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This 31-year-old ex-nurse sets up an eco soap biz, hits profitability soon after launch

Rough Beauty

She was a former staff nurse at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. During her stint with the hospital, Singaporean Chew Jia Tian decided to explore setting up Rough Beauty, a business selling handcrafted soaps.

As a person who had to wash her hands very often for her job, she thought of creating bath and body products that are handcrafted with botanical ingredients that soothe and nourish the skin.

Jia Tian had the vision to create soaps for those who cherish rustic simplicity and enjoy a mindful cleansing experience. The products would also focus strongly on sustainability and appeal to the environmentally conscious.

By the time Jia Tian completed her nursing degree with The University of Manchester through Singapore Institute of Technology in 2016, the Rough Beauty business was already taking off.

Chew Jia Tian, founder of Rough Beauty / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

The 31-year-old decided to run her business full-time that same year. The decision proved to be a good one, as Rough Beauty became profitable shortly.

“We focused on an online-first approach to keep our overheads low and our soaps affordable,” the entrepreneur said.

Today, Rough Beauty is no longer a one-man show but a five-person team.

It has since worked with brands and organisations including Shopee, Lazada, Far East Flora, Lee Hwa Jewellery, and the National University of Singapore.

The team at Rough Beauty / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

The Singapore-based artisan brand is now a hit with the growing eco-conscious crowd, drawing many return customers as it uses only natural ingredients – like plant essential oils, and herbs and spices for scents and colours in all its products.

Its products are also free from synthetic fragrances, colours, sulphates, and parabens.

Former nurse turned entrepreneur

Jia Tian shared that she’s mostly self-taught as she had learned the cold process soap-making method on her own when she started the business. 

The cold process allows for better control of the ingredients, such as the types and amount of oil that goes into the final product. “Our team spends time experimenting with these formulas to create soaps with different properties,” she said. The soaps are handcrafted and made in Singapore.

Popular bar soaps sold at Rough Beauty / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

The business creates and sells bar soaps and that have continued to stay on to become bestsellers and customers’ go-to favourites.

Some of its bestsellers include Mint Rose and Saffy Fields soaps, which cost S$9.50 for a 110g block. The ingredients are indicated on the website clearly so consumers know what goes into the products. For example, the Mint Rose soap contains a blend of floral, herbaceous, and citrus essential oils with a dash of dried herbs like rosemary leaves.

Rough Beauty developed its line of liquid soap products after its soap bars were a success. “What’s unique about our liquid soaps is that we also make the soaps from scratch, which is unlike many commercially mass-manufactured products,” Jia Tian said.

The cold process method to make soap / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

Rough Beauty only uses natural ingredients for both scents and colours for the soaps. For example, it taps on essential oils and not fragrance oils for scent creation.

The soap scents are created through an in-house R&D process and feedback from customers is often referred to when formulating new products. 

Sustainable production line

Rough Beauty said it strongly advocates sustainability and that is seen by its day-to-day operations. For one, its bar soaps can be wrapped in donated magazine paper if customers opt for a low-waste option at checkout.

“We keep our packaging simple to reduce materials used. We use recyclable materials such as paper and cardboard to package our products. We also reuse bubble wrap from our supplies and donations,” said Jia Tian.

It also produces small batches of soap according to demand to cut on wastage.

Soap ends are also sold at a cheaper price to ensure no wastage / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

“We put effort into sourcing sustainable ingredients. For example, we use sustainable palm oil in our production. We also sell our soap ends (slivers of soaps that are cut from the ends of our soap loaves) and any soaps that don’t make the quality cut, so that no soaps go to waste,” Rough Beauty said.

The brand wants to carry out its ethos of “living simply and mindfully” via its offerings. “Our vision is to inspire mindful living in the every day, and we see simplicity as part of this process. We want our products and packaging to reflect this ethos,” it added.

“We also only use botanicals and natural ingredients in our soaps. After production, our soaps are also left to cure for them to reach the ideal conditions for the best cleansing experience.”

Reusing bottles and selling refill packs

The bar soaps typically last about a month for a single person’s use. To help them last longer, Jia Tian recommends storing the soaps on a soap draining dish between uses.

Because of the natural ingredients, the soaps are recommended to be used within four to six months as the essential oil scents fade over time. They can still be used for cleaning purposes after that and have a shelf life of a few years.

Refill packs are sold at a discounted price / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

Rough Beauty’s e-commerce store offers shipping and self-pickup services. It also opens its studio at Sin Ming Lane on Friday for walk-ins and refills on an appointment basis. 

A 500ml refill pack of liquid soap costs slightly less at around S$29.00, compared with the same amount in a bottle for S$32.00. “Customers can walk in to purchase our products package-free or bring their own containers for refills,” Rough Beauty said.

Corporate gifts and wedding favours

Amid the pandemic, Rough Beauty saw an increase in the demand for its soaps to be gifted as care packages for frontline staff and as corporate gifts. Most orders are in the hundreds and can range from bar soaps to sets or bundles.

“Soaps as corporate gifts offer something practical and different for clients to give away to their business partners or staff,” Jia Tian said.

The brand also sells wedding favours packages as part of its product line following customers’ requests.

Corporate gifts created for Common Man Coffee Roasters and Lee Hwa Jewellery / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

“Couples usually go for the bar soaps in half bar sizes. As part of our customisation packages, we allow clients to choose colours, designs, scents, and include customised labels too,” she added.

The business also runs a soap subscription club to keep its loyal customers engaged with the latest scents and products. Currently, the brand has several dozen members in this club and they are usually long-time fans.

“Our Rough Beauty soap club has been a favourite way for Rough Beauty fans to get their hands on our soaps on a consistent basis. Our soap club ships the products every two months and customers can choose between two to five bars of soaps, and usage depends on individuals,” Rough Beauty said.

Pandemic challenges, more products in the pipeline

On any business impact caused by the pandemic, Jia Tian said that Rough Beauty had to put a stop to its soap-making workshops due to health and safety reasons for all customers.

“We are learning to cope as a business and this means dealing with the growing pains that come with it. We still get enquiries for workshops and hope to bring it back soon,” she said.

Covid-19-led supply chain disruptions also affected the business and it had to roll with the punches on unexpected changes in demand and supply.

On the bright side, the pandemic spurred it to introduce its own range of sanitisers. The series comes with Rough Beauty’s signature scents like Cedar Woods and Geranium Reefs. Customer feedback and reception have been good for these products, said Jia Tian.

The brand’s sanitiser series and other new products / Image Credit: Rough Beauty

In the near term, Rough Beauty will be focusing on expanding its product range. 

“We want to continue to bring new products to our supporters and currently have a few products in the pipeline. We rely heavily on our customers’ feedback on which products they would like us to sell. For example, we recently introduced our Facial Bar which consists of a gentle soap formula and is unscented, something that our customers requested for,” Jia Tian said.

Another highly requested item that’s in the works is its hair shampoo series. The brand is currently working on creating the right formula that combines an effective wash together with the values of Rough Beauty. It is on track to launch this series by the end of the year.


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Featured Image Credit: Rough Beauty, Sabrina Shares

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