Mara Fox was always interested in perfuming, but no formal training totally prepared her for the business she’d spend her life building.
“I had been a cosmetic counter girl in my teens, but I can’t really say that prepared me for this,” Fox explains.
She did notice early, however, the power of scent to “engineer an atmosphere,” she says.
For example, “If you want people to feel cozy and secure, vanilla or the scent of warm cookies will do it every time. The scent of honey or musk gets people thinking about sex. Fresh, clean, green scents are associated with business success and respectability, etc.”
When she started selling Love Potion Perfumes in 1986, people weren’t really paying attention to this phenomenon, Fox explains. “I thought I could introduce (scents) as something a person could take control of to create a desired atmosphere or aura.”
She was so early into the game, in fact, that according to her website, Love Potion Perfumes “are the U.S. Registered Trademark holders of the term ‘Love Potion’ for fragranced items … and are the only ones officially authorized to use this phrase, including variations of the phrase.”
Fox first sold her concoctions from a booth in Venice Beach, California. Occasionally she branched out to a trade show, artist market or convention, but the bulk of her little business was that booth.
In 1995, she bought her first computer and connected to the World Wide Web.
“That was when AOL was the world,” she says. “It was like AOL was a shopping mall, and the WWW was a vast wasteland that surrounded that mall with nothing for miles and miles.”
She wisely took her business online.
“I was the only person doing what I do when I first started online, and I still have devoted customers who first found me there and are still with me today.”
Each fragrance sells for about $25 per 1/3-fluid-ounce bottle of concentrated oil, or $35 for one ounce of spray. For many scents in the company’s permanent line, you can also purchase a sample for $5.
What is a Love Potion?
The combinations and uses of essential oils seem endless.
The original Love Potion Perfume alone has been manipulated to produce 18 varieties of various scents and intents.
The original intends to “inspire feelings of love, lust, passion and desire.”
Love Potion Black is a richer, more erotic blend intended for seduction, among other magical properties.
Love Potion Homme responds to men’s “dark mystery,” incorporating woody fragrances to support not only sex appeal but also clarity, focus and determination.
The store even boasts a blend called Love Potion #9 — which Fox created with Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, famed songwriting and producing duo behind the song (recorded by The Searchers in 1959) that made the fictional potion famous.
Stoller and Leiber approached Fox in the mid-1990s, according to the product description. “The pair were instrumental in selecting the fragrance,” which is a muskier version of the original scent for both men and women.
“The concept is gaining ground in the consciousness of the world,” Fox says, “… but I would say it’s still a field in its infancy.”
While the science behind aromatherapy and the effects of essential oils on health and mood are scant and offer mixed reviews, those who use the products tend to evangelize their results.
One Perfumerie customer, under the username rain_dancer, reports an increased confidence while sporting the Honeyed Love Potion with Gotcha! that helped them approach a professor with an issue on behalf of their class.
Gotcha! is a pheromone formula described as “a sensual sexual attractant, but more importantly with a little something extra…something to help erode his fears, something to help him let go of his inhibitions, something to help nudge him off that cliff of indecision and into your arms.”
“I decided to wear it for the past couple of days with the intent of using the Gotcha for nudging my inner masculine toward being more in harmony with the feminine and WOW, I’d say it worked…” rain_dancer explains in the review.
“I am usually super agreeable, so I do feel the Gotcha helped me feel relaxed and assured enough to speak up. Maybe it did inspire my inner masculine to stand up for me.”
If you’re curious about the magical properties of perfumes, a disclaimer on the website explains:
“The ‘meanings’ of the ingredients are derived from folklore and religions the world over and throughout time. While we create fragrances with intended purposes, no guarantee of success is granted or implied.”
Building the Business
“I started the business 30 years ago and did it one penny at a time,” Fox says.
When she started the business, Fox was a full-time musician, though “broke” most of the time. She used the business to fund her music career.
After doing that for 20 years, she says, “One day it just dawned on me: If I do not keep dumping everything I earn into the music business, I might be able to have a pretty nice life.”
That was around 2007, she recalls, and she finally decided to “pull back” from music and focus entirely on the perfume business.
