Perfumer pivots to distill expansion out of disruption

SEATTLE, Wash. – Fragrance is a journey for perfumer Molly Ray – a highly personalized itinerary begun in her grandparents’ home before meandering the world, lingering in hotels and airports and, now, alighting in a prestigious retail space in downtown Seattle’s Pacific Place. Her business, Molly Ray Parfums, will open the new boutique Nov. 1 as an expression of Ray’s odyssey and her desire to help others experience scent, its memories and connections in their own life-travels. Assisting in this part of the journey is Ellie He, a business advisor who also specializes in international trade for the Washington Small Business Development Center office in Seattle.

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 40 advisors in more than two dozen communities across the state working to help owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. Advising is confidential and is provided at no cost to the client through a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and Washington State University. Additional support is provided by funding partners including other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies and business and civic organizations.

Essence of early experience

“I have always loved the way fragrance has the ability to transport you to another place and time,” said Ray. “I moved a lot when I was young, but time spent in my grandparents’ home was consistent and comforting.” It also was redolent of fresh laundry, all-day coffee, baked cakes and pies, and her grandmother’s single dressing-table bottle of perfume – Trésor – saved for church and special occasions.

Those smells evoke sweet emotions: “Our sense of smell is so strong, science has shown that we actually have a feeling from a fragrance before we have a thought,” Ray said. With this understanding, she started to buy perfumes as souvenirs of her youthful travels and, later, to take along a signature scent for each trip to better imprint the experience.

Career circles back to scent

Ray achieved college degrees in communication and sustainable business and worked in corporate hotel marketing and sustainability on both sides of the country. She became the head of corporate sustainability for Office Depot while raising her teenage son. But her interest in fragrance lingered.

“I started researching how I could become a perfumer,” she said. “I studied online, bought home kits, blended and experimented, made scents for my friends and my son.” She eventually traveled to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France to pursue a course in natural perfumes.

In 2016, she began her business and, in 2020, opened a storefront and perfume laboratory in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Her products were available locally, including at two SeaTac airport retailers. Workshops welcomed clients to blend their own scents. She created custom fragrances for hotels, restaurants, weddings and more.

Sales stoppered by pandemic

But four years in, Covid-19 threatened to waylay her progress.

“Airport sales were most of my business,” Ray said. The pandemic dried up travel and SeaTac shopper traffic. “Small business owners felt confusion and panic,” she said. “We wondered how to hang on … and for how long?”

During an online webinar hosted by the U.S. Small Business Administration about pandemic survival, Ray inquired about Washington SBDC advisors near her and was put in touch with Ellie He.

“Ellie didn’t have all the answers either, but she was encouraging and reassuring,” Ray said. “She has put me in touch with other people and resources that have made a huge difference in my journey as a business owner.”

“Molly is a very driven and diligent business owner,” He said. “It is exciting that her woman-owned small business has the courage and opportunity to open in Pacific Place during this pandemic.”

“We used this pandemic time to explore,” Ray said. “Ellie has a way of helping me prioritize. I developed a strategic plan, which has let me see what’s working and what’s not. And Ellie has access to great databases – about consumers and markets, including international markets.”

Resilience, cooperation a successful blend

Indeed, expanding sales in North America, in particular Canada, has prompted much of the strategy, work and preparation Ray has put into her business during the pandemic lull.

Canada requires package labeling to be in English and French. Volumes must be listed in milliliters as well as ounces, and labels must include where a product is made and how it is to be used.

So Ray revamped her packaging; with a background in corporate sustainability, she determined to include environmentally friendly materials. She hired another small business owner – a young mom – to research the best, preferably local sources for glass bottles, boxes, stoppers, labels and more.

“I still work with her,” Ray said. “During the pandemic, it was good to strengthen these woman-owned small-business partnerships. I am really happy with our end product that came out of a crisis.”

Molly Ray Parfums refreshed its online presence with the aid of an area college design-student intern. Another local company optimized the website’s search engine function. Together, the improvements have increased digital traffic to Ray’s site by 300 percent in one year.

“Molly seized the opportunities that came out of Covid to actively pivot,” He said. “She exemplifies the resilience of small businesses in a time of pandemic.”

New funding, location infuse optimism

To help Ray implement and navigate this repositioning for growth, He steered her to online courses, including one on marketing and one on profit mastery. Ray received one federal pandemic stimulus loan and three grants via STEP (State Trade Expansion Program). She is applying for a fourth STEP grant and has hired a part-time bookkeeper in the past month.

More associates will join her journey, as she is in the process of hiring staff for the expanded retail and workshop space – 1600 square feet compared to 200 square feet – and intends to mentor another student intern, this one as an apprentice perfume maker.

“I have gotten direction, advice and support that has led me to a place where I am ready to hit the ground running,” Ray said. “Through all of this, I have felt that I had a home base with the Washington SBDC, where I could huddle for support and encouragement” – and prepare for the next leg of the journey.

By Cynthia King, for the Washington SBDC

Learn more about Molly Ray Parfums at