What is it like running your own beauty brand?
Do you have the guts to start your own skincare brand in this crowded and competitive cosmetic market? Fern Lee and Moroccan-born Mehdi Elaichouni did, and have grown their Singapore-based brand, ANIA, since 2016, offering a curated selection of skincare and multi-use products like argan oil, masks and face mists for the busy and discerning client.
In the midst of doing a major rebrand from ANIA, that includes new packaging and a revamped Instagram account, the co-founders took the time to speak candidly to Buro on the challenges faced by a small business and the skills and tenacity needed to grow their brand. Both martial arts practitioners — Elaichouni practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu while Lee does muay thai — find out how they bring their combined fighting spirit to their business.
AUDIO EXCLUSIVE: Listen to our full conversation with Mehdi Elaichouni and Fern Lee, co-founders of ANIA.
The audio file should play automatically on a desktop. Turn up your volume. For mobile users, click on the 'Listen in browser' button.
Audio files aren't playing automatically?
Click on the play button (desktop) or 'Listen in browser' button (mobile) below. Also check your internet connection.
What is the first question someone should ask themselves before they start their own brand?
Mehdi Elaichouni (ME): I'll be lying to you if I say it's only one question. There are probably hundreds of questions you have to ask yourself before jumping into creating your own skincare brand, but I would say the main ones are around your expertise.
Do you know the skincare industry as a whole? Have you worked in marketing? Do you understand the concepts of business and distribution? But I think the main question to ask yourself apart from the hygiene factors — because if you don't have them, it's going to be quite hard — is do you have the passion for skincare and for the beauty industry as a whole. You also need to have stamina. You're going to jump on a very long journey so always ask yourself whether you have what it takes to go on three, five, ten years building a brand and investing your resources and your time to try to build something.
What is the kind of time commitment, a person would have to make?
Fern Lee (FL): You need to go back and ask yourself why are you doing this. Is it just as a hobby or to supplement your main source of income? Or is it something you really want to grow and build into a brand? If it's a part-time thing, then I guess you can commit a couple of hours of work. If you're planning to grow the business into something really big then you can expect to commit all your time, any time, every time.
What are the unexpected skills you didn't realise that you needed?
ME: For Fern and myself, we've come from an advertising background, and we've worked for big skincare brands. But it has been more from the marketing perspective and not from the product development perspective or from an operational perspective. So, I would say we knew one percent of what needs to be known. It gave us a very good base from marketing, advertising and how to build a brand. Fern takes care of most of the operational side of the business such as dealing with packaging from Shanghai.
How long does it take from the first moment, one or both of you have an idea for a product to the point when it is rolled out on the shelves or in your online store?
ME: I think it depends on the nature of the product, so if it's a single ingredient product, something we can bring in its raw form, like argan oil or our new argan oil light, which is our lighter version, the process is going to be faster. Of course, we'll have to create the labels and source for the containers and boxes. So it goes through a few creative briefs. We need to work with our art director, create a product page on our website, then do preparation for the launch of the product — from briefing emails to prepping social media, to actually briefing our retailers as well.
One thing I didn't mention that comes before that is making sure that we bring in the right product. So we speak with our customers and our brand ambassadors — even involving our retailers in the process. I think the advantage of us as a smaller brand, as compared to L'Oréal, is we can be faster and more agile with what people are looking for, being in touch with them on the ground. Because we are a small brand, we are very close to the ground. We respond to emails ourselves, we do the analytics, we do the campaigns, we do the media buying, we speak with the ambassadors and the retailers. So, all this amount of data is huge for us and the challenge is now that we're growing, how to stay close to all this data.
What is the testing of your products like?
FL: To begin with, with any new product, the first people we'll test it on is ourselves. Because we want to make sure that what we put out is something we believe in, something we like, something that works, and something that fits into the minimalistic, essentialist lifestyle.
ME: If it's something like argan oil, I'm proud that my family and my ancestors have tried it for centuries and we know it works and I'll trust them. And that's why we don't need to try it on animals — we don't try it on animals, of course. We are a cruelty-free brand and it's very close to our hearts.
For more complex formulations, so like our Marula Brightening Serum, we do the safety checks with the lab we work with in the US, in L.A to be specific. But doing a clinical study is something that, as a small brand, we'll never be able to afford. We're speaking about $100,000 to do a proper clinical study. But what we can do as a small brand is consumer studies. So, once we're done developing our products, we'll pass them to existing customers or beauty editors like yourself, to try our products and get additional feedback. Again, we have to be creative because we don't have the resources. But we have to bring the right product to our customers.
Is the customer always right? And how do you interact with the customers that you meet?
You know, in French, we say 'le client est roi', which means the customer is king. They'll give you their time, their money and their trust in your brand. They are always right no matter what they say. The challenge for us as a brand, and for other brands in general, is not what they say, it's what they don't say. It's all these silent behaviours like looking at their behaviour on our website.
How do you know when is the time to maybe expand your brand and maybe bring in investors?
ME: We have a part-time developer, a part-time art director of course, and now we just hired a part-timer (a friend actually) to help us handle the Instagram. She’s a bit more creative than us so I think she’s going to be amazing on it. We’re working very closely on it now. We are on a WhatsApp group and I’m really loving this. I’m starting to see the beginnings of a company taking shape, where there’s synergy between people — our content strategist briefing our art director, and checking the right vibes and filters — and it’s amazing. It’s making me really proud.
FL: I think delegation for sure is necessary because you definitely cannot be good at everything. But then as the management and as the co-founders, we still need to know what’s going on in every single aspect so that even between the two of us, there’s a split.
I’m better with the coordination, managing the supplies and products, so I take care of that. Mehdi is better at strategy and digital so he takes care of those. We’re not so good at designing stuff so that’s where we have our art director and somebody with a more visual sense. Then, we delegate the Instagram content to experts in this digital field. We still oversee what’s going on.
ME: Delegating is really good but you cannot delegate your vision. As co-founders, we need to be very clear to ourselves and the people whom we are working with — what’s our direction? Where are we going? Because without that direction, we cannot expect them to do that for you.
What practical advice would you give someone who wants to start their own beauty brand?
ME: Get a mouth guard because you can get punched in the face. It’s a tough market. But I would say it’s very feasible. Just look around us. In the past few years, how many small brands, niche brands have been bought by bigger companies and also how many thriving, independent brands there are? Look at glossier, it started as a direct-to-consumer online brand that started from a blog. Farsali, is booming in the US, and I saw it in Sephora here... Deciem — a small brand from Australia. You can create your own space but it’s going to be tough and you’re going to need a lot of resources, time and something different... something disruptive.
FL: I think you’ve to be prepared to learn new things, re-learn them and then just keep learning and re-learning because things change so fast. People change and adapt. Also, you need to be ready to just put in whatever free time you have. You’ve to sacrifice a lot of social time. Be ready to put in the hard work.
Both of you, on a side note, do competitive fighting. Does being an athlete help you in any way in business?
ME: We have something we call deep waters, in fighting in general. It is the moment when you’re competing with someone, and actually he’s better than you at everything, and you still need to find a way to win. So I think that this concept of deep waters is part of our life and I think we bring it into everything we do, even our skincare business. Yes, we are in deep waters and we will be in deep waters for a while but it doesn’t scare us. We are going to get out.
Read more stories in our Career Special.