D.S. & Durga (husband and wife David and Kavi Moltz) make small batch perfume and cologne from premium-sourced raw materials in the tradition of old-school (as in pre-industrial-era) perfume makers.
As a fragrance designer, David has been immersed in scent since winning his first bottle of cologne at a summer camp raffle. Kavi, their packaging designer, studied and practiced architecture around the world before she knew she was destined for a different path. It was when the two met years ago in NYC, that they fell in love, and then decided to take on the world with their own company.
Making aftershaves for friends as gifts, the couple quickly realized that none of their friends in Brooklyn shaved (this was 2007, despite what you may have read, things haven’t changed that much), so they shifted their focus to perfumes and colognes, and received plenty of positive feedback from friends. Frustrated with their jobs and sunny with entrepreneurial optimism, they decided to have a go at turning their passion project into a full time profession.
I sat down with David and Kavi recently in their office space to learn why they began, how they became successful in an industry considered impenetrable for outsiders, and what it’s like running a company when you and your business partner are married with two kids.
“Perfumes are like little armchair travel worlds. You spray them and your mind is brought to mythical realms or even real places.”
You guys are the first partnership I’ve spoken with for By The Bootstraps – you’re married and you share a company. How did you decide it was a good idea to work together?
K.M.: We didn’t really decide anything (laughs). That’s true of a lot of our beginnings. When we first started, we didn’t know we were creating a business. At one point we were making gifts for friends, then people liked it, and then we were starting a business.
D.M.: It was her idea, “Why don’t we start a company?” We saw so many friends around us who were successful, we can never forget that we came out of that inspiring Brooklyn DIY scene. At that time everyone was making jewelry or clothes, so it felt like a possibility for us to do something that worked.
Within a couple weeks, Thrillist covered our product and it was – boom! – off to the races. There weren’t too many small batch, hand-made perfume companies back then so it was a story worth writing. I think that’s what propelled us early on.
How do you make it work?
K.M.: As far as working together, the reason it works well for us is that we don’t work in the same place. We have separate roles and separate offices… it would be too much. Work does bleed into our personal life a lot but we try to keep it separate as much as we can.
D.M.: I don’t physically get on a computer unless I’m at work. I have an old person’s view of that.
K.M.: What I like most about working together comes from my parents. They were both Doctors and worked together in a clinic a few days a week. They would come home and talk about office issues and patient issues, they had a common interest that wasn’t just the kids and I thought that was really nice. Most people who work separately have a bit of a disconnect when talking about the struggles of their job with their partners.
D.M.: We connect on a deep level outside of just the family. Also, there’s really a line in the sand about what our responsibilities are, and so we complement one another, even though we do argue sometimes, and it works for us.
Kavi, your parents clearly influenced your entrepreneurial spirit. What about your parents, David?
D.M.: There was zero mercantile-related thinking in my family. My parents were intellectual Jews. My father was a teacher and my mom wrote English textbooks. [Imitating his mother] “Fuck big business”… my mom was radical leftist in a way. Money was never thought of. Nothing business at all was really thought of.
Also, from a very young age, I always knew that I was going to be was a successful musician. I went to film school but we would tour in the band and then I moved to New York and we got signed and that whole thing happened from there. I had been slowly getting interested (obsessed) with perfumes over the years but then I really got into it. I didn’t realize this could be something real until Kavi suggested it.
The music business was failing at that time and then, from a purely artistic sense, I realized I could transition what I was trying to do and say and create in music into scents. And the same thing for Kavi, she could take what she wanted to build large scale and put that into packaging.
The business definitely came second after the passion but [turning to Kavi] maybe you had it?
K.M.: Well, I wanted to be an architect and then I was one and it sucked. As soon as there was a glimmer of this maybe working out and allowing us to be our own bosses, that was very appealing. My parents never had to ask for vacation time, they were just bosses.
That was always a dream of mine without having a specific path in mind. When this started to feel that way, I jumped on it.
Any early mentors that shaped you?
D.M.: In terms of mentors, I wouldn’t say anyone specific. It was more that it was all around us, all of these young people making things happen. The American dream felt like it was alive and well.
I worked at St. Helen’s café, started by the three guys that also own Saved (which is now the most famous tattoo place). I saw all those guys, just a little bit older than me, starting their own businesses. And across the street was also In God We Trust, Shana Tabor’s store. Then I also worked at Café Gitane. All of those places were a thoroughfare of artists, musicians, designers, that shit was everywhere. You can come here to New York and make something of yourself.
The American dream is, of course, a loaded statement for a lot of people but my parents grew up poor and Kavi’s family were all immigrants. Their work ethic was so strong, and combined with the opportunities here, that was our inspiration.
Kavi, your parents clearly had a strong impact on your outlook on work, what else did you gain from them?
K.M.: Even now in their sixties, [my parents] work way more than I do. I feel inferior sometimes. All of my Indian friends who have parents that were wildly successful, we’re the first generation that won’t do as well or better than our parents. [My generation] is taking vacations, going out to restaurants… my parents had a two and four year old and weren’t going out – they only worked.
And, it’s because they worked so hard that I’m here. We moved from The Bronx to the suburbs, we got a nicer house. For them, the direct input of more hours of work equals a direct output of more money.
