Maker Profile: Heather Sielaff, Owner of OLO Fragrance - Portland, OR
Hi Heather! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a self taught perfumer and the founder and owner of OLO Fragrance. I'm originally from NC but I've been in Portland, OR for 18 years. I'm into cats, pizza and keeping things low key.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I was a horrible student! I did well in the classes I was interested in but I couldn't seem to pull in together if I found the subject matter boring or hard to understand. I spent half of my high school experience coming up with elaborate schedules to be able to miss the maximum class time without penalty and still be able to graduate. I was never skipping class to get into trouble, I just always had other things I'd rather be doing. I had a job (The Gap) working 25 hours a week and was also an editor on the yearbook so those were my priorities. I liked working but sitting in class was tedious to me.
I was in and out of college. I was paying for it myself so I hesitated to explore too much because it was so costly. I had an interest in anatomy and physiology so I decided to go to massage school. My intention was to become licensed and then work my way through college getting a degree in something in the medical field. I ended up enjoying the practice of massage therapy so I pursued that career full time and never completed my college degree. I worked in various massage modalities and energy work, co-owned a wellness center and taught Gyrotonic for many years before aromatherapy classes led me to perfumery as a hobby. I still maintain my license even though I no longer practice.
What led you to begin OLO Fragrance? Were you always interested in the fragrance realm?
I used essential oils for many years in my practice. I enjoyed learning about their purported health benefits and I thought they smelled nice but I can't say I was always interested in fragrance. I worked with oils for ten years before it even occurred to me to blend them with the intention of making perfume. At some point I was looking for a new hobby. I wanted something creative that didn't involve tons of physicality because my job was so demanding in that regard. Perfumery seemed like the perfect creative outlet for me. I already had a small library of essential oils so I ordered some aroma chemicals, studied up and got to blending. I made Nationale 6/7 for my friend May's store about six months later and OLO was born.
How do you create your scents? Do you draw inspiration from experiences?
Each scent is inspired by something different. When I first started it was definitely an exercise in recreating the feeling of a specific place. More recently I seem to be drawing ideas from isolating a single ingredient I am interested in working with and building the concept around it. I would have never set out to make a 'sandalwood' perfume when I first started but I've been inspired to make more perfumes highlighting my favorite ingredients. I like to make scents that are comfortable to wear. My focus is currently less on specific concepts and more on showcasing the oils I continually gravitate to in my work.
How long after starting your brand did you open a storefront?
I think it was around the five year mark that we opened "Milk Milk Lemonade". The original storefront was a different concept. We carried OLO along with jewelry, housewares, t-shirts and other apothecary lines. OLO production was in the back. We tried to keep the identities a little separate. Ultimately, we decided we were spending too much time sourcing products for the store and neglecting the perfume business. We decided it made more sense to change the store name to 'OLO' and focus on our brand. We now use the store to showcase limited edition products, things customers can only buy in our store here in Portland along with the original OLO line and our house line, SIELA. It's becoming more rare to travel and find items not available online. I enjoy watching customers find something special that maybe no one else has back in their hometown.
What drew you to brick and mortar and what have you learned from your experience thus far
There was actually no plan to open a brick and mortar. I walked past the space one day on the way to the post office and saw it was for rent. I was casually looking for a work space but I really only called because I've always liked that little building and I'm nosy! I met with the landlord and it was affordable so I signed the lease. I talked with my husband and we decided to take a leap together. He quit his job and came on to OLO full time. The space needed a lot of work and we didn't have a lot of money so we had our work cut out for us. Jonathan was really great at communicating our design ideas and Matthew Williams built out an amazing space for us.
I like having a brick and mortar because it gives me a chance to meet customers in a comfortable environment as opposed to shows which can be really hectic. I get to see what products resonate and why. It's a great testing ground for new scents. I can see what is working before I release it to a larger market.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
I connect a lot with customers in the store and on Instagram. That's the only social media outlet I'm kind of active on. I used to blog more but I'm just too busy now. I don't like constantly posting content even though I know it's what businesses are supposed to do these days. I personally don't care for the whole 'my life is perfectly curated' vibe. I do like interacting with people but I'm avoiding bringing too much of my personal life to the OLO Instagram account these days. OLO is my brand but I am not a brand. The business is entirely run by two people and we are married so we live and breath this. It can be difficult to maintain a healthy work/life boundary when you are basically the whole business but I'm trying!
Why do you think it's important to shop small and support local?
I think it's important to support your community. We are all a reflection of who we choose to interact with and the places we live and breathe. It's important to be aware of where your money is going and shopping locally makes things a little more transparent.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with your work?
Lack of time to experiment. All day to day operations for storefront, online and wholesale are managed by me and Jonathan. This allows us to not overextend in terms of cash flow which enables us to make business decisions based on desire as opposed to desperation. But, this also means we are busy all day, every day with production. We've chosen to keep OLO very small but that makes free time to explore a bit of a luxury.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Well, it's not like men have made a great show of support to us as a group so women supporting women is really the only option for us. I do think it's important that white women remember that we need to be much better at offering support to trans women, to black women and other women of color. There are marginalized women that white feminism tends to leave out of the conversation. It's important for us to really listen to their needs and advocate for them in a more meaningful way.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
I interact with a lot of creative women that are artists and small business owners so it's really difficult to choose!
Britt Howard, owner of Portland Garment Factory and Howard Woman, is someone I admire. She founded and operates a manufacturing studio employing local women and she's a genuinely kind and positive force in our creative community here in Portland.
Karen Walrond is a Texas based author, speaker and photographer. She really embraces the beauty around us and the power that we as individuals possess to make our communities and our selves flourish. I appreciate her humor but more importantly, her optimism. Listening to her and reading her words reminds me to strive to be an actively better person.
What have you learned from your experiences that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
I've learned to trust my instinct. It is easy to get caught up with what other people are putting out there and pressuring myself to do it all. I've learned to listen to my inner voice and put my energy toward what fulfills me. Projects typically don't work out when I'm doing them just for money or attention. work best when I'm patient and work on new things when the mood hits me. All these years having OLO have taught me to not chase "success" because it will never satisfy me the same way as seeing a perfume completed just because it is what I want it to be. Whenever that is! Patience. I've definitely learned patience.
How do you deal with moments of self-doubt?
If a new situation scares me it usually means moving forward with it is the kind of growth I need. I do what I like and trust it will find it's audience even if I'm a little self conscious about it. Not everyone is going to connect what I make and that's okay. I don't put unreal expectations on myself. At the end of the day if I'm creating what I like and making a small group of people have a better day then I'm good.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I'm trying to learn Portuguese. It's not going very well!
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
Portland has a lot of parks to choose from when you need some fresh air and exercise.The International Rose Test Garden and Laurelhurst Park are my favorite places to walk around, smell plants and decompress from work.
I try to visit Loyly at least once every other week to get a massage. I sauna much more frequently. It's a really relaxing space and an inexpensive way to treat yourself.
Luce is once of my favorite restaurants. You can go all out on a big dinner with friends or just stop in for a snack. A few small plates and a drink makes for a perfect afternoon break.
Cloudforest is our friend Sebastian's chocolate cafe. They produce chocolate bars in house as well as drinking chocolates, coffee and baked goods. They also made an OLO chocolate bar with bergamot and cardamom!