How Beauty Start-Ups Are Transforming The Industry
Female-led unicorns are almost as mythical as the prestigious tech-world name for billion-dollar startups, with a recent report showing only 14 of the 132 venture-backed unicorns in the US had female founders. In Asia, the numbers are even lower.
One notable exception is the beauty industry, with women entrepreneurs seeing huge growth over the past few years, and several startups entering the unicorn club.
One of them is Chrisanti Indiana. Her startup Social Bella, best known for beauty e-commerce platform Sociolla, secured US$40 million in a Series D round of funding at the end of 2019, led by Singapore fund Temasek, securing its status as "aspiring unicorn".
The company, which Indiana founded with her two partners in Indonesia, sells coveted cosmetics from more than 140 brands, with 3,000 products available. She has also launched an online journal packed with useful guides to beauty and lifestyle aimed at a Southeast Asian audience.
Indiana has been compared to Glossier’s Emily Weiss, who is American. Both women reshaped the beauty industry of their native countries, changed perceptions of female-led startups and fought against sexism in an industry that initially looked down on the beauty market.
When Weiss first pitched the idea for Glossier, which is now worth US$1.2 billion, to investors, the common response, she claimed, was “Oh, beauty, cute!”. Kirsten Green, the founder and managing director of San Francisco–based Forerunner Ventures, was the exception. Green has spoken publicly about how the momentum that women such as Weiss has created in the world of beauty startups forced investors to re-evaluate what has historically been considered a niche women’s space.
And so they should, given that online beauty brands are on track to grow to US$750 billion by 2024. These numbers, combined with the fact that beauty—far more than fashion—is a very female-run world, is giving women a way to break into the still male-dominated tech world.
“As beauty-tech becomes increasingly popular it will certainly be good for women [entrepreneurs]. I think it is natural that it is driven by a female majority,” says Indiana. “Beauty is a very unique category that needs special knowledge and skill to really understand it. The role of a real beauty enthusiast, a person with sensitivity to beauty, is crucial in creating and developing the right product for the right consumer.”
Beauty brands have never previously been considered companies that are capable of changing the world. But they are certainly changing the dynamics of who’s in the boardroom. With Sociolla on course to reach unicorn status by the end of 2020, Indiana understands that more than most.
She first got the idea for Sociolla when she noticed a gap in her own bathroom cabinet. With products focused on what Southeast Asian women want, the brand brings together make-up and skincare from around the world that meet the needs of women from the region where she was raised. “Sociolla came from a personal need,” she says. “I believe beauty shopping and the whole experience of finding the right beauty content, product or even inspiration should not be painful. Beauty should be accessible to anyone."
The beauty industry is packed with major players who are more than a little intimidating to take on. From Estée Lauder to L’Oréal, beauty companies pack a major punch, many of them with offices all over the world and brand ambassadors from the upper echleons of Hollywood. So how have companies such as Sociolla been able to stand alongside major global brands and transform the face of the entire beauty industry?
“What we are doing is help the industry grow even faster,” says Indiana. “We can do it because we understand our consumers. We are not only e-commerce. We created an entire ecosystem on our platforms to connect our consumers and brands and give them end-to-end experience.”
What we are doing is help the industry grow even faster. We can do it because we understand our consumers. We are not only e-commerce. We created an entire ecosystem on our platforms to connect our consumers and brands and give them end-to-end experience
— Chrisanti Indiana
For beauty startups such as Sociolla, Glossier and Drunk Elephant, marketing and tone of voice is almost as important as the products themselves. Aimed at women of all ages, Sociolla needs to sound authoritative but also fun, a cross between Instagram, a beauty magazine and your best friend.
“Marketing and tone of voice should be a tool for brands to deliver the right message and build a meaningful relationship with the consumer,” says Indiana. “Product quality and functionality are the number one priority, but definitely in this industry where you can get hundreds of variations of a certain product, how you market it is also key. Always aim for the best product possible and the right branding and marketing strategy.”
As a result of savvy marketing and well-made, affordable products that explain what they do in simple terms, startup beauty platforms have taken off, and changed the way women are seen by venture-capitalists and in the boardroom. “I can’t speak for the whole industry, but in beauty-tech, I am happy to see a lot of appreciation and support given to female entrepreneurs and talents,” says Indiana.
And while Indiana maintains that the most important thing female entrepreneurs can do is mentor younger women coming up behind them, she also has broader tips for any younger women hoping to launch a beauty startup.
“Firstly, make sure you pump up your energy and confidence levels,” she says. “It’s very important because it will impact on how you deliver your message and how people receive that. And remember that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, success always comes as a result of your work. So never lose focus of your aim and always work hard toward your goals. But the most important factor is to be honest with yourself and stay true at the core of you. Changes are inevitable. If you stay firm and true to yourself, the world can spin around you but never spin you.”