Selling personalised perfumes online

Stephen Evans meets the German company delivering scents customised by customers.

Of all the things to sell online, the last thing you might think would be successful would be a smell.

Selling visible items would seem like an easy pitch - after all, you can put the picture up on the website. But a smell?

Yet that is exactly what My Parfum does.

You go to the website and make a series of selections, starting with the fundamental "For a woman?" or "For a man?".

Fragrances can be combined to give, it says, more than 10 million combinations. So far customers have chosen 132,000 different combinations.

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The last stage involves choosing the bottle online, which is then custom-printed with the name of a person (perhaps the receiver of the gift).

Just under a week later, it should come through the post.

First sniff of success

The company was founded in 2008 by Matti Niebelschutz, his brother and a friend.

It began in his parents' house when the three of them created perfumes by mixing scented oils.

"We started with pretty small funding - basically our own savings of about 10,000 euros ($13,600; £8,000). Then our grandparents gave us a small loan - another 10,000 euros," Mr Niebelschutz says.

"And we put all of this 20,000 euros into developing the product and developing the website.

"Basically, our bank account was down to zero. We started doing PR and some online marketing - our online marketing we started with a 50-euro Google voucher. A welcome voucher."

Matti Niebelschütz Matti Niebelschütz started his company with savings and a promotional voucher from Google

The three entrepreneurs had big plans and initially prospects looked good. They sold hundreds of bottles that Christmas and they set their sights higher. There would be expansion abroad - this was going to go global. At its peak, there were 80 employees.

Bankruptcy beckons

More staff meant more costs and that meant higher prices. The marketing budget was going through the roof. Expansion into the UK and France did not succeed and, before long, the company ended up with 2m euros of debt.

Two-thirds of the employees were sacked and in 2012, the company was declared bankrupt.

But not bankrupt as an idea in the mind of Mr Niebelschutz. He and his brother bought the company back at the bankruptcy auction and started again, with feet more firmly on the ground.

Laboratory at "MyParfum" The perfume company ended up mired in debt

Today, the company has 10 employees and is based in affordable premises in the old East Berlin. There is a shopfront with a laboratory downstairs. Expansion to the UK is once again planned but this time the modus operandi is much more "steady as you go".

The business has also expanded from online only into the bricks and mortar world, though not in a conventional way. The company is developing terminals to put in the perfume department of big stores.

The idea is that customers can make all the choices about combinations of fragrances there, in the conventional perfume section of a big store, and then get the order for the personalised scent delivered later to their homes.

Smell what sells

The brothers say they have learnt a lot about the market, particularly about how tastes differ both between sexes and between regions.

"The taste of fragrances is different according to different areas," says Mr Niebelschutz.

"In Europe, flowery perfumes are mainly female but if you look at the Arab world, flowery fragrances can also be male perfumes. That's quite a difference."

They do have special requests.

"Some customers have strange ideas. We had one person who wanted a fragrance that smelt like a Berlin train and we had one customer who wanted the smell of leather. We also get asked for gasoline and cars. We cannot help them. We are sorry about that."

Bottles of scent at MyParfum Different fragrances are requested from different parts of the world

Because customers can customise bottles to be printed as gifts, they get men who want naked women on the perfume bottle. Men also have "Will you marry me?" written on the bottle.

'Be brave, but careful'

"The most important thing is that if you really have a great idea, if you really have a strong feeling that you want to start your own business, just do it," says Mr Niebelschutz.

"There are always reasons why not, but if you really believe in your idea and if it's the right timing and if you can afford it, then just do it. What do you have to lose?"

Quite a lot, you might think. However the message is 'be brave, but be careful'.

"On the one hand, you might lose some time and you may lose some money - make sure it's not too much," says Mr Niebelschutz.

"But, on the other hand, what if you never started your dream? That's probably much worse."

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