Around these parts, we like to learn about and from people who are running their own businesses – business we love and admire, and the women who are running shit behind the scenes. This week’s interview is with JT Siems, a woman who turned her love of literature, history and perfume into an absolutely genius business idea: scents inspired by literary characters! Her Seattle-based business, Sweet Tea Apothecary, offers perfumes named after Boleyn, Lenore, Pemberley, and more….fellow book nerds, are you geeking out yet? Read on to find out more about her inspiration, how to take obstacles and turn them into successes, and advice on how to get out of your own head and get after your passion.
milieu: Tell us a bit about your background. Were you always into perfume? What made you decide to start your own line?
JT: I think I should win some kind of award for most random resume. I went to Loyola Marymount University for English lit and then worked in tech PR, followed by editorial work at a psychic network in Hollywood (best job ever). Then I got a masters at USC and taught high school English in San Francisco. That job was very depressing and I didn’t have a semblance of work life balance so when my husband got a job in Seattle I decided to turn my hobby of perfuming into a business. I’ve always been a literature/history fangirl so I decided the theme would be historical and literary perfumes. I used my English degree after all!
I’ve had migraines since age 11 and after I graduated college I developed panic disorder (which thankfully has mostly gone away). I dabbled in essential oil remedies for those ailments and making perfume kind of grew out of that.
milieu: What kind of research did you do for the business side? What research did you do for the production side?
JT: At the time I was really into Etsy so I read through as many of the forums as I could. Long time Etsy sellers would often post about their experiences and give advice to new sellers. Because I worked for so long in marketing/PR and editorial I think I had a little bit of a leg up in terms of knowing how to promote myself. I began blogging and working on my social media presence. I also developed a checklist of things to take care of before opening – pricing, packaging, shipping etc. Production is still a work in progress – when I started it took about five months before I hit it big thanks to some press, so I was just doing orders as they came in. Now I treat it as more of an assembly line so I can do higher volumes faster. It’s still tricky though, because some months are busier than others and I also have a two-year-old in the house so I mostly only get to work at night and on the weekends.
milieu: I love that you name your perfumes after famous writers and literary characters. Where did you come up with this idea, and how do you capture a character’s “essence” through your scents?
JT: I owe it all to Marie Antoinette. I’ve always been drawn to stories like hers – glamorous yet tragic. For our honeymoon my husband and I went to London and Paris and my idea of a good time was going to all the palaces and taking tours. In London we saw a really cool exhibit at Kensington Palace about the princesses who lived there and it was kind of haunting and modern how they did that. Then we went to Versailles which has been on my bucket list since I was eight and saw a picture of it in a history book. There’s a gift shop in the Queen’s Hameau and I saw a sign talking about her perfume and it listed the notes. I thought it would be fun to try and make the scent so I went home and made it. Whenever people smell that perfume (I still make/sell it) they always say, “Yup that’s definitely her,” which is a huge compliment. Generally I’ll be reading about a historical figure, sometimes fiction, sometimes a biography, sometimes a movie, and I kind of get obsessed with them and research things they liked, then I match it up with ingredients I think would work. I usually have an idea for the atmosphere I’m trying to create and go from there.
milieu: What’s the most challenging part of running your own business?
JT: Right now it’s hard to find time to work and create new things (currently I’m only doing new releases once a year). I used to love blogging and that has always helped my traffic, but I don’t have time anymore. When my daughter is older I’m hoping to get a regular schedule going again so that I can actually do the work necessary to have regular content and expand the business into more stores.
milieu: How do you get your name out there?
JT: I was more dedicated to marketing myself when I first started but since my daughter was born I’ve kind of just been riding the wave. I used to work in marketing so I know how to do it but I don’t really enjoy it except when it’s content like blog posts about the history behind perfumes or teaching people how to make perfume. At some point I’m either going to hire a marketing person to do the work of reaching out to review sites and finding me those opportunities, but again, that won’t be for another year or two.
milieu: What’s your favorite scent? Which one is the most popular?
JT: I like the darker scents and I’m a sucker for rose so I stick to Madame Moustache and Lenore (both of which feature my favorite write-ups). I also like Dharma Bum a lot. In terms of online sales which is 95 percent of the business, Dead Writers is exceptionally popular because it makes such a great gift. But interestingly when I do in-person shows the popularity of the perfumes changes based on the city. Los Angeles loves Antoinette, Boleyn, and Lady Day. New York loves Sylvia, Madame Moustache, Dead Writers, and Lenore. San Francisco loves Georgiana and Dharma Bum and Seattle is crazy for Pamplemousse which cracks me up because EVERYONE says that one smells like sunshine. It’s funny to see how the scents kind of match the weather and temperament of cities.
milieu: Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would change if you had to start all over again?
JT: I was very naïve when I started. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I look back and am amazed that I just went for it. The biggest thing I’d change is just aesthetic based – I would spend more money on graphic design and photography. It’s been so DIY since the beginning that I cringe when I see the old stuff. Every year it gets better but when you’re mostly selling for online audiences your aesthetic is everything. I definitely benefitted from the Etsy shtick at first but the more I grow and the bigger audiences I reach I think it’s important to look (and be!) exceptionally professional.
milieu: Can you give us any insight into new collections, new projects or scents we can watch out for?
JT: I just launched new perfumes in the last two months so the next collection won’t be until January or the Spring depending on my schedule. I’ve wanted to do a Grimm line for eons. I also have an idea for “City Perfumes,” but I’m still fleshing that out. I’ll be working on a rebrand over the holidays so I’ll have a new look in January.
milieu: What advice would you give someone who is looking to go into a similar business for themselves?
JT: My advice is to do your research (but not so much that you never start, you have to take risks and go for it), and only start the business if it’s something you’re passionate about. If you’re not passionate or excited, people can tell. The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was by my dad before he passed away. I was thick in my panic attack days and always worried about the future and he said, “You have to set a new goal for yourself every year. That way you can accomplish something and move on to the next thing. If you only look far out, everything is nebulous.” I credit that with getting me out of my head and on to the work of living.