Abigail Cook Stone of Otherland
Meet Abigail Cook Stone, founder and CEO of Otherland, a modern candle company that uses art storytelling to market to a new generation of candle-burners.
Her brand, Otherland, sells high-quality candles packed in reusable glass tumblers adorned with illustrations. With scents profiles ranging from Canopy, a leafy blend of fig, ivy greens, and mint, to Chandelier, a bright combo of champagne, saffron, and leather, each candle is meant to evoke a different mood and feeling.
Abigail sees each candle as an opportunity to create and present a piece of ephemeral art that will not only live in the homes of tens of thousands, but offer an immersive experience to their respective owners. Living in the happy place between luxury and accessible, Otherland is taking the direct-to-consumer model to heights, selling sensory experiences and olfactory bliss through the internet. Having secured investments from well-known backers during its seed round, Otherland is slated to become not only a candle brand, but a lifestyle brand.
I chatted with Abigail to learn more about the beginnings of Otherland, and how she’s turning aromatic experiences and rituals into a commodity. Keep reading to discover Otherland.
THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED FOR BREVITY AND CLARITY.
So to start, what led you to start Otherland and to tackle the candle market?
“Like a lot of other founders, it definitely fit a personal need. I’m definitely obsessed with candles and have been for my whole life. I think I had a babysitter who had a Yankee candle and I really wanted one as a kid but my mom said no, but in my twenties I found myself burning candles every day. First thing in the morning if I was doing meditation and coming home at the end of the day to unwind, and I just felt like there wasn’t a brand for me. I preferred the really fresh, interesting fragrances that the luxury brands had. They’re just a lot more nuanced and I preferred their aesthetics a bit, but they were so expensive that you’re afraid to burn them every day - if you can justify buying them. They’re so so so expensive and then also, some of them are very minimalist and black and white. I’m more about art and color and maximalism. But on the other end of the spectrum, the more affordable brands have ultra sweet, often cloying smells and are aesthetically very cute, but I felt like there was an opportunity to create a brand that’s all about art and uses the candle and the packaging and social media to really tell a story around each the candle, so it becomes a lot more than just notes of jasmine and rose, but it’s a whole story. It’s really about incorporating storytelling and community through digital channels to create an art-forward candle brand.”
How did you come up with the name?
“The name actually started as something different. We’re incorporated as Verve Labs Inc. and “verve” came from this expression that my mother had, which is the extra verve of the added touch. [It] was her philosophy of putting in a little bit of extra effort to take something from good to great. An example I would like to use is when you get a crate of clementines, you put the clementines in a bowl and just the simple little gesture creates this moment of beauty. So the ethos in starting the brand is wanting to create something all around that. The candle is this finishing touch that takes just hanging out, maybe watching a movie by yourself, and turns it into “me” time. So that’s how it started. It turned out “verve” was trademarked for soap which is sort of similar so we had to create another name, and in doing a lot of the name-storming brainstorms, [we] came up with this idea of this fantasy—Otherland, Tomorrowland, Neverland—and thinking about all the different ways we envisioned collaborating and different moods for each candle. It could be cozy land, dinner party land. The “land” kind of structure seemed like it would fit really well. I could see a pop-up one day: “This is Otherland.” So it just felt like it fit!”
Otherland is an investor-backed startuP. what advice do you have for young female founders who are looking to secure funding?
“I think one thing is I found at first before I really had a brand, it was getting dozens and dozens and dozens of “no’s” and a really exhausting summer of lugging a suitcase full of candles around and just people saying, Oh, it sounds interesting. Come back when you have a brand. Once we got past that point, I found that it’s often a slow “no” and a fast “yes,” and I think that that’s important because often women may have more trouble getting to the ask. You quickly need to establish is this person interested? Are they in or are they out? And getting to it to say, “would you be interested in making this investment? Does this amount work? Can we write you in for this much?” Really getting to that as quickly as possible so that you can move on if it’s not the right fit.”
What does your team look like right now?
“We’re pretty small. I actually work with my boyfriend Sayyid who is my business partner. We went to Columbia [University] together and we met on the first day. He has a background in operations and finance. He most recently worked at Dia&Co. We work together and we’ve got a fulfillment team as well. We’re pretty small.”
What challenges have you had to overcome in starting and running a brand, especially as a small team?
“I think in creating a new product and new packaging, we had to figure out how [to] get candles to our customers through the mail without anything breaking and have it still be this fun unboxing experience. Any time you create a product, there’s just so much that can go wrong that I had no idea. Every little hinge or flap has been reengineered on our packaging. The week that we launched, we found that some of the packages were popping open and we had to do a few things to fix that, but there’s just so much that goes into the product development and things will always go wrong. That’s something I’ve learned a lot about, but you’re doing all jobs when it’s a small team from marketing to product development to PR, so it’s everything.”