Our generation and industry doesn’t necessarily work that way. It is more about a smarter strategy, networking, etc… not just the hours.
You took what seemingly was a side hobby and turned it into a business, what were the first steps in making that happen?
K.M.: In the very beginning our roles weren’t as defined. We were learning everything together. It’s a secretive industry and we had these old Victorian perfumes and bath recipes… anything we could get our hands on to learn more.
D.M.: We had to figure out the perfume business ourselves, which turned out to be very unique and clandestine compared to other industries. I mean, where we are right now, It’s unheard of for someone to teach themselves perfume and work with some of the companies that we’ve worked with.
K.M.: It’s a very European/ French industry and that “Oh, you taught yourself?” mentality, that can be a joke to them.
D.M.: We’d go and read these herb books, books about the old stillroom ladies of Victorian times and the pinnacle of the art at that time, and it all led us to perfumes. Then Kavi was like, “Let’s make this a business.”
K.M.: I was really excited about making something tangible and quick. Architecture at that time, like David was experiencing in music, was not doing well. We would design something and then building would stop because funding ran out. It was a frustrating process.
But with our scents, it was really nice to work on something that we had control over. We could make, sell and put it out there on a shelf.
So after you unwittingly chose an industry that was difficult to break into, what were your early challenges? Any dark nights of the soul?
K.M.: I feel like that period is going on right now for me (laughs). We’re on the verge of making something big but the stakes are higher right now.
D.M.: We haven’t taken money from anyone so far.
K.M.: Yeah, we haven’t yet and we’re dealing with bigger growth strategy business plans that can involve that. We never had a business plan before and now we need financial advice, business advice, a CFO…. all of those things sound crazy to us but now we’re at that scary part where a lot of major things are going on and we have to make bigger decisions.
D.M.: I think the regulatory restrictions were (and are) the scariest thing to me.
How do you decide on the bigger decisions now, versus the freewheeling early days?
K.M.: We could make all of our decisions back then just the two of us. Now every decision requires a lawyer. Bigger things though… they are all good things and all for the better, I don’t want to say scary because that sounds negative. It is exciting now but we are also at a point where the stakes are much higher. We’re making decisions now that are going to impact our future.
D.M.: I trust both of our abilities to keep it real though and I don’t fear that we’ll ever put something out that isn’t good. The corporate thing can get weird, you just have to know when things don’t feel right and when to say no.
K.M.: There is a trend in the beauty world right now where niche beauty companies are being bought out by larger corporations. The buyers are out there and they want to buy the small, cool, edgy, “Brooklyn” brands. Some of it is tempting because it will give you funding but you have to be careful of who you partner with. You can sell and there are a lot of benefits but you also lose a lot of decisions. For example, if something won’t be as profitable, the corporation can choose just not to put it out. We’re not really ready to give up that control. We need to make sure a partnership is really right before giving up anything less than 100% control.
What are some things that have given you guys momentum over the years besides that first Thrillist story?
K.M.: A few months after we started, Anthropologie wanted us to create a custom line for them. After they gave us our first check, we both were able to quit our jobs.
D.M.: We made them a capsule collection of just 4 perfumes.
K.M.: We don’t work with them anymore but it was a great starting point that allowed us to do this full time.
D.M.: Getting into Barney’s was also a huge deal for us. It’s the best niche fragrance floor in the United States. In the next few months we’re also finally upgrading our package to the standards that Kavi wants.
K.M.: In the past year, David’s expertise as a perfumer has also really blossomed. He just keeps getting better and that is exciting for me to watch.
D.M.: Thanks. Recently, I feel like I’ve had this great artistic flow. Also, scientists are discovering new molecules that no one has ever smelled or isolated in the history of mankind and that is insane. We owe so much to these scientists.
Is that where a lot of the innovation is happening?
D.M.: Chemistry applications – as in, how to apply perfume to different products - I think that’s a big part of innovation.
The regulations have a really big impact on how things smell though. Things will smell differently in 10 years and smelled differently 10 years ago. A lot of things are sensitizers, where 1% of 1% of a person is allergic, so we’ll have to cater to that, which is challenging. Carcinogens I obviously understand but sensitizers can be frustrating.
So, what’s next for D.S. & Durga?
K.M.: International growth and, in three years (hopefully), a store. For us to design a store, to be able to explain our product the right way to consumers in person, that’s the dream.
D.M.: Also, pushing perfume more into the arts. I recently did a music collaboration and a poetry thing, I’d love to do more of that.
K.M.: More cool collaborations for sure.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs?
K.M.: Do your own thing. If you don’t believe it and your heart isn’t in it, it’s not going to be good. Also, be nice. I can take this advice myself. I tend to be short with people when I am not getting things the way I want them or when I think my time is being wasted. But I'm starting to find that you get what you give and people are much more inclined to help me when I'm patient and kind.
D.M.: In terms of networking, my biggest advice to young people is to go work in the coolest coffee shop in the coolest neighborhood. You’ll just naturally meet people. I don’t think you can try to network necessarily.
Also, if you have style and taste, you can trust yourself and your endeavors. If you don’t have that, you can still be successful, you just have to put more time into building the craft and learning from others.