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Cat Chen’s Fresh Take on the Fragrance Industry

Cat Chen of Skylar

As a former executive at The Honest Company, Cat Chen, mother to a 2-year-old daughter and CEO and founder of Skylar, has always been an advocate for natural products. But after she found out she was pregnant with her daughter, safe ingredients went from being a responsibility to a necessity.

“I became a lot more aware of everything I put on my body, and perfume has always been my go-to beauty item. When I realized my daughter was allergic to my perfumes, I searched for a cleaner alternative, but couldn’t find one that still smelled sophisticated enough for everyday wear,” Chen says.

Chen knew there had to be a better alternative, so she got to work on founding Skylar, a clean fragrance line that would offer the fresh scents we all love, but without the artificial ingredients and animal testing that are found in most other products in the perfume industry. Skylar officially launched in April 2017, just two years after the birth of her daughter.

Chen talks to Mom.me about the importance of all-natural ingredients and how she balances building her company while raising her daughter.

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As a mother as well as the founder and CEO of Skylar, how do you make it all work?

It’s very hard. Skylar is my business (and my second baby), so it’s hard for me to detach myself from work sometimes. I constantly need to make an effort to balance everything and I’m getting better at it over time. One thing I’ve learned to do over time is to have certain times of the day where I’m phone-free (I literally hide my phone from myself because it’s too tempting) and can focus on my family. Another thing I often remind myself of is to not sweat the little things and focus on the big goals—otherwise, work can get out of control and be a total time suck.

What was the process of going from the concept of Skylar to launch like?

Definitely not a straightforward one. I encountered a lot of obstacles, and it was an amazing and humbling learning experience. First, I talked to over 10 fragrance houses about what I wanted and didn’t want in a fragrance, and most of them told me “hypoallergenic perfume” was an oxymoron. When I did manage to find samples, most of them did not pass the “smell test.” I explored a lot of supplier options and went through countless iterations on scent formulation. Luckily, along the way I met a lot of amazingly helpful people and had the full support of my family and friends. I still remember the moment when I had a focus group of 10 women in my home doing blind smell tests on Skylar scents vs. designer brands. When Skylar outperformed the market leaders, I knew we had something good that was worthy of introducing to the world.

What is the process of curating high-quality ingredients from around the world like?

It’s really interesting. First of all, when I asked for natural ingredients to be included in my formulation, many fragrance houses were surprised. It was then when I realized most perfumes were not scented by natural ingredients. There is such a lack of transparency in ingredients and such a lack of emphasis on using high-quality ingredients in the fragrance industry, and it is important for Skylar to do better. We source the base of our perfumes, an organic sugar cane alcohol, from an eco-friendly distillery in Oregon. We use over 20 natural ingredients, all sustainably harvested from all over the world. For example, our bergamot comes from Italy, our rose comes from Morocco and our sandalwood comes from New Caledonia. The very cool thing about natural ingredients is that they blend with each person’s body chemistry, so our perfumes smell unique on everyone.

Cat Chen with Skylar product

Why is using natural products important to you and why do you think it should be important to others?

I want to provide the healthiest possible lifestyle for me and my family. Just like eating healthy makes you feel good, using natural products gives me peace of mind that I’m not putting harmful ingredients on my skin. Just like anything, using natural products is a personal choice. It is my hope that by providing Skylar as a healthy fragrance choice for consumers, more people can be informed and make the best choice for themselves.

When did you first feel successful?

When I got my first customer feedback. I really enjoy getting feedback from customers—it brings a reality check on what you delivered versus what you intended. For me, feeling successful happens in moments rather than a constant state of mind. Being an entrepreneur is like riding a roller coaster. You have highs and you have lows. When I accomplish one goal, I push for the next one. When I reach a target, I set a higher one. That’s how I’m built, and that’s what keeps me pushing forward every day.

As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your kids about "girl power"?

I think the best way to teach is always through example. My dad was an entrepreneur, and it was cool to see him build something and take pride in it. Somehow that made me feel like I could do it too. My daughter is only 2, but she already she knows her mom works hard because she sees me packing boxes and working on my “puter” (her word for a computer). I plan to encourage her to pursue her interests and provide guidance to help her accomplish her goals, whatever they may be.

Has there been anything about creating Skylar that surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?

Creating Skylar was so, so much harder than I expected. Many of my previous skills and experience definitely came in handy, but I found that the most important thing above everything else is grit—just don’t give up. It’s just too easy to give up and most people do. At the end of the day, the mental stamina to keep going is critical.

Cat Chan and family

What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own business?

Getting full alignment from your significant other is critical, because whether you want them to or not, they’ll be involved in and impacted by your business. In your business and cash flow planning, be aggressive on cost estimates and conservative on revenue estimates. Things will always cost more than you think, and it will always be harder to generate sales than you think. Lastly, take the time to talk to other people who have started their own business and get their advice. I’m an introvert, but I still try to have a lunch or coffee at least once a week with someone that I think I can mutually learn from, because the amount of knowledge you can get from a 30-minute conversation can often save you a lot of time and rabbit holes.

What sacrifices have you made as a mom and business owner to keep everything in balance?

For both my daughter and my business, I add value by spending time. So when my time is limited, I’m sacrificing time on both sides. It’s always going to be a balancing act. What’s helped me get better at it is to avoid being a perfectionist, having hard boundaries for family time, and being even more organized and efficient than ever before.

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Are there any new initiatives or products on the horizon for Skylar?

YesI It’s important to me to constantly innovate and make new products that our customers love. We have a 3-year product roadmap that provides general guidance and we also layer on real-time customer feedback. That’s how we make decisions on our new products. Being an e-commerce company gives us an edge, because we get to connect directly with our customers. On specific new products, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but we’re definitely focused on natural fragrance and the different ways that people enjoy them.

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