Running Love Potion Perfumes full time, with scant side income from music royalties, Fox was able to purchase her first house in 2014.
The Love Potion Perfumerie website has been active now for 21 years and has branched out as new marketplaces emerge.
“These days there are platforms such as Etsy and Scott’s Marketplace and even Amazon Handmade, which allow artisans like me a great place to start and get their creations seen and sold.”
When she started the business, these services weren’t available, but she recommends them for artisans getting started today — especially those with little startup money.
“I have never had any investors and literally had no money for start up,” she says. “I invested a few dollars at first (around $25-$40) and just kept putting the profits back into the business until it has grown and grown.
“The business has no debt, and I have not touched a credit card in well over a decade,” Fox explains. “We only spend what we can afford, we do not do delayed billing when buying, nor do we accept it when selling our creations wholesale. We only do what we can afford, no unreasonable risk.
“No doubt we could have expanded faster with advertising money and investors, but we are in a very stable position as it is now. There’s no wobbly pyramid of debt like most other businesses have.”
The store has been on Etsy less than two years, Fox reports, and has made over 2,500 sales. She says they brought a lot of customers with them. The success of this business seems to lie largely in customer loyalty.
Using Multiple Platforms
Today, Fox runs the business with four full-time employees and six part-time “House Elves.’
“It’s very hard work creatively, so we’ve populated our little world with highly creative and fast-thinking people,” she says of the team. “… It takes a particular sort to keep up with us, and we are well suited as a team.”
“We have a thriving message board community where reviews are shared, perfumes are swapped between members, and people just come to relax and talk about their daily lives.
“It’s one of the most unique communities on the web, as I have a rule about behavior…everyone is accountable for their actions. The members are incredibly kind and supportive of each other, helpful in giving recommendations and advice,” Fox says.
In addition to the online marketplaces, they’ve also been able to open a retail store in Vancouver, Washington.
Each of these sales outlets serves its own purpose for artisans, so it’s helpful to feature items on several if you have the bandwidth to maintain them. Fox explains:
“We mostly only list our permanent scents on Amazon, because they have a very fast turnaround policy. Things must ship within 24 hours, and we can only do that if we do not need to make things from scratch for every order.
“Etsy is where we list our Going Going Gone perfumes and Private Editions — only a few bottles of each thing, the last of the last.
“In the retail store, we have the perfumes — and those are still the biggest attraction — but we get to sell all the other items we make that we do not regularly list online: Jewelry, magic wands, crystals, every sort of craft, handmade beauties from other artists, also our bath and body products like soaps and scrubs and creams,” Fox explains.
Keys to Success
“The thing that has been most important to my survival,” Fox says, “is innovation.”
She was able to get into the scent and essential oil business ahead of a lot of competitors, and that helped her build a loyal customer base before the industry blew up.
“My most successful projects have been those where no one else was doing it but me, and if people wanted this whatever thing, they needed to come to me for it,” she says.
As the industry grows around her, Fox says she does face competition from copycats, who sometimes have more money for promotion.
“I have found that the only way I can combat this is by constantly innovating, being a non-stop idea person with new things for people to see and get excited over every single month.
“People have short attention spans in this digital age and need new things to get excited over all the time. If you just load a static site with products that never change, your customers have no reason to come back a second time,” Fox explains.
The community her business fosters also contributes a unique factor toward its success.
“Most businesses of this kind use creator blogs as a content supply, but we allow our customers to create the content that people come back to see every day, and we reward them for it,” she says.
Customers can earn store credit for posting in forums, and many have even built their own small fan base within the community.
The innovation never stops, it seems. Fox says the team comes out with about a dozen new releases each month — like recording an album.
The lessons she learned as a musician carry into the way she runs the business now and lend to the creativity and innovation of her team.
“I run this business as if it were a band,” Fox says. “All of our peeps, we call them our bandmates.
“What we do here is very creative and moves very fast, we’re always on a deadline and we are always coming up with new ideas together, just like when you write a song as a group.”
Your Turn: Have you considered building a perfuming or other artisanal business?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).