"I think that the next 12 to 24 months are going to be a crazy ride of growth – probably something that you won’t see many brands in Australia go through," says Adam Bouris, co-founder of Who is Elijah.
In an industry where the youngest of the world's top 10 brands was founded in 1947 and three were established in the 19th century, some may be asking themselves how an Australian upstart is getting a whiff of the action.
With a cryptic name, gender non-conformist attitude, cruelty-free credentials and what its co-founder Raquel Bouris boldly claims to be 'best smelling fragrance on the planet', Who is Elijah has earned the distinction of a top-three seller in two of Australia's leading online retailers, THE ICONIC and Adore Beauty (ASX: ABY).
The company's fragrances are also sold in Priceline, Sephora, David Jones and 400-plus boutiques in Australia, but what was once a 90 per cent dependency on wholesaling has whittled down to a 50-50 split as Who is Elijah's own e-commerce vertical grows.
"There was good feedback that I had from David Jones that they couldn’t even recall having a product like ours, because it is so standard to have those heritage luxury brands," Raquel tells Business News Australia.
"It was late 2020 so COVID was in full swing. COVID was on our side, and being so different and Australian made helped us land into David Jones, and once we got David Jones that gave us credibility that we really needed and then everyone was coming after us."
She says when the business started in 2018 it was uncommon to sell perfume online, so the initial strategy was to focus heavily on physical stores so customers can smell the fragrances in-person.
"At the beginning I really didn't care about online sales and I kind of hate myself for it now, because it would have been a lot more advanced if I had cared then," says Raquel, who alongside her husband Adam was a finalist in the recent 2023 Sydney Young Entrepreneur Awards.
"More so to me it wasn’t always a financial-driven business – I think I cared more about the product and getting out there to see people’s reactions more than I cared about the dollar that I was making.
"But I don't regret it at all because retail is definitely what’s boomed for us here in Australia," she says, noting it is now 'very hard not to be able to find us'.
Adam explains that around six months before the pandemic began the company was renewing its approach to online from website design to how it engaged with influencers.
"We did a big collab with Emilee Hembrow, and we started giving away our discovery sets which is our sample pack with everything," says Adam, who is a second cousin of Wizard Home Loans and Yellow Brick Road founder Mark Bouris.
"We started working with influencers, giving them a code, letting them give away 300-500 discovery sets in an hour, and then all of those people would then come back to their website to buy the full-size product because they couldn't go to a store to get it – we could get it to them online during COVID.
"We can see that wholesale will continue to be this big part and continue to grow as we go into new countries, and the online side of things will absolutely follow it."
When asked about further expansion in Australia, Raquel responds that 'there's not really anywhere else that we can go'. There are still some large retailers that don't stock Who is Elijah, but she notes some have exclusivity requirements that would be to the detriment of existing relationships.
"We’re definitely focused on the biggest and the best bricks-and-mortar retail store and we're really focusing on doing big in store activations with Who is Elijah stands and representation, and trying to make a lot of noise in the physical locations," adds Adam.
And the fragrance brand is also busy making noise overseas. As of recently its largest retail partner by store count is actually ASOS UK, and there is budding deal in the works with a major US retailer too.
"We launched not that long ago now [in the UK]. We are participating in ASOS Black Friday sales so we’re very excited to see how that goes, and we’ve actually just been given a long list of influencers and partners that ASOS work with," Raquel says.
"They said it was a very good launch. And they've also promised us an Instagram feed dedicated post for Black Friday. And they've got 15 million Instagram followers."
Who is Elijah is looking for further expansion in the UK, and in late June undertook a guerilla marketing campaign in a bid to build brand recognition.
"I sent samples to [retailer] Boots, and they responded, sent me the address to send to, and the feedback we got was that they really loved them, but the only roadblock was that we weren't a known brand and that shelf space is limited, so shelf space is reserved for in-demand products," she says.
"That hurt my ego a little bit and I just thought, I’m going to go there and make my brand known, so I flew over there a week or two later with 500-600 discovery sets, and stood outside a few Boots locations and just handed them to people walking in and out of Boots.
