluable insight on what it takes to craft and cultivate a successful business.

Mariya Nurislamova is changing the beauty industry. After becoming the CEO and cofounder of the luxury fragrance subscription service Scentbird in 2014, Nurislamova decided that she wanted to do it all over again. Inspired by the beauty tutorials of today’s YouTubers, she cofounded Deck of Scarlet in 2016, a makeup subscription service that partners with popular influencers to deliver new, unique, limited-edition palettes (that contain a lip liner, eyeliner and lip, eyeshadow and cheek colors) to consumers every two months. Now Nurislamova finds herself the CEO of two wildly successful startups in the beauty space. Beauty Store Business sat down with the savvy entrepreneur to discuss her career and hard-earned lessons.

Beauty Store Business: Tell us about your professional background and how you entered the beauty industry.
Mariya Nurislamova: My background is in applied mathematics, computer science and marketing, but my true passion is beauty. Building a major beauty company was basically a childhood dream. After relocating to New York City from Russia, I started Scentbird in 2014. Prior to starting Scentbird, I ran a creative agency and had an event planning business as well.

What inspired you to co-create Scentbird?
Scentbird is a brainchild of four cofounders—two men and two women. The original idea came from Sergei Gusev, our COO and head of product development. Rachel [ten Brink] and I were introduced through a friend in the startup community. As a founder with a tech background, meeting people like her with experience at beauty companies such as Estée Lauder and L’Oréal was a treat. Rachel and I had coffee and immediately hit it off. A few months later, she joined the team as CMO and cofounder of Scentbird.

“The secret is simple: Create a product and service that people want and need.”

What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting Scentbird up and running?
In the early days of Scentbird, we were intrigued by Warby Parker’s try-before-you-buy business model and wanted to apply it to fragrance. So, the idea was that we would send subscribers up to three full bottles of perfume to try at home. Whatever they didn’t like, they could send back. Unfortunately, we experienced very high fraud rates. About 30 percent of the packages we shipped to customers didn’t come back and, when we charged people, the credit cards were declined.

We have been lucky to have amazing mentors advise us. One of them is Michael Seibel, CEO of the Y Combinator accelerator and an investor in Scentbird. We spoke to him when Scentbird wasn’t doing so great, and we were thinking of pursuing a completely different segment like cosmetics or skin care. He said that overnight success was a myth and that precisely because we failed a couple of times, he would bet on our team to find the right business model for fragrance discovery. That led to Scentbird becoming what it is today.

What are some of your long-term goals for Scentbird?
Ultimately, we are working to be the go-to place for fragrance discovery digitally– this relates to authority for perfume and cologne and also across our new name- sake launches. We want to create a space where all fragrance-lovers can converse about fragrance they love in order to help others find their new favorite scent.

How did you come up with the idea for Deck of Scarlet?
All the cofounders love watching YouTubers, and after watching hours and hours of the stuff, we began seeing an underlying theme: Most beauty tutorial videos feature 20 or more products to achieve one simple look. Not only is this impractical, but it is also monetarily impractical.

“Set high goals for you and your team because once you get there, the gratification is that much sweeter.”

This drove us to create a collection of high-end makeup palettes inclusive of every color product needed to recreate multiple trend-worthy looks. We wanted to create an emotional connection with women and amplify that in a world of black and white; it’s OK to be bold, so add that fuchsia lip or aqua blue shadow! In creating this concept, we recruited top artists to design the look of our palettes, which are all in black and white, while the inside showcases beautifully pigmented hues for the lips, eyes, cheeks and beyond.

Scentbird and Deck of Scarlet are pioneers of the beauty subscription and customization trends. What is your secret to developing innovative products?
The secret is simple: Create a product and service that people want and need. For Scentbird, it’s about eliminating the struggle of finding your favorite fragrance in an overcrowded department store. Instead, subscribers can simply log on to our site and choose what they want to sample. If they don’t know, no problem; we have a “scent recommender” that provides suggestions based on what fragrance notes that person likes.

For Deck of Scarlet, we wanted to create a service that allowed individuals to sample the latest makeup trends in a sleek, luxe, all-in-one palette. We also know the impact that influencers have on the different makeup trends, so we make sure to collaborate on each of our launches with a top makeup artist who can provide tutorials and industry insights.

