Entrepreneurs in the Heartland: Jill of For Strange Women

A year ago, I was struggling to find a new perfume to purchase that didn't smell like potpourri or wasn't full of mystery chemicals. A friend recommended I check out For Strange Women, an all-natural perfume brand based here in Kansas City. Like the name suggests, For Strange Women doesn't make typical scents. Instead, you can buy fragrances like horse, Winter Kitty™, coyote and campfire.

Jill McKeever of For Strange Women is one of the many Midwest entrepreneurs taking a passion and turning it into a successful business. Not a week goes by that I don't hear of some inspiring, creative project happening here in the Heartland. And as a female business owner, I'm continually inspired by so many other women doing great work in the worlds of art, craft, activism, business, and entrepreneurship.

Every Wednesday, I'll be sharing a new Q&A with an inspiring individual doing their work here in the Midwest. Today's feature is with Jill McKeever, owner of For Strange Women.

You quit your job as a graphic designer to launch your business full-time in 2009. How was the transition when you decided to turn your perfume-making hobby into a business? 

It was scary. I had no sure income. However, I had come from a not financially-stable past, so I figured if I could live with no money before, I could do it again. However, it was the beginning of the recession. Everyone thought I was crazy for quitting a very stable job, and starting a business based on perfume that smells like cats that I’m selling on the internet that people can’t smell. Everything about it just sounded insane.

I had no business experience and didn’t have a business plan. It's not like I came up with a fully branded product line and now I’m going to launch it and here are my projected earnings. It was more like me being creative and experimental and seeing where I was making money, where I wasn’t and adapting from there. For several years, it was just playing with things and paying attention.

I love your brand and the packaging design [which Jill creates herself]. How did the branding evolve?

I learned graphic design skills on the job while working for a school district. So the beginnings of my graphic design career were on school materials, which were very far from my actual design style. The For Strange Women brand is much more in line with my personal style. 

When I was in college, I didn’t take graphic design classes, I took classes like sculpture. Everything I made was super scary and dark and weird. Making this brand really took me going back to who I was. In the first couple of years, the brand was a little more sterile and corporate looking. I realized that I hate what a lot people do branding wise. A lot of companies are getting stuck with these trendy branding schemes, of say 2008 or 2012. But the For Strange Women brand is who I've always been and feels very timeless, even as other design trends come and go.

You mentioned that you're fairly introverted. As an introvert, how do you manage to effectively promote your business? 

My approach of marketing myself has been very passive. I’ve found that if I wait for people to come to me, am very open to what people want to do, and am true to who I am, I will always attract the right customers. I didn’t have to hire a PR agency or try to go out and tell my story. People still find me online and are interested in me partly because I am kind of a mystery. They want to find out more.

I had an article in Oprah's magazine, was a featured Etsy seller, and Kat Von D has found me and talked about me to her following. Big things have happened over the years, and I never once tried to make those happen externally. As a consumer, I don’t want everything pushed in my face. I don’t want to be overtly advertised to, so I try not to do it. If what you’re doing is really great and there’s some soul to it and there’s something really special about it, people will talk about it. They will come to you. It's about letting your work speak for itself. 

If what you’re doing is really great and there’s some soul to it and there’s something really special about it, people will talk about it. They will come to you. It’s about letting your work speak for itself.”

What is your creative process? Where do you get inspiration for new scents or products? 

So many places. Often, I’ll travel and come back with a new idea for a new scent. Sometimes there will be a new extract of a plant that wasn’t available before that I'll want to use.

Some of it is also customer led. If I get enough requests by customers, I'll make something new. For example, people were asking for a lower priced product line and I did that. People were asking for florals, and I did a floral line.  

You're from KC, what makes you stick around and do your business here?

I question that all the time, but the cost of living here is really low. When I started out, I could do this so much more easily here than say going to San Francisco. I feel a lot less pressure and free to make and do whatever I want. Freedom has always been one of my most treasured aspect of what I do. KC is getting better and better, while other cities are getting overcrowded and getting harder to find places to rent.

What do you have in store? What are you excited for product wise?

We just got through the busy season--from the Christmas season to Valentine's Day--so this is the first time I’ve had to rest, even though I'm still getting a lot of orders in. I'm currently starting to work on collaborating with some jewelry designers, such as Evil Pawn Jewelry, on perfume jewelry--things like perfume bottle necklaces and compacts. 

Packaging is the place I’m turning to because my fragrance line is pretty packed right now. When I started making my scents, there wasn’t much out there in an all-natural form, but now hundreds of people imitating that, and I’m not really interested in exploring in that because so many people are. 

Many people love that with perfume jewelry, you can wear and bring with you. The perfume then becomes both a physical and invisible piece because the perfume itself is invisible. There's a lot that can be done with it, so I'm excited about that.

Jill has collaborated with different jewelry makers over the years to make perfume jewelry, including this amulet necklace by  Gigi Moon .

Jill has collaborated with different jewelry makers over the years to make perfume jewelry, including this amulet necklace by Gigi Moon.

What are your longterm goals for the business?

I definitely don't want it to turn into this big company where I have a huge factory that supplies huge chains. I’ve had several opportunities to sell to folks, such as Urban Outfitters, but it would necessitate so many other things, and that’s just not the direction I want to go. I want to keep it small, and if it gets too much beyond that, it would be a different business entirely.

A long term goal is for me to start stepping away from the day-to-day operations and be able to focus on more creative work. I'm also interested in possibly supplying my own perfume extracts and exploring different aspects of the business. Eventually it will evolve a bit, but so far it's working the way it is. 

You can buy any of Jill's creations on the For Strange Women Etsy store, as well as from her studio and store in the Crossroads.