Abigail Cook Stone, CEO & Co-Founder of Otherland, set out to build a different kind of candle brand when she launched in 2017, inspired by her passion for art and interiors, a moderately healthy obsession with candles, and her family philosophy of finding small ways to elevate everyday life with an “extra verve.” To create Otherland, Abigail married her backgrounds in art, e-commerce, and venture capital. While attending Columbia Business School, she was an associate at Founder Collective, a seed stage venture fund, and a partner at Dorm Room Fund, First Round Capital’s student-run VC fund. She has an MBA from Columbia and previously worked at Ralph Lauren in Art Acquisitions.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
Abigail Cook Stone: To me, entrepreneurship is all about having a deep, deep conviction about something that is missing from the world, about a consumer need that is not being met and embarking on a journey to build exactly that. Entrepreneurship at its core is about being a builder – of a team, of a vision, of a company, and the infrastructure to support that.
How did your company come to be?
ACS: I’ve been mildly obsessed with candles my whole life. So, when I was in my 20s and found myself burning candles everyday—from my morning meditation to unwinding after work—I quickly recognized a gap in the market: the candles with the fresh, nuanced scents I preferred were often too expensive, while budget-friendly options had ultra-sweet fragrances and lackluster design.
I realized I had an opportunity to create a modern home fragrance brand with a focus on art while incorporating storytelling and community, and after meeting my Co-Founder and COO Sayyid Markar, Otherland was born!
Now, we’ve built a brand that’s made candle buying and burning a total experience: a multi-sensory, consumable, portable, and experiential objet d’art.
How has your business changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
ACS: Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a few key trends:
An openness and excitement for purchasing online, allowing us to build trust with DTC skeptics–the people who weren’t really open to buying fragrance online before. In the early COVID era, online was the preferred option. Once people receive our product, we have very high repeat purchasing (people LOVE the product experience!), so we’ve been able to reach more customers AND retain them.
An increase in joy-driven purchasing. In the COVID era, people are craving feel-good things to look forward to, like the anticipation of receiving a package in the mail, the joy of unboxing our candles, popping the lid, and taking that first whiff of a new scent. More than ever before, people need a way to unwind, to find Me Time, to create an experience at home, to spark joy, and that’s exactly what our product offers. Our frequent collection drops and seasonal scent newness ties into that, and on social seeing a lot of customers speak to the delight of unboxing and using the product, as well as an increase in off- season gifting to friends, family and colleagues to “send a sweet bit of sunshine”.
Focus on what I call Interiential: a combination of interior and experiential, representing the new vision of home, now that our homes have become our everything – our gym, our restaurant, spa sanctuary, and more. The interiential approach is all about creating meaningful in-home experiences so home can be a place that is expansive, not one that confines us, and this focus has served us especially well during COVID. It ties in with interior wellness and focuses on self-care, along with the art of living well and personalizing your space.
On the corporate side, the COVID era and move towards remote work has created an opportunity to hire out-of-state, opening up new hiring markets and talent for us. The pandemic has also brought along some challenges in our supply chain (along with most other businesses!). For example, the closure of restaurants and bars had a downstream impact on the availability of our candle jars and the price of glass.
What is your proudest and darkest moment so far?
ACS: A dark moment for me was at the start of the pandemic. We are based in New York City, and with a supply chain and fulfillment operation based in the US we were not sure what would happen. We ran out of inventory at several points and my co-founder and I personally fulfilled every order for six weeks. We were a very small team of four people and with so much world uncertainty on top of the usual uncertainty of starting a startup, it was a deeply challenging time. My proudest moment at Otherland was at our team dinner/offsite in September 2021. The dinner represented that we had survived 2020 and were able to build our team up to double in size and create a strong company culture despite being remote. I felt a lot of pride in my hope for the bright future of Otherland with such a talented and hardworking team behind us!
How is your company changing the landscape?
