The scent of success: Jo Malone

The British perfumer sold her self-named business to Estee Lauder in 1999 and left the brand for good in 2006. Now, as founder of Jo Malone London and Jo Loves, she tells Vision why she decided to start all over again

I wrote my life story recently, and I really felt ready to do it. It’s inspiring; it’s about a girl who grew up with absolutely nothing from a council estate and I think it’s really for people who want to follow their dreams. I found that people reading it can be anyone from an 80-year old grandmother to her 18-year-old granddaughter.

From the age of 12, it was up to me to put food on our table. I grew up on a council estate in Kent in the UK: my mum worked from Revlon, my dad was an artist. I’m very dyslexic, so I struggled at school, but when my mum used to make face creams I used to be able to make them without a formulation. I realised with this great sense of smell, I could sell face creams and support my family.

I didn’t get into it because I suddenly had this wonderful ambition to be a perfumer, I fell into it because it was a means of supporting my family. But as I did it, I realised that my nose was exceptional and now as I’m much older I realise that when life takes something away from you it will recompense in some unexpected way.

I think the fragrances and notes I loved when I was young are the ones I love now. The notes I don’t like, I turn my back on them – like you would with people, I suppose. So working with a grapefruit or orange blossom, I can spend days and days sitting with those notes. But vanilla? No.

Most entrepreneurs don’t start out with much. I couldn’t afford to go and sit in a laboratory, so when Estee Lauder first bought the company, they found that I did everything by memory. I’d do a drop of this, a drop of that, which was fine making 10 bottles, but not 1,000! It took us weeks and weeks until we had equivalent recipes for the scents.

When I pulled the first perfume for Jo Loves, Pomelo, my team was so disappointed. But when I smelt it, there was something in the heart of the fragrance that wasn’t up to scratch, so I went back and unpicked the whole thing. The whole team were ready to launch: the PR, marketing, packaging was done. It cost us £100,000 but far better that I got it right, because my instinct and the way I create fragrance – it’s my integrity.

I sold my business because I needed four things – deep pockets to expand, distribution, somebody who had heart and soul, and who understood the cosmetic industry – and that was Estee Lauder. They ticked all my boxes. But when it’s a merger or an acquisition, you have to figure out what you really want. It could get better, but there will be a transition period for you and your team where two are moving into one and it can be exhausting for everybody. Ultimately, a lot of people start businesses with their own name, and when they sell them they have to realise that part of their life will be with that business.

I don’t do anything special to find notes. I could be sitting in the local coffee shop or walking down a beach – in fact, Pomelo was created on the shores of Parrot Cay, and Smoked Pomelo was from riding my horse early in the morning in Montana. Suddenly the moment is there, and it must be the same for a poet or a writer – you’re interpreting life through a creative process.

I’ve been to Dubai many times, but it was my first time at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and I’ve loved every single minute of it. I did a wonderful talk, made new friends, went to the desert… and I’ll be back again. When I sit on an abra and go across to the markets, my mind is just taking in all the visual aspects – its not physically what I’m smelling, it’s what I’m seeing and translating back into smell.