November 2nd, 2022
Mariya Nurislamova is co-founder and CEO of Scentbird – a fragrance subscription service that allows consumers to date perfumes before marrying them. Under the Scentbird umbrella, Mariya currently runs the four other beauty brands within the portfolio, including our current favourite makeup brand, the vegan and high-performance Deck of Scarlet.
A creative and serial entrepreneur, having co-founded an IT-outsourcing company and a fashion startup, Mariya’s vision and ideas are consumer-inspired and digitally lead. Her goal for Scentbird is to become the number one, global perfume destination that covers the full consumer journey from the process of discovery to conversion and loyalty. Mariya has a background in applied mathematics, computer science and marketing. She resides in New York with her husband and is fluent in Russian.
We spoke to Mariya about moving from Russia to the US and from IT to fragrance to create Deck of Scarlet.
Where did you grow up and what influence did your family have on your business career?
I grew up in Russia to a family of teachers. They didn’t have a profound impact on my career. However my Dad is a very motivated man, and he taught me a lot about life in general and particularly perseverance.
Going into makeup, my original love for it is very much connected to my aunt. She was an avid makeup user, whereas my mum would wear nothing, so I had this contrast going on between the sisters. My mum was always bare faced – super beautiful naturally – and skincare and beauty were not her thing until much later in life. But my aunt was younger than my mum, and to me as a kid felt much cooler. She was definitely a makeup lover and I loved looking through her makeup bag. Some things she bought locally, but she travelled a lot so had bought some things in Europe which had this really beautiful packaging. For a kid born in the Soviet Union where minimalism and grey colours were the norm, to be able to see a French lipstick was something special! She’d let me play with it all. I’d steal all her lipsticks and then she’d have to buy them back from me for coins – it was my favourite game ever [laughs] and definitely the founder of a makeup brand in the making.
Your first industry was IT. What is your earliest makeup memory?
Definitely swatching my aunt’s read lipstick on my chubby hand is probably my first makeup related memory – but I have a lot of them!
Where did you train and what was your first job?
I was an English tutor in Russia, teaching local kids the language. I was a big nerd! I really loved reading and English from the first time I heard it spoken – also by my aunt! I was very young – about 12 when I started tutoring other children.
As an adult I have had so many different jobs and careers – but I never actually worked as a makeup artist. I was self-taught and I jumped from being an amateur to starting a business with a really great formulator. I always had very strong opinions about formulas. I would spend hours at Sephora just trying out stuff – not the point where I’d get kicked out – but it was like my museum. Other people would go to hang out and look at paintings, but I’d go and hang out with makeup.
My love affair with makeup continued with the whole YouTube craze of makeup tutorials. In the old days you had to go to makeup school to learn to become an MUA, but during my college years it shifted and you now had all these MUAs on YouTube. I was obsessed by certain YouTubers and I learnt all their tricks. That is what inspired Deck of Scarlet originally. I was watching Kandee Johnson an LA makeup artist. I was a college kid – I was making some money but I didn’t have a lot of it – and as she was showing her tutorials they would feature 37 different products. As a college kid that was a lot of money to spend if I wanted to recreate a Hallowe’en look. I had this wish that someday someone would build a trial kit for me so that I could tag along with the YouTubers and recreate the looks, but not have to spend $600+ to do it. So that was the original premise for Deck of Scarlet as I was just solving my own problems. It was an everyday thing for me to play along with my favourite YouTubers, it was an obsession, so I wanted the kits to be available all the time.
So DOS started as a subscription service in the autumn of 2015. You could get a weekly makeup kit to work along with certain YouTubers to recreate their looks. It was almost an educational product and I partnered with MUAs that I thought were fabulous and had a large YouTube following. They would come up with the colour story, the daytime and night-time look that they were going to teach. The kit ended up looking like a full-face palette with four eyeshadows, two cheek products and two lip products in a pan format. They would also have two add-on products – maybe glitter, or a liquid liner in a particular colour – it was a full-on kit. It was such fun working with creators – the looks that came out and tutorials that we shot were amazing.
We’ve read that your passion is perfume. How did that transfer to makeup?
My passions for makeup and fragrance are equal, but Scentbird started first. I have a lot of energy and I’m lucky to have had a group of people around me who believed in what I was doing. I know you’re meant to do things one at a time, but I knew I could do both. They are similar business models – but in the beginning with Scentbird we weren’t creating our own fragrances, we were curating what was out in the market that I loved. With Deck of Scarlet we were creating from day one.
We now create our own fragrances under four brand names. Two of them – Deck of Scarlet and Confessions of a Rebel – are available in the UK.
You founded Scentbird and Deck of Scarlet in the US as subscription services, yet retail direct in the UK. How has the model changed in different territories?