ACS: We’re creating a modern, storytelling-driven brand with a luxury product at an accessible price, clean ingredients, and a community-forward approach to connect with the next generation of candle and home fragrance consumers.
We believe the future of home fragrance—to win in the digital space—needs to be visual-first. That’s why art is at the core of Otherland. We work with different artists to create each new collection and use expressive color, pattern, and design to activate an emotional connection with our customers.
When their purchase arrives and the customer unboxes each layer of artwork, texture, detail, and scent, they then become the storyteller—sharing on social media what about the artwork and scent descriptions inspired them to buy, and how they’re using it. The candle becomes much more than just its scent notes, say rose or red currant, and is part of what differentiates us from traditional candle brands.
Not only this, but we also play into memories and nostalgia to minimize barrier to entry, creating scents that feel familiar (think fireplaces and fall treats), that play into other senses like taste (burnt maple) and touch (white suede). Scent is the strongest trigger of memory, so we lean into collective memories to set ourselves apart from other candle brands on the market.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
ACS: I wish I had invested more in building my social media presence much earlier. Having a platform can be an immensely powerful tool and I wish I had started much earlier.
What advice/credo do you live by as you grow the business / what is your professional and personal mission statement?
ACS: My mom had a saying that helped inspire the creation of Otherland and represents a personal mission to share with the world through our company: “the extra verve of the added touch.” “Verve” is all about cultivating a personal practice of finding daily moments of satisfaction and happiness through the little things that spark joy for you.
Where do you find inspiration when faced with challenges?
ACS: When faced with challenges, I’ve found that a great strategy to get unstuck is to call a mentor or advisor to talk through whatever I am facing.
What does “success” look like for you? What do you think will help you achieve it?
ACS: Success for Otherland will mean being the premiere home fragrance company in the United States and a treasured brand by our customers. Maintaining our luxury quality standards, product drops and storytelling that speak to the cultural zeitgeist, and a customer-centric focus in building our tribe of devoted followers will help us to achieve this.
Has personal or professional “success” changed for you since the COVID-19 pandemic?
ACS: With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to change our definition of success to survival of the unknowns of 2020. It forced us to re-focus the company’s priorities to only what was most essential, which in retrospect was a helpful exercise as a founder as you’re constantly faced with decisions around which ideas to pursue.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs about building and leading teams?
ACS: I’m fortunate to work with my significant other, Sayyid Markar, who co-founded Otherland with me. Building a team is an important skill for founders and one I did not have previous experience with before starting a company. Having a strong relationship with my co-founder has created a solid base for us to build a company upon, but we have had to work for it! Figuring out our areas of ownership, working styles, boundaries, and more has taken time and considered effort, and it’s been rewarding to see how we’ve grown as co-founders in this way.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day? How has it changed in recent months?
ACS: During the pandemic and working from home I learned how to make the perfect cup of coffee and then the perfect cup of matcha. I love the ritual of this process every morning – the exact temperature of the water, the technique with French press or whisk, and how to get the most luxurious foamy top. It’s a small habit that took a bit of time to learn about and perfect – I love that process of learning to master something small, a singular focus and creative ritual to start the day.
What keeps you motivated during this time?
ACS: Our customers! It’s an honor and such a joy to see them experience the product and brand (particularly on social media), and that enthusiasm and customer love drives me to keep building. And our team, of course!
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
ACS: As an entrepreneur, I want people to remember my resilience and creative innovation in building the Otherland brand, product, and company, overcoming naysayers and personal challenges along the way.
What is a quote or some words of wisdom that help get you through the tough days?
ACS: When times are tough, “just keep going” – one foot at a time, head down and eyes on the prize.
Have you experienced mentorship in your career? Do you feel it was easily available to you?
ACS: Mentors are so important! Building your network and having trusted mentors and advisors to turn to can make all the difference with the endless challenges you face as an entrepreneur. Fellow founder-mentors like Nadia Boujarwah and Lydia Gilbert, co-founders of Dia&Co, have been an indispensable source of inspiration and guidance for me.
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