11 Aug 2014

The First Five Years: Melissa Fensterstock (MBA 2012)

Aromaflage cofounder Melissa Fensterstock on mosquitos, working with your spouse, and the very odd request she gets from customers


What's the story behind Aromaflage?

"I happen to be a mosquito magnet, so being outdoors at dusk was never fun. For years, I had sprayed myself with chemicals—and smelled toxic—and then scrubbed my ankles before retiring for the evening. On a trip to Southeast Asia, my husband Michael and I discovered an exotic blend that the locals suggested we use as a bug spray. It was all-natural and smelled more like a perfume than bug spray. We used the unmarked bottle for our entire trip and were mesmerized by how well it worked.

"We saw an opportunity to bring the fragrance to the United States and to create a new innovative category—a fragrance with a function for the outdoor-chic lifestyle. Once we tracked down our supplier, we learned that the fragrance is hand mixed by Burmese refugee women who are housed, educated, and provided with artisan skills. Doing well by doing good is important to us and we support a good cause through our supply chain."

What's been the best and most challenging part of building the business?

"The best part of the business is that now I have housewarming presents for the rest of my life. Joking aside, getting great press or opening a large account are the entrepreneurial highs that keep us going. The most challenging part of the business is managing inventory. It is easy to be aspirational and to design the next 10 products. However, given the high minimums and working-capital needs of the business, we have to be careful to manage supply and demand."

What one piece of advice would you give fellow alumni and current HBS students when it comes to startup life?

"Keep going and stay positive. Success does not happen overnight. There are days you will feel like quitting and days when you feel like you are invincible. On those rough days, try to take some time to decompress and to get some space from the business. I find that leaving and unplugging from technology for a few hours usually does the trick."

What's it like working with your husband, Michael?

"My parents work together. Michael's parents work together. Our role models have showed us that it is OK and even fun to work with your spouse. One of the most challenging aspects of starting a business is picking a trusted business partner—what better a partner than your life partner? Sharing the highs, as well as really understanding the lows, brings us closer together.

"That being said, it is very difficult. There is little, if no, downtime for personal discussion or vacation. Business-related conversations dominate our morning and evening routines. Time associated with relaxation and vacation now mean work. Trips to tropical places are opportunities to secure new hotel customers. Summer beach time has been replaced with road trips to the Hamptons and Nantucket. I think the only safe place for a true vacation now is an iceberg cruise in Antarctica. We have to consciously build in time together where we don't speak about business matters—going on a jog together, date night, or work-free vacation. A break is healthy for everyone to recharge, regroup, and reflect."

How do you use what you learned at HBS at IMMUNE Pharmaceuticals (Fensterstock is a senior director of corporate development at IMMUNE) and in your role as cofounder of Aromaflage?

"The case method at HBS helped me learn to issue-spot, to listen carefully to an argument, and to synthesize and advance the group discussion in a cogent manner. At IMMUNE, I read through vast amounts of scientific and business information to identify the critical issues at hand and to articulate a point of view to the management team. In many ways, I am applying the case-reading skills learned at HBS.

"I also apply the theories and frameworks of Clay Christensen's BSSE course. I find myself coming back to the 'job to be done.' I believe that this theory is core to entrepreneurship and to understanding the consumer, whether she is a patient or a shopper at the mall. The 'job to be done' was front of mind when we discovered Aromaflage. I kept thinking to myself…what a clear job to be done. The job is to 'repel bugs while smelling great with a healthy alternative.'"

Which HBS case study had the greatest impact on you, and why?

"'NuCor Steel' changed the way I evaluate innovation. I am now very much on the lookout for low-end disruptors as well as aware of incumbents' resistance to change in the pursuit of higher margins and greater profits. 'NuCor Steel' highlights the death of an industry. It's comfortable to think that the leading brands of today and the industries we know and love will be around indefinitely. As 'NuCor' articulates, this thinking is very much a fallacy. Businesses come and go; industries evolve or die. It is our responsibility as business leaders to do our best to ensure our businesses evolve with the times or stay ahead of the curve entirely."

Who was your favorite HBS professor, and how do you use what you learned from him or her today?

"My favorite HBS professor was Robert Kaplan in the EC course Authentic Leadership Development. Reflection and recalibration are so important in leading a purposeful life and career. The book has been perched on my desk at work since graduation. For me, it is a symbol and a reminder to stay true to myself and to my values. The course was so meaningful to me that I made my husband read True North. He now has a True North group that meets monthly in Madison Square Park."

Now that you've found a way to combat pesky insects, which pests will you go after next? Spiders? Ants? Fans of Justin Bieber?

"We have been asked a number of times to develop a fragrance to repel creepy guys at the bar. While the list of pests is endless, the vision is to build a lifestyle brand that is much broader than just for repelling bugs. However, before expanding, we must develop brand recognition and loyalty for our flagship fragrance and candle products. Once the brand is established, I envision a set of products that represent the cabana boy on the go: a suite of products and amenities that a cabana boy at a five-star hotel might bring you beachside."

Can you finish this statement? "A great fragrance…"

"…brings you back to a special place and time."

Follow Melissa Fensterstock on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Aromaflage.

For more information on Aromaflage, go to http://www.aromaflage.com/.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2012, Section I

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