Deck of Scarlet has now transformed from a subscription brand to a more traditional brand in a sense – it’s now one-off, a la carte purchases. A lot of that is due to me as a creator growing up – my needs as a consumer and a creator were changing. I wanted to break free of the makeup palette; when you’ve created as many as we had there’s only so much you can do that’s different, out there and exciting. I believe makeup should be all about artistry – thrilling and fun. And when it turns into a template you lose that. I took this spark and put a template over it, and now it was less exciting. So I wanted to make things that were different and innovative and get out of the mold that my subscription business put me in. It was a growing up story in some ways. I wanted to keep pushing the envelope on what was possible with the formulas without being constrained by the subscription so we reframed the business. Also as a consumer I started wearing a lot of clean formulas and I had to reformulate to be clean.
I’m a maximalist where makeup is concerned. I’ll wear a full eye shadow and full lip and a contour for a business call – obviously as the founder of makeup company I can do what I like with makeup and get away with it [laughs]. However as I was shopping for clean products I felt that somehow my colour palette got smaller and the performance aspect shrank. I felt it made me give up certain aspects that I love about makeup just to do what’s right for my skin and go with clean formulas. There had to be a better way and a world where the two things were not mutually exclusive.
At Deck of Scarlet we wanted a clean brand that is still fun; we believe it can and should be both. We did this interesting marketing study – we took the top ten clean makeup brands globally and put their ad campaigns on one slide. They literally blended into one brand – there is very little differentiation as they all promote the “no makeup makeup” girl. Clean formulas are not just for makeup minimalists. We are a maximalist makeup brand and our customers deserve clean formulas. There are true makeup junkies and makeup lovers who like blue eyeliner at noon and they should be served by clean formulas too. That was the premise for the restaging of Deck of Scarlet in 2018. I’m really proud of every formula that we launch, and it’s a leap of faith sometimes. We don’t know if consumers are going to go with us and go “yay” or say “no, this is too new”.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
How do you reinvent yourself while staying true to your core? Bringing the subscription consumers over with us to the new world of clean beauty was a challenge. When we discontinued the subscription service we had a lot of customers emailing customer support asking what we were doing and wanting their palettes back. As the founder you need to trust your gut that your tribe are going to follow you. That change was hard as we had to start from zero again. A big chunk of our subscribers did try products from the new range. It’s important to see now how we are doing and if we are resonating with a wider audience.
Influencers and YouTubers have been a huge part of the brand’s identity. Which are your most memorable collaborations?
My favourite was with Sonjdra Deluxe, a Canadian YouTuber. Her palette sold out in hours. I just love her as a creator. She is a little less active on YouTube now, but she had over one million subscribers when we did that collaboration so she had a very nice audience in North America. Her palette had red eyeshadows in it before that was a thing and she showed the community how those could be wearable, even for everyday. She just has the touch and the magic. I loved how her community just resonated with us. She had rose tattoos and we used that symbol with the palette so it was definitely hers.
What is the favourite product that you have created?
It’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! I have a couple, but let’s start with the Big Lash Energy Mascara. It launched earlier this year and it is really special. It is lengthening and strengthening with a growth serum included. We take a long time to develop products – we are very particular about what we want and when we hit our particular vision it’s like a jackpot. We also like to push the envelope of what is possible.
The mascara includes a tint so, over time, if someone has lashes that aren’t black the pigments in the mascara will tint the lashes. My lashes are okay and after 30 days of me using this mascara to test it, I didn’t recognise my lashes. They were really full and long – it was like using a magic potion. The good news is – after a year of use – I feel they are still growing.
As a makeup lover I still buy other brands on the market. I have other mascaras in my makeup bag that are double or triple the price of ours, but I still only reach for ours.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given and what advice would you give to entrepreneurs starting out?
It’s not going to be earth-shattering. When I was failing at a fragrance subscription – I had failed four times at that point – I called my greatest mentor. I felt I should perhaps do something different with my life as I couldn’t get this to work. He told me that I had to keep failing until I succeeded, so don’t stop now. I asked him why, I clearly wasn’t good at it if I couldn’t get it right after four attempts. He said no, every failure is a learning opportunity, and he knew I would get it eventually right as I knew all the ways to fail. I didn’t give up as he believed in me – and I had a winning business model within seven days of that conversation –and he became one of my investors.
I like to say “the darkest hour is just before dawn.” Sometimes in entrepreneurial life it can feel as though you are really cornered when something isn’t working, but this is the time of the biggest breakthrough. Learn to recognise that the darkest hour is the biggest blessing as there will be a breakthrough there.
What’s the next additions that we’ll be seeing from you?
We are about to launch our first makeup setting spray, and it’s visually stunning. It has a very fine pearl in it that gives you a sun kissed glow, it’s beautiful. It has a very slight blurring effect in the setting spray – I love it – it’s the cherry on top for a makeup look. That will be out in January.
There are two more amazing launches coming too – but I can’t say anything about those yet.
Follow Deck of Scarlet on instagram.
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