Business owner Joyce Lian stumbled upon the world of fragrances at polytechnic, and a degree in chemistry cemented her love for creating perfumes. Now she owns her own fragrance company. It wasn‘t an easy journey – at one point, she had to take up a bank job because she couldn’t get a foot into the fragrance industry. She shares with Schoolbag what it took to chase her dream, and has advice for budding entrepreneurs.
When Schoolbag last spoke to Joyce Lian in 2017, she had completed a diploma in cosmetic science and perfumery, was pursuing a chemistry degree, and harbouring dreams of becoming a perfumer one day.
She talked of becoming an artist of smells, creating heady new fragrances for perfumes, shampoos, candles and even laundry detergent. Fast forward to 2023 and she is now the proud founder of her own fragrance company – Scent Journer – which has launched not one but four perfumes of her own making. We ask Ms Lian to share the experiences that have helped her to get to where she is today.
Schoolbag: Perfumery is quite a niche area. What was the journey like from graduation to starting your business?
A: “After completing my degree in chemistry at NUS (National University of Singapore) in 2018, I struggled to find a job in the fragrance industry, despite having more than two years of internship experience. It's such a niche industry. I ended up working as a formulation chemist and doing sales in a bank.
In 2021, I joined a venture building programme facilitated by NUS and Enterprise Singapore (ESG). This was my opportunity to learn how to be an entrepreneur and create my own way back into the fragrance industry. One of the industry mentors I met shared that a start-up is not meant to be an expensive hobby but about solving a problem consumers have. I conducted interviews with over 300 consumers to find out their pain points when it comes to fragrances. It was intensive, with some conversations as long as two hours. Out of these conversations, Scent Journer was born with an aim to capture the healing essence of nature in a perfume bottle.
Schoolbag: You had an interest in dermatology when you joined the polytechnic, before fragrances caught your attention. What lessons did you learn from following your passion?
A: My school experiences have been rich opportunities for learning. Singapore Polytechnic’s Diploma in Cosmetics and Perfumery was where I was first introduced to the world of fragrances and developed an understanding of how scents work. I recall fondly spending hours in the laboratory, sniffing at smell strips and trying to identify the different top, middle and base notes until I got headaches.
In university, I learned more about the science behind my craft. For example, analytical chemistry, where I got to explore tools and techniques like using the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer to decipher the components of different materials or the process of esterification – to create raw materials for fragrances.
When I look back, I also realised that my initial work experiences were not a distraction from my dream but were instead stepping stones for me. Working as a formulation chemist contributed to my product development skills and gave me the confidence to be independent and experiment with new ideas. As a relationship manager at a bank, it was also a steep learning curve for someone coming from a science background. But through the experience, I learned how to pitch ideas to potential customers, growing my interpersonal skills.
Schoolbag: What is it like to run your own company?
A: There will always be unpredictable challenges. That’s when your resourcefulness and perseverance come in. For example, we needed to procure raw materials for our research and development process. We had initially found a company that would supply a crucial alcohol ingredient to us but found out at the last moment that they were unable to fulfil our order. I had to reach out to my contacts in the industry and even my university professors for help. Eventually, with their help, we managed to find a company that would supply our needs. Then it took us over a 100 test bottles of experimentation to get the formulation right. It was a long process, working closely with a reputable fragrance house before my first bottle of perfume – Clouds in Heaven was born.
Schoolbag: Any advice for budding entrepreneurs, and on how to handle setbacks?
A: Having passion and perseverance in entrepreneurship is very important. As a start-up, you’re not going to recoup your investment, at least within the first year or so. That’s when you start to see your bank account depleting. And because most of your friends are working, it is hard for them to relate to your experience. It can get lonely at times, which is why it is important to have a strong network of fellow entrepreneurs who can encourage you.
Pursue something that you are interested in and enjoy. To me, perfumery is the perfect combination of science and art – the knowledge of chemistry complements the art of blending different materials together into a beautiful masterpiece. That is why I am so passionate about it and enjoy every part of the process.