How Richie Stapler and Bruno Lima founded Pura
The Founder Series is a monthly column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
In high school, I sat in the back of my biology class. As people worked on their assignments, I remember getting hit with the scent of peanut butter. I asked my friends around me if they smelled anything and everyone just looked at me like I was insane. When we turned in our papers at the end of class, I saw a girl at the very front of the room eating a peanut butter Twix.
I’m a super smeller, and in times like that, it can be pretty cool. When things don’t smell so great, though, it’s a lot less cool. You can probably imagine why.
My early years
I grew up surrounded by fragrance—my mom loved room sprays as air fresheners, and so I grew to love it too. It wasn’t until my teens, when my Dad gave me my first bottle of cologne, that I started wearing fragrance on my body.
That cologne wasn’t my favorite scent (sorry Dad), but it kicked off a semi-obsession with personal fragrance. Junior-high Richie became something of a connoisseur, wearing a different cologne almost every day. I like to advise people on what scents work best for them, what to buy and what to avoid, you know. It was a hobby, a passion on the side. Even years later, when I was called to serve an LDS mission in Brazil—a country home to some of the highest consumption of fragrance globally—and took the cologne with me, trading it with my Brazilian companions.
Throughout my youth and even through college, I nursed this blessing/curse relationship with scent, but it didn’t ever strike me as a career option. Personal fragrance was kind of where it started and ended for me.
The left and right sides of the brain
When I got a full-ride track scholarship to Utah Valley University, I kind of thought I had sealed the deal. Then I got injured pretty badly and was left to figure out what I wanted to do. Like a lot of kids entering college, I felt conflicted—I was really interested in building businesses and innovation, but my mom had inspired a deep love of design and creativity, too.
I knew if I were to pursue a business degree, the creative side wouldn’t be satisfied, and if I dove head-first into art school, the entrepreneurial side of my brain would be lost. I was lucky to find the Technology Management program at Utah Valley University, which let me emphasize art and visual communications. I was even able to tack a minor in entrepreneurship on. It was really an incredible opportunity to meld all my interests.
While I loved my classes, the real fun started after I got a job at the entrepreneurship institute filming their lecture series. I had a tiny software startup called Vinteo which allowed Android users to create and use vintage video filters―something that wasn’t a possibility at the time. Taking this new position with the institute was strategic—videographers got to walk with the speakers from the parking lot and mic them for the show. It was one-on-one time that other students had to be specifically selected for and I was getting paid to do it―to grow my network and pitch my startup.
I first heard the term “the Internet of Things” or IoT at one of these lecture series, and that’s what Pura would be founded on a few years later. Nest Thermostat, a smart thermostat that self-adjusted, had just sold to Google for $3.2 billion, and it was clear that space was (no pun intended) heating up. I was living with my in-laws in their basement apartment and I decided to bring the concept to the dinner table.
After explaining the concept of IoT to my family, I asked my mother-in-law: “What is something in your life that could be impacted by this?” just conversationally. She said, “I want my whole house to smell good. Could you do that through an app?” At this point, my deep knowledge of the fragrance industry, and really, my passion for it, rushed back in. No one had integrated tech and fragrance like that before and I really felt like I could be the one to do it.
Picking a co-founder
Turns out, I could do it, but not alone―I needed a partner. I met Bruno Lima through a guy who’d just moved into our neighborhood and had recently become friends with. Portuguese is his first language and he welcomed me into his big group of Brazilian buddies. Bruno was one of his good friends and during our very first time hanging out, I knew something was different about him.
If it sounds like a love story, it’s because it kind of is one—he also liked fragrances, and he was so business smart. Because he had moved from Brazil when he was nine years old, he had to learn to hustle in ways that most people will never experience and that was great for our company. Bruno also had a great understanding of the manufacturing world and I had an app startup, so naturally, I spent most of my time zoning out any of my classes dealing with manufacturing while he spent his undergrad learning about supply chain management, materials, outsourcing, etc. Bruno was Pura’s other half and I couldn’t have built Pura without him.
When I told him about my conversation with my mother-in-law, we started going back and forth on how a smart diffuser could work. It really felt like the perfect idea, and as it happens, it was a pretty good one.
Blood, sweat, tears, and… credit card debt
In 2014, both Bruno and I were short on money. Not only were we both still college students, but Bruno had his second child on the way and I, newly married, was expecting my first that following year. Neither of us had money to flash around for a new venture and we started the development process backward― designing the outside of the diffuser and then trying to make the technology fit in the casing.
When we started entering competitions we faced a lot of pushback from the judges. Nearly all of them were men and almost all the feedback was, “there’s no industry for this, go do something else.” All that feedback went out the window at the end of the competitions, however when women from the audience would flock to our table, asking us when we’d be done with development and where they could buy our products. We knew we had something then, even if we weren’t winning competitions.
