The beauty industry is bursting with newcomers. Formerly reserved for a handful of legacy brands, the $445 billion industry is in the midst of a renaissance, welcoming indie brands fueled by social media success and making way for a new guard of industry leaders (see: Kylie Jenner and Huda Kattan, two beauty moguls born and bred on Instagram now raking in the millions).
Jana Blankenship, the founder behind clean beauty brand Captain Blankenship, is holding her own—the indie brand, which started in Blankenship’s kitchen, is now an international company sold at Sephora and over 1,600 Target stores across the country.
Blankenship started her career in art history but the transition to natural beauty tycoon was, well, a natural one. “I was that little kid who loved to go outside into our garden and pick roses and pine needles and make potions—I was always concocting things,” she says. Soon, she got her hands on the hard stuff. “My mom was a fashion designer and she would go to these couture shows and come home with all of these perfumes—it was the 80s and they were all super toxic [formulas] but had really captivating scents, like Obsession and Opium,” Blankenship explains. “My mom knew my love of chemistry so she would let me mix them into my own signature scents.”
She still has one of the very first fragrances she ever mixed, “Scents of Hawaii,”—a heavy concoction with a handwritten label in a Giorgio perfume bottle. “Thirty years later, it still smells like Giorgio,” she laughs. “I think I could bury that thing and thousands of years from now it would still smell the same.”
Eventually, mixing all those synthetic fragrances got to Blankenship, making walking through the perfume counters at the mall a nauseating experience. But while living in San Francisco and working in a gallery post college, she rediscovered her childhood love of natural scents. “One day I walked into a friend’s store in Berkeley and saw this beautiful sterling silver compact filled with solid perfume that smelled like jasmine, blood orange and grapefruit,” she recalls. “It smelled like the jasmine that was blooming outside—it just awakened something [in me].”
Blankenship was so taken, she tracked down the perfumer. “Mandy Aftel. At the time, I didn't know anything about her but she is like a rockstar in the world of natural perfumery,” Blankenship says. She signed up for an essential oils class with her new career crush and essentially, never looked back. “It's been a wild ride,” she muses. “Looking back on it, it's just wild how this one moment of smelling this perfume really changed my whole life.”
Here, Blankenship talks about how she turned her childhood obsession into an international brand.
Macaela MacKenzie: At what point did you think this hobby might become a business?
Jana Blankenship: I started out making natural perfumes just for myself and family and friends. At the time, I was shopping for beauty products at Whole Foods and realizing that even there, a lot of the products that you would think were really simple had incredibly lengthy ingredient lists with things that you couldn't recognize. From the beginning, my ideal with Captain Blankenship was to make really beautiful products using only organic ingredients with lots of integrity, that were as simple as possible but with really lush, experiential scents.
I was continuing to work as a curator and just doing this on the side when my best friend from childhood, who had started a really cool store in San Francisco called Gravel and Gold, said she’d like to start carrying some of my products. So I drew a logo, scanned the artwork, put a label on my products and then decided—in the most backwards way possible, without a business plan—that I was going start a business.
MacKenzie: This is the point where a lot of budding entrepreneurs feel stuck at a crossroads—how did you make the decision to take Captain Blankenship from a side-hustle to a full-time career?
Blankenship: My husband and I had decided to move back to the East Coast in 2012 and I applied for a full-time job at my favorite museum in the country, the Dia:Beacon. Then I found out I was pregnant. I just realized I couldn't wear so many hats—I didn't want to wear so many hats any more. So I decided to pour my energy into the business and growing a family.
During that time, we started working with Urban Outfitters and we did our first Birchbox order and it just kept growing. In 2015, we started working with Sephora—that was the moment I realized we needed to hire a manufacturer. Now in 2018, we just launched an exclusive line at Target called Sailor.
MacKenzie: What was the hardest part about that transition?
Blankenship: It's really hard to find a good manufacturer that you trust. You’re used to making everything yourself—when you have that kind of control and put so much love into it, the process of going from small batches to batches that are in the thousands is really tricky.
Our first manufacturer was a real disaster. They ended up not making the products the way that we wanted them—they didn't smell the same, so that was really tricky for us. When you go to the customer who's been using this product for years and now it feels and smells different, that's a huge deterrent.
MacKenzie: At this point, you’re the owner of a full-fledged female-run business—but still a first-time entrepreneur. How did you make sure you were being an advocate for your brand and sticking up for your original vision?
Blankenship: I think the biggest thing with the manufacturers is quality control—you need to really be diligent because these mistakes are huge, especially with a small business where you rely on customer loyalty.
Maintaining the integrity of ingredients was the most important thing for me, because if we didn't have that, then the brand wasn't my vision. Captain Blankenship has always been about using the best organic ingredients and really unique scents—without that the brand doesn't really have anything [unique]. So, I’m incredibly diligent about working with the manufacturer to make sure everything is absolutely perfect and there's nothing lost in translation.
MacKenzie: Clean and green beauty brands have garnered a certain amount of trendiness lately. Do you worry that the sea change in the industry will mean greater competition for Captain Blankenship?
Blankenship: I didn’t have a business background before starting a business and had no experience in the beauty industry. Coming into it, I thought this would be cutthroat and competitive but instead, what I found, is that the green beauty community is made up of people like me. Everyone has kind of come to this out of a real passion for green beauty—for the ingredients and for the ethos of what we're doing. Most of us started doing this in our kitchens, so it's an incredibly supportive community.
I think it's actually really amazing to see what's out there—how many brands are trying to make sustainable choices. I think a lot of the larger beauty companies are realizing that they can't continue the way they're going. We're seeing a lot of big chain stores looking for green beauty, so I'm hopeful.