What does your creative process look like for new product development?
“Sometimes it starts with the fragrances leading it or it could start with a concept leading it. We work with a couple fragrance houses who have amazing perfumers who work with the exact same luxury brands. We’re able to work with them and they will present ideas sometimes. Once I find the ones that I like and we make modifications then I can group into a theme or question around that. We’ve also done it the other way. For our Summer collection, which is an 80s/90s beach club look, I thought about scent memories. What are my summer scent memories? One of them was my first job in New York, which was working at the U.S. Open (the tennis tournament). We did a tennis ball, cut grass, and cucumber candle. That was called Matchpoint. Then I had another memory of this Nantucket beach plum jam I used to get as a kid. We’d bring some jars back after the summer and save one for winter so we did a beach plum jam scent which we called Stone Fruit. When I can, I like to have a personal scent memory that we’re drawing from and collaborating with the perfumer. From there, we figure out who’d be a great illustrator or artist to work. That’s the really fun part, getting the artwork going.”
How long has the business been up and running now at this point?
“We launched December of 2017 so just over a year.”
So what does a typical day look like for you now?
“It’s definitely one of those things where no day is typical. Things are changing all the time. Just today, we sent samples out to press for our Valentine’s Day Candlegram packaging. We’re finishing getting those bagged up and with the right address labels on them. Then we had a meeting with someone around the product design and some of our goals and initiatives for the spring. We do use a lot of outside agencies or partners, whether it’s fragrance or PR, so a lot of meetings with them. Yesterday, we went to one of the fragrance houses and had a little fragrance presentation. They had some new ideas and inspiration from our recent trips so we looked at that. It can be a mix of a lot of different things. Since we have our fulfillment right here in our office, definitely as much hands-on time with the product, that’s really important for us.”
Do you have a current favorite candle?
“I feel like they’re all my children. I love all of them, but I would say for a year-round favorite, Rattan, which is our best seller—is amazing. It’s sandalwood and amber and there’s a little bit of leather in there. It’s just really chill and it works throughout the year. From our Fall collection Manor House Weekend, Cardamom Milk is definitely my favorite. This is a really special one. It’s got these frothy milk notes. There’s rice milk, almond milk, and then cardamom, which is so nice and just a little bit of sweetness at the end. From the Winter collection, Black Velvet which is alpine violet, iris woods, and night-blooming jasmine and that’s a gorgeous floral scent that has a little something special.”
It sounds like such a sensorial experience. How are you able to sell that over the Internet?
“That’s our big challenge. How do we sell scents through the Internet? Definitely one part of that has been investing in the brand and the visuals and how we work with different artists. And making sure that our website is really tight and compelling definitely helps people get over the hump of not having smelled before they buy or to understand what that experience is like a bit better. We definitely try to figure out, in terms of the words to describe each scent—do we list the top notes, middle notes, base notes, or does that confuse people? Should we give more or less? We ended up deciding just to pick three notes for each of them. So far that’s worked pretty well. But, I think social media also can really help because it contextualizes each scent and can help us show a vibe around it that could get lost on a web product page.”
In what ways has your MBA proven to be useful in starting Otherland or are there some things that business school didn’t prepare you for?
“Well obviously I met Sayyid in business school. That was great! But certainly the network is so powerful and opens doors and I really wanted to expand my network after college. I went to a small liberal arts school and worked at really just one company, Ralph Lauren, after college so expanding my network was huge. That has helped tremendously in starting a business and now in running it. What Columbia or business school did not prepare me for is a lot of what is taught is more about high level management of established companies. The nitty gritty of being in the trenches is trying to figure out how do we get the shipping box to not pop open when you’ve got orders flooding in. There’s definitely not a class about that. And the ins and outs of that and the rollercoaster of startup life at the beginning.”
Where do you consume media and do you have any favorite publications or podcasts or things to read?
“I like the Girlboss podcast, Joanne Wilson has a great one (Gotham Gal), and How I Built This definitely. I read a lot of news…”
what advice do you have for young women who are looking to start and build their own brands and businesses?
“Definitely get out there and do it. When you’re in the early phases of starting to explore a category, really get your hands dirty as much as you can. I would go to every candle store. I’d ask all my friends what candles they were burning. I’d ask my Uber driver what candles they were burning. Really become an expert on your category. Don’t keep the idea to yourself. Share it with as many people as possible and get their feedback and ideas. When you’re really just starting it and you want to sell a product but you don’t have it created yet, hack it together however you can. I would mix wax together from candles that I bought into different scents. I brought these little samples with me and I said, “this is gonna be Daybed. It’s floral and it’s got some dew.” It’s very useful. That would really help bring it to life.”