How are Scentbird and Deck of Scarlet unique compared to other beauty subscription services?
Scentbird is about the only physical goods subscription that allows its customers to select every single product they receive. Most other subscriptions would end up sending you a surprise box based on your preferences. We have found this to be a pretty important differentiator, since it mimics how people shop at retail–consumers like options. Deck of Scarlet is the only beauty subscription built around collaborations. Every two months, we partner with a YouTube/Instagram makeup artist to help us curate a unique makeup palette that comes with a tutorial on how to use each product/shade.

How has influencer marketing helped grow both of your businesses?
Influencer marketing was our original marketing channel back in 2014, right after we started Scentbird. It was the fastest way to start spreading the word about our budding company. Almost four years later, influencer marketing is still one of our acquisition staples. Affiliate programs are another great way to amplify brand recognition; they also reinforce our commitment to our community.

“In my opinion, balance is a myth … in a sense that what you’re working on, what you’re creating, should be a joyous experience.”

While running two very successful companies, how are you able to find balance?
In my opinion, balance is a myth ... in a sense that what you’re working on, what you’re creating, should be a joyous experience. As an entrepreneur, I know that what I’m working on is going to be challenging; but in the same light, I take a lot of pride in my work, so I never feel the need to escape or take long breaks. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a glass of wine and a moment to meditate from time to time, but I don’t separate “down time” and “work time.” It’s all a cohesive flow.

What have been some of your highlights as a CEO?
Launches are always a time to celebrate–for both Scentbird and Deck of Scarlet. It’s not only because we’re offering new services or products, but it’s also the excitement and pride that comes from watching the brand grow. I do treat my businesses like they’re my babies, and watching a new launch come to life, it’s as if my baby is achieving a new and exciting goal.

I also love my team. Seeing them energized and motivated, seeing them collaborate on projects and co-create with me is a very special treat. Building a startup is a team sport and witnessing dozens of people work in sync is unlike anything else.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to always shoot for the stars. Set high goals for you and your team because once you get there, the gratification is that much sweeter. I love celebrating goals with my team because every single person has put in so much time and hard work that it really becomes a company-wide achievement. Another little trick is always maintaining a positive attitude. Things get tough with startups, sometimes things are hard for months at a time, but being a CEO also means being a cheerleader–for each player within your team and for your company as a whole. You have to be the one with the most belief in the company because the team is ultimately copying your attitude and behavioral patterns. This means that being positive and optimistic is the only way to be as a leader; otherwise, the company pays the price.

Can you tell us about any exciting news or launches happening soon?
We have so many new and exciting things happening with Scentbird and Deck of Scarlet. It’s one of the many perks of being a startup. Everything is new! For Scentbird, we recently launched a new line of lip balms, which are beautifully formulated with vitamins and essential oils. Scentbird is definitely a brand to watch this year. We plan on making huge waves with our product launches and innovations to our service.

For Deck of Scarlet, we recently launched two product collections: one line of foil shadows and one line of matte shadows. In addition, we are always launching new palettes. In May/June, we are launching our new #08 Limited Edition Palette with the amazingly talented Kim Thai. The theme of that palette is “Dream,” featuring deliciously pink hues and highly pigmented formulas.

What advice can you offer other entrepreneurs in the beauty industry?
The best part about the beauty industry is that people understand it is not a zero-sum game, which is why we are always helping one another. I would recommend starting a small coffee group with other beauty founders where you could meet once a month and bounce ideas off of each other. The bigger the group, the better off each individual company will be in the long run because you could share resources and plan collaborations. Another piece of advice is to try and not get discouraged. The beauty industry is competitive, but if you are following your heart, eventually you will find a way–the right resources, mentors, even a business model will find its way to you. Just hang in there!

GET CONNECTED!
scentbird.com, deckofscarlet.com
Instagram: @scentbird, @deckofscarlet
Facebook: @scentbird, @deckofscarlet
Twitter: @scentbird, @deckofscarlet

[Photos courtesy of Scentbird/Deck of Scarlet]