Skin Allies is an online beauty platform that merges technology and science to deliver the most effective and personalized skincare products to its customers. In a world where influencers and advertising can sway consumers into buying products that don’t address their skin issues, Skin Allies delivers the ingredients and treatments that help solve them. I spoke to founder Nu Dao about how her background in tech guides her brand and the opportunities she sees in both the US and Chinese beauty marketplace.
How is Skin Allies different from all the other digital retail platforms in the e-commerce universe?
We’re bringing clinical standards to the over-the-counter skincare industry. Other brands are either going full-on prescription where you need a dermatologist or a cosmetic nurse practitioner to prescribe treatments. Curology is an example of that. Others fall within the Sephora model ,but for mild to moderate skin conditions, products are not an appropriate treatment. I always found it very problematic to find good advice about all of the over-the-counter skincare brands I used. To expect a consumer to diagnose themselves and try to find the right treatment for moderate, mild, and preventative skin conditions—that’s a lot. The barrier for entry to understanding the science behind skincare and skin is very high. We wanted to make this a one-stop shop platform for both brands and consumers.
Tell me a little bit about the team you have in place.
We have technologists and more tech-oriented people, which have traditionally been very hard to find in the beauty space. We want to provide technological solutions that solve problems that some of our brands experience. We’re very heavy on the tech side. My particular experience is developing product teams for e-commerce and retail start-ups and corporations. Everyone on the executive team has marketplace experience which is a pretty big differentiator.
As an outsider coming to the beauty industry from tech, what’s been the biggest surprise or unexpected hurdle bringing this concept to life?
In the one and a half years of me really diving into the beauty industry, I’ve seen that while there are a lot of really great brands and products, it’s really difficult to help bridge the gap that’s required for a lot of these brands to operate in the Internet age. Things like understanding tactics around growth marketing or e-commerce with marketing. Those aren’t things that most founders are capable of doing themselves and they don’t really have the right skill set or knowledge base to hire people into those roles. What we really wanted to solve was a turnkey solution for them. If they’re accepted onto the platform, we essentially help grow their brand awareness or recognition to drive sales. We’re using personalization to differentiate from all the other e-commerce retailers in this specific category. I think the biggest learning opportunity for us is going between the beauty and technology world.
The foundation of your business is focused on personalization. How does the platform work and what are you plans to ensure this is scaleable?
I think what we’ve really tried to do is really understand the consumer holistically—what skin type they are and genetic profiles they have. We have our proprietary mapping architecture on the back end to map the specific products for various kinds of skin conditions. We also look at things like what ethnicities a particular ingredient has shown to perform well with. We’re very big on efficacy and that’s all done on the back end.
Personalization doesn’t necessarily work for a monobrand. You can’t personalize, say, eight SKUs. We operate as a marketplace and have built a platform for lots of brands and extend their SKU capabilities in order for the personalization to really make sense. We like honing in on helping consumers find the right products for their specific skin type and treating all of the conditions that they have tracking progress over time. That’s very important—the feedback loop that we get from consumers about how a product is working or not working. We adjust their regimens based on what their feedback is, similar to the way that you would go to an aesthetician and she would prescribe you a regimen. The issue with an aesthetician is that they don’t really have the right tools and eventually the communications with them falls off—there’s no real way for them to really track all efficacy rates. Also going to a Sephora or a department store beauty counter and trying to get advice from the salesperson is very difficult. They don’t have any idea who you are and they might ask you some basic questions but their knowledge base is not that of a dermatologist or an aesthetician. It’s hard to get good advice in a retail environment
How did you fund the launch and build of the platform?
We raised a small budget of angel funding. I really focus on bootstrapping the company—for me as a technologist, we’re very used to this idea of building and budget first. Creating a minimum viable product, testing our hypotheses, learning data points and then iterating the strategy on that product. When you’re getting into the wild and into as many hands as possible, you don’t need to raise a lot of money in order to do that successfully. However, you have to have a very clear idea of what goals and outcomes you’re trying to drive.
I’ve talked to so many brand founders and a lot of them go through this whole process where they will pay thousands of dollars for a prototype or product and will only then test it on people versus going out and talking to people and figuring out what problems there are. We identify the gaps in the white space, what products are available and then build a product based on that information right there.
I think this is some, this is kind of one of the biggest learnings that I’ve had is that you can be pretty agile and nimble on the Internet. You can recruit people and ask questions before you even have a fully launched product. I think that would reduce a lot of the time that brand founders spend iterating a product. There are Facebook groups with skincare aficionados—just ask them for their feedback and ask them what they think. As technologists we’re trained to think in this manner. I think in traditional industries, especially in any kind of CPG category, you can apply that same methodology to CPG products as well.
What are your plans to work with and grow in the Chinese market? What is your relationship with Tmall?
China is the second biggest beauty market in the world and is growing fast. Big international players like Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, and Shiseido are all very well-established in the market but increasingly we’re seeing a huge demand for indie beauty brands. However, currently many of these brands are not available in China. The market is complex and difficult to navigate across the board, having to consider everything from language, registration requirements, operational costs, to understanding of the Chinese consumer and market dynamics, and the changing regulatory environment. It is a completely different operating ecosystem, from sales platforms to social media tools.
Tmall is the biggest e-commerce player in China and they have a dedicated cross border e-commerce platform where some indie brands are starting to be sold. Last year we co-hosted a conference with Tmall Global in LA. We invited everyone from brand founders and owners to thought leaders in the industry, including our senior advisors. It was hugely successful as we were able to build awareness of China and Tmall with 120 of the US beauty industry’s key decision makers.
In order for indie beauty brands to be successful and thrive in the highly competitive Chinese market, there are many aspects to navigate. We are building the bridge for these brands to China on one platform. Our vision is to build for longevity in the market, and that is understanding what signals matter in both the origin home market and the destination market, and zeroing in on key insights to localize the brand’s story and messaging for China. We are focused on not only creating awareness and launching them, but doubling down on a select number of brands that we feel have real potential for the market, and we are committed to their long-term success. That requires a different playbook and strategy altogether. We’ve assembled a cross-border, multilingual team, that includes strong technology, marketplace, and brand operators, who have worked on iconic world-class brands such as Burberry and Chanel.
I personally have moved to Hong Kong and China to have boots on the ground with our growing team here, for full immersion. I don’t believe there is any other way to do it.
What excites you about the future of the beauty industry?
I think that there’s such a huge opportunity to use data and technology in a way that really helps brands and the beauty industry understand personalization on a holistic level. I think people throw around this term personalization and, yes, people want personalized products, but how do you go about building that into your brand DNA? Ultimately you really have to understand the data, funnels, and conversion in order to personalize the product to a consumer.
Photo: via Skin Allies