We spent four years developing our final pivot, a smart plug-in design that works in the home. The rest of the Pura brand was financed almost entirely by loans—Bruno refinanced his house, we both sold our cars and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and didn’t pay ourselves for years, all to build up an idea that had been shot down repeatedly.
In 2016, One of the largest fragrance houses in the world, a conglomerate with massive influence in the industry, took interest in us. Well, really, we took interest in them. They were developing scents for the biggest designer brands, and we had a few rough sketches of what the outside of a diffuser might be able to look like. Taking risks had worked out alright for us in the past, and I didn’t feel like we had much to lose by sending emails to many of the company’s executives.
After a lot of back-and-forth (yes, they responded to us!) and an attempt to snatch our deal by one of their major competitors, we received an investment of $500,000 to manufacture our product. They were also the developers of our first line of Pura fragrances and helped us create the proof of concept we needed to attract angel investors and firms.
By June 2018, we were finally ready to go consumer-facing. We had secured a spot at the Parade of Homes, placing our diffusers in one of the homes. It was an awesome opportunity to round out the home experience through fragrance, and we just jumped on it, even if we didn’t feel super qualified. We might not have looked qualified either—we were set up in the garage, with a Costco table and cheap tablecloth, selling the scents and smart diffuser they’d just experienced in the home.
Bruno and I would take turns answering questions and fixing crises while the other was selling the product. We made 500 diffusers and planned to have them last through the rest of the year. We sold them all in a week and a half.
Pura was a passion project that altered the future of an entire industry, and years later I get excited just talking (and typing) about the work we’ve done and that we’re doing. I love technology. I love creating businesses and entrepreneurship, but Pura feels a lot bigger than that to me.
The net we can cast is enormous because our focus isn’t on some business concept or design idea, it’s one of the five senses. Scent is something that anyone can relate to—regardless of gender, geography, age, taste in music, you name it, everyone likes things that smell good. Think about it for a minute and you’ll realize that the scent industry goes back to literally the beginning of time—Egyptians were wrapping up mummies and burying them with special scents in 3300 BC, and even Jesus was brought frankincense and myrrh.
Out of the five senses, scent is the only one that communicates directly to the cortex of your brain, unedited. If you’ve ever been randomly hit with a scent that sends you spiraling into flashbacks of your grandmother’s house, your crush, or your biology classroom in high school (peanut butter, every time) then you know that firsthand.
Scent psychology is powerful, and until us, no tech companies had ever tapped into it. Ultimately, I think what made finding funding and support so difficult in the beginning was what really helped us gain traction in the later stages: we weren’t (and still aren’t) a fragrance company. As a technology company, people within the fragrance industry seemed to be a bit wary of us. We worried about finding a space for this product, even though we knew people wanted it.
Eventually, we created our own slice of the industry using the Keurig model: Keurig built the fancy coffee maker, and partner with other brands, like Folgers, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, for the refill pods, and we’re doing the same thing. We designed Pura to be the Keurig of the fragrance industry, the platform that makes your favorite scents from already-trusted bands available in all your spaces.
Our persistence is truly what set Pura apart, I’m sure of it. Against a lot of odds, we were able to keep climbing the rungs, and now we’re the first tech company in fragrance diffusers.
Utah’s “seven-year overnight success”
Since that summer 2018 “aha” moment, we’ve seen over 1,000 percent growth year over year. We started as a two-person company in my in-laws’ basement, burning out, and struggling to stay afloat. We’re big enough now, earning enough that we were fortunate enough to not let anyone go, even during Covid. Instead, we hired more incredible people, making the Pura team of over 100 people strong.
Pura as a company, and myself as an individual have Utah to thank for much of our success. This state is visually incredible—there are not many places where you can go skiing, drive for a few hours and end up hiking in a place that looks like Mars—but its support of entrepreneurial pursuits, especially by the universities, is what really helped to push Pura over the edge.
I’ve heard talk about Pura being an “overnight success.” While it’s flattering that anyone thinks we could build anything like this so quickly, we prefer the term “seven-year success.” Nothing like this happens easily, or without the constant support of mentors, friends, communities, spouses, and families. We started with a scrappy, college student mindset, and we still run that way—we save our money, keep our heads down, and stay focused on the big picture.
When Bruno and I started, we were willing to sacrifice money, time, and our credit scores on what felt like a pretty distant success story. Now, we get to work every day on the actual future of an entire, global industry. It’s been a rollercoaster for all of us and our families, but I wouldn’t have chosen any other path to Pura.
**This article was ghostwritten by Jacqueline Mumford for Utah Business