Always on the lookout for new opportunities, be it moving overseas, opening an art gallery or two, or importing fine art from Europe, Pennsylvania native Melanie Werner is no stranger to adventure and risk. But when her 25-year marriage ended and Werner found herself without a financial safety net, her decision to launch an innovative product design firm from scratch was truly gutsy.
“For someone in her early 50s who needed to establish financial security, starting this venture was really risky. I had no safety net but I kept moving forward because of the market validation. Nobody wishes for divorce, but at the end of the day, it’s okay. I’m self-sufficient and building a business; there’s no better position for a women to be in.”
After graduating with a degree in communications from Westminister College in Pennsylvania, Werner launched herself in the advertising and marketing world. She spent time at ad agencies and did PR for a national chain of hair salons before switching to the healthcare sector where she oversaw marketing for two different hospitals.
In her mid 30s, she took a sabbatical to raise her two daughters who had been adopted from Russia. But after a few years living in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, Werner longed for something more.
“I was feeling stalled out in terms of my career. At the same time, we were rather isolated and there was not much to do in terms of culture and enrichment. My grandparents were from the Ukraine and I had grown up in a home where people spoke multiple languages. I always loved art and history and, before the girls came, my husband and I had travelled a lot. That fostered my love of all things European.”
In 1998, an opportunity arose to purchase a property and Werner immediately knew where they would buy.
“Paris is just a feast for all your aesthetic senses — the architecture, the food, the culture, the language. I wanted to give my children the chance to experience living overseas. We bought an apartment in the city and I moved there with the girls. We lived bi-continentally, splitting our time between France and the US.”
Taking advantage of her surroundings, the Pennsylvania native enrolled in a fine arts continuing education program affiliated with the American University in Paris. But she always knew they would return to the Pittsburgh area so she started planning.
“I did some research and, focusing on the idea of opening a gallery in the US, I knew there was a niche for fine European paintings. There was clearly a gap in the market in the Pittsburgh area so I started sourcing some artwork and in 2001 opened my first gallery.”
Galerie Werner was located in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Werner grew the business and exhibited in prestigious art fairs in New York and Palm Beach. She opened a second location in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh and finally consolidated both into a single location: The Mansions on Fifth, a former steel baron mansion that had been converted to a boutique hotel.
Then in 2009, Werner’s life took a twist.
“My husband and I separated, and we had to sell the Paris apartment. I returned full-time to the US. It was an extremely tumultuous time, as you can imagine, after 25 years of marriage. And while the gallery was doing fine, it wasn’t enough, especially as the art market was in collapse. I absolutely needed to earn a living. I had to generate some real revenue to support my kids and sustain me for the rest of my life.”
What came next was definitely unexpected but perhaps not when considering Werner’s brand management and product placement experience. Once again, she started looking for gaps in the market. The eureka moment came one day while standing in front of her vanity.
“I was looking at my perfumes and got thinking about customization. In Paris, there had been so many artisanal fragrance boutiques and I knew there were others in cities like New York, but I had never seen a dispenser that allows the consumer to ‘dial-up and create’ their own scent.”
So of course she started researching and found indeed that nothing like her idea existed on the market. Werner’s next step was to hire a New York-based engineering firm to flush out the technology. It took a few years of R&D to figure it out and patent, but today Werner’s Mouse Trap Design LLC has a patented proof of concept and is in full production with MixByMe™ Fragrance Technology. The design comprises a metered pump technology, which enables the user to combine three or more liquids in varying concentrations, using dials, to customize any fragrance, lotion, pigment or other beauty product.
The 53-year old Werner has used a considerable amount of her own funds to develop the technology and eventually took on small investors before launching an equity raise to help take the concept further. Werner also engaged C-leveled, a Pittsburgh-based start-up accelerator and is in talks with some major fragrance brands with plans for in-store beta testing this year.
“We’ll be generating revenue in 2015. When you develop new technology, there’s a long lead time before profits start to come in. There’s very serious customer traction with potential for an amazing business.
“As a woman entrepreneur, I’ve faced a lot. It’s definitely not easy to overcome the ole boys’ network. I’ve had my work cut out for me, but now, thankfully, my biggest challenge will be managing success.”
- The old adage is true: everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much, so be prepared.
- “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Nora Ephron
- “If you don’t begin from where you are…there’s no way to reach where you want to be.” Unknown