"Even the Boots employees were coming out and taking them, and the feedback was amazing – I still haven’t heard anything from Boots, but other brands I’ve spoken to in Australia who are stocked there say it's a one- or two-year-long conversation. They're similar to Priceline, but they've got 2,500 locations across the UK."
Raquel also recently returned from the US where she has been in high-level negotiations with potential retail partners - conversations that were made much easier by Who is Elijah's success and performance in Australia. But when she's on the road it's not just about meetings - Raquel is also busy doing marketing on the ground.
"I think America is probably one of the hardest markets to tackle. It’s so big and there are so many successful companies over there and a lot of them that are celebrity driven – we obviously don't have millions of dollars there to pay the celebrities to be the face of our brand, nor do we want to do that," Raquel says.
"We’re hitting the ground ourselves and handing out samples, building our brand awareness that way, which is what we really have done since the beginning of Who is Elijah.
"We went to UCLA handed out hundreds and hundreds of 5ml bottles to all of the students there, and even the faculty were coming out, the professors were coming out and asking for perfumes and the feedback was 100/100."
To meet the challenges of global expansion, Who is Elijah - which has around 20 employees - has brought on a former Priceline buyer as its global sales account director. The founders understand the importance of bringing in the right expertise, and one of the first acts Raquel undertook as a founder was to recruit an experienced perfumer.
"He is the nose behind our fragrances, and I guess you could say I’m the creative and inspiration," she says.
When asked about the extent of Who is Elijah's consumer research for each new release, Raquel says there is no formal testing - just her own instinct and gauging how many compliments she gets for wearing it.
"No, I’ve never done that. If I love it, I release it to the world. It hasn’t failed me yet," she says.
"Fragrance is such a personal product – not everyone is ever going to like it. Once we get to a point where we sign off on a product, I’m doing a little bit of consumer research; I’m usually wearing one of our new fragrances at a minimum two months before we start to talk about it and launch it, and I’m always getting complimented on it."
Adam adds that launches are timed around big sale events, for example Black Friday in a couple of weeks.
"We have a new fragrance coming out called Ocean Eyes. We've committed to packaging but not crazy amounts like 12 months worth of stock - we're expecting 20,000 orders and everybody that orders on Black Friday will get a free sample of it," he says.
Now with around 500,000 bottles produced annually, Adam highlights how much the manufacturing process has grown from what started out as a garage business in Cronulla.
"That was an interesting set-up back then. It grew to a a storage shed for a while, and now we’re in two warehouses in Taren Point – about 400sqm of warehouse at the moment between the two of them, and we have a team of about 10 people downstairs who are filling these bottles by hand all the time," he says.
"We have some manual machines that help us do it, but there’s a lot of hands-on required to get the stock out the door.
"Production’s always been the most vulnerable part, but it is something that we can absolutely control in-house."
Compared to the giants of the perfume industry this is still a fairly humble operation, but Who is Elijah has made a big impact at home which its founders hope will translate overseas. And for Adam, success comes from doing things their own way rather than spending too much time observing the competition.
"We don’t actually think too much about these big heritage players in how we plan our future," he says.
"We’re not hesitant to do big crazy things because maybe Louis Vuitton has done this, or they’re doing this and we need to play in that fragrance game the way it’s always been done.
"We are constantly looking to build a big brand and a big reputation with great customers all around the world."
Adam describes a commitment to building a global brand, and the next two years will show how well they can do it.
"I think that the next 12 to 24 months are going to be a crazy ride of growth – probably something that you won’t see many brands in Australia go through, just based on what we can see in front of us," he says.
And finally, who actually is Elijah?
"I originally had a business partner and he wanted to call the brand RAQUEL & ELIJAH. His name was Mathew however he always loved the name Elijah," Raquel explains.
"Fast-forward a few months and Mathew no longer was part of the brand, and one day I was sitting at my desk and basically said 'Who is Elijah' as Elijah was never anyone, and the name stuck."
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