For most, COVID-19 brought us back to the basics—cooking at home, working out at home, teaching at home.
Matthew Herman found himself pouring candles in his kitchen.
It was a throwback for Herman, the co-founder and creator of Boy Smells, a Los Angeles-based candle and accessories company. He and his partner David Kien, who hail from the fashion world, started their popular brand in that same kitchen in 2016. With their factory shut down, they cobbled together a makeshift squad to keep production and distribution going—out of their homes.
What they weren’t expecting was explosive growth amid a pandemic. (Here’s a hint: With much of the world stuck at home and looking for any tools to de-stress, candle sales took off.) Herman and Kien entered 2020 with a growth target of around 80%. Thanks to their quick pivot and thoughtful marketing and social strategy, it’s looking more like 1,200%.
We recently caught up with Herman, to hear more about Boy Smells’ swim upstream and why 2020 “has been a terrible year but also a magical year.”
Everyone’s got their own COVID-19 story. How did yours unfold?
I was actually in Paris for Fashion Week when things in Italy started to go sideways. We started hearing reports that none of the models who walked in the Milan show were going to walk in the Paris show. I thought, “Oh this is crazy. Is this really happening?” Then we started getting emails from stores, because everyone travels to Paris for Fashion Week and that’s when you do the bulk of your wholesale sales. We had a full five days of appointments booked and I think we took three in total. We knew it was getting weird. We came back a few days early because we could see it wasn’t going well. Maybe five days later, things shut down. Like, really really shut down.
What was your pivot?
Right before, in February, we had put together a major celebrity collaboration—20,000 candles, the biggest we’ve ever done. They were all poured, sitting at the factory. No labels, hadn’t been boxed. We had pre-sold it.
We were really agile and smart. We had a few friends who had lost their jobs. We dropped off all of the boxes, all of the labels. We had friends stickering the candles from their homes.
A flashback to your bootstrapping days.
Since our candle factory was shut down, a couple workers from the factory had some equipment at their homes. So we had a woman in the Valley who turned her garage into a candle factory. She was pouring candles with her family. We would show up in a U-Haul.
We turned our house back into a candle-making factory like we had in the old days—1,500 candles a week. It was like playing hot potato with inventory.
You found yourself with a good problem—demand spiked. What did that look like?
The home fragrance market in this “comfort economy” just really started to take off. We saw this huge demand increase in our candles two or three days after things shut down. We were up 500%. Once the shelter-in-place orders came down and people were like, “We’re going to be stuck here for a while,” we were up 1,200%.
So what is Boy Smells—and where did the idea come from?
My partner David—who’s both my partner in life and in business—when we started dating, we talked about products that were essential but also felt fluid and would’ve been marketed to individuals like us. At that time, my background was as a fashion designer in New York for many years, runway. David was running production for a cashmere company. We realized a lot of products for men felt very bro-y and hyper-masculine. I’m a fragrance junky and a lot of fragrances for women felt hyper-feminine.
We wanted to create something with a gender fluidity or more post-binary. Where everyone is cropping gender boundaries for something they like. These myths identifying gender were always at the heart of Boy Smells. I noticed, working in fashion, my female friends, if they had a big meeting, they always sprayed sandalwood or Tuscan leather and it was always so masculine. They’re dipping their toes across the gender binary in the scent world. They’re trying to generate confidence. I would spray something that was quite feminine going into a similar meeting. I’m gaining this confidence doing the same thing. We called it Boy Smells and put it in this pink box as a sense of permission to borrow scent from across the binary. It’s tongue-and-cheek and it’s fun, but there’s also something important about it.
If it speaks to you, that’s what’s most important. There are really expensive candles out there that you put on your mantle and never burn. Our price is very inclusive and achievable. If you're finding power in our scent, that’s the reason to buy it. That’s what it adds to your life. They’re decorative objects, yes. But it’s really about the individual and their personality and what they get to explore and embrace.
How have you managed to keep growing so quickly amid all this?
We really listened to our customers. We proceeded with a lot of caution in how we talked to people—be safe, take care of yourself, find comfort where you can. We started speaking to people in that tone of voice without plugging any product. Stay close while social distancing. Embrace closeness while practicing safety. Leaning into a digital togetherness. As we saw the customer response, we were able to lean into that more.
And your customers have become your evangelists as a result.
There’s something about our branding and packaging and our company that people on Instagram really respond to. So our customer base really did a lot of our work for us. We owe a lot to organic social media.
Why are candles having a moment right now?
I think that this pandemic basically just accelerated the trend—flexible work hours, working remotely. Even before the pandemic, people were starting to work out at home, cook at home. Home is more than where you just come home to. Especially in major metro cities where your home is very small, people were already combining their home space with office, etc. It’s more than just home, it’s a sanctuary for wellness. Things were already going in that direction. You add a pandemic and it just accelerated where we were already headed. I was pouring candles and was walking 10 feet over and then doing yoga with all my favorite teachers. But it was even better because I was practicing with all my favorite teachers in LA and New York. I was FaceTiming with my family more. A candle is just integrated into that environment. If you’re stuck in that environment, it can take you on a journey. If you can’t travel, you can get a candle that smells exotic. It’s a chapter in your day, so every day doesn’t feel the same. All of those things that your mind needs to stay sane and keep track of time. A candle can help with that. It smells good and improves a situation that’s dire and makes it feel a little better. We all find comfort where we can get it.
Now that we’re settling into some version of “normal,” what does the operation look like?
Our factory is back open. We’re at full production capacity. We have gained an online customer base and we have learned and flexed the muscles of being a D2C company and gotten the muscle mass. There’s a lot of good that’s coming out of this. We’ve learned so much and I think we’ve learned to invest in ourselves, invest in our tone of voice, invest in photography of our product in a beautiful way. We see the payoff in investing in our digital storefront and our community and ourselves. It’s like we’ve grown a new arm and we’re going to keep using it. While we’re waiting to see how wholesale and retail comes back—or doesn't’ come back—we’re going to flex those new muscles.
I feel like I already know the answer, but six months into this, how are you doing as a person?
We’re having the most fun we’ve ever had, because we’re being ourselves more than ever—and we’re seeing that pay off. So in a sense, this has been a terrible year but also a magical year.
Focusing on work has been great. And having that be something that is stressful but successful, needing our primary attention, has been a blessing for us. I have friends who live alone in New York and feel so isolated. Friends with kids going crazy. Everybody’s experiencing this so differently because everyone’s circumstances are different. We're trying to exercise, which has been great at keeping us sane. Focusing on what we can do, not sweating our mistakes, but more leaning into the good things. You never really appreciate something until you have to rely on it. David and I are partners in business and life, and there’s been pressure and some tense moments, but overall, we have a deeper appreciation for each other—and that’s been really great.
Photo: Getty Images