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Tech meets beauty: Skin Inc founder on making the local customisable skincare brand go global

skin inc sabrina tan

In the past, Sabrina Tan suffered from sensitive and eczema-prone skin. She was troubled, and decided to take a leap of faith to “reboot the beauty industry”.

Although she spent the bulk of her career in the tech industry, she has dipped her toes in the beauty world when she was younger. Her late mother used to run a chain of beauty salons and she would spend many hours after school helping out and practise facials on her mother.

After graduating from university, she clocked over a decade working for tech giants like IBM, HP and Oracle. Her job was cushy, drawing a six-figure annual salary, but she has since come full circle and is now running her own skincare brand.

“(I wanted to) create a fuss-free solution that will empower customers to develop a deep, intimate relationship with their skin as it evolves with them. My past careers inspired me to marry beauty with technology, which led me to my first business venture,” Sabrina told Vulcan Post.

With an investment of S$1 million of her own savings, she started up Skin Inc in 2008. She was determined to revolutionise the beauty world and produce innovative skincare products that deliver efficient results.

Harnessing the power of customisation and tech, the award-winning brand is well-known for its multi-tasking serums. With a huge presence across Asia, Europe and the US, Skin Inc has successfully disrupted the global beauty industry and now rakes in tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year.

Every skin is different, and requires a personalised product

sabrina tan skin inc
Image Credit: Skin Inc

As a time-starved working mother, Sabrina found it laborious to deal with an elaborate skincare routine that involved multiple steps. She wanted to streamline the process with more targeted products, and found that existing products in the market were not able to adequately address her skin concerns.

I took a look at my vanity graveyard of galore products that were not suitable for the skin I had. I felt that the skincare industry was stereotyping us by skin type, and ignored that each of us are unique individuals with specific needs.

– Sabrina Tan, founder and CEO of Skin Inc

Noting that up to 80 per cent of the skin’s conditions are heavily affected by lifestyle and environmental factors, she started asking herself if there was a way to address the specific need of everyone’s evolving skin concerns, as well as increase the efficacy and performance of skincare.

Skin Inc later made a breakthrough with its Japanese proprietary encapsulation technology that allows it to incorporate up to 10 active ingredients in a single bottle, whilst ensuring its freshness and potency.

skin inc skincare
Image Credit: Skin Inc

By launching the world’s first supplement bar and customised cocktail serum, Skin Inc sets the bar for innovation in the competitive skincare industry.

“Customise, don’t compromise,” said Sabrina, echoing her company’s skincare philosophy.

Skin Inc has also co-developed a self-diagnostic and science-based Skin Identity Quiz that recommends customers the best combination of active ingredients.

Last month, the company amplified customisation with the launch of its +SABI AI app in collaboration with +SABI AI Corp, which analyses consumer patterns by leveraging over a million profiles and 200,000 face scans to guide customers in tracking and personalising their own wellness and skin health journey.

skin inc sabi
Image Credit: Skin Inc

“[It] is the world’s first 360 wellness and skin health coach app that was designed with the goal of improving customers’ wellness and skin health, acknowledging and accepting the beauty of imperfections,” explained Sabrina, adding that they will continue to look out for many developments around AI down the road.

For Sabrina, Skin Inc is more than just a regular beauty brand. In fact, she sees it as more of a “beauty technology and wellness brand” as it has the agility to innovate much faster than most beauty, and even indie brands.

Thriving despite the pandemic thanks to “Covid-ready innovations”

When Skin Inc first started, Sabrina pointed out that there was no customisable skincare in the market. As such, their products have been a hit from the get-go.

Despite the company’s strong traction since inception, Sabrina didn’t draw any salary for the first three years and she paid herself only S$2,500 for the next two years.

Sharing more about the early days, she said that they faced challenges in building their e-commerce, logistics, supply chain and data infrastructure at the start. Now that they are already 13 years into the business, Sabrina said that they have gradually built a “solid foundation” to further scale the business.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works to the company’s steady growth.

During the global lockdown months, it was a challenge in managing production lines and coordinating logistical issues. There was a high level of uncertainty during this unprecedented time as we didn’t know how long Covid-19 would last.

We learnt to be agile and react more swiftly, which has now become the new normal in conducting business. That’s how we were able to brainstorm innovations that addressed concerns we were getting from [our customer] data during this trying time.

– Sabrina Tan, founder and CEO of Skin Inc

Despite the pandemic-stricken times, Skin Inc managed to launch six “Covid-ready innovations” in a span of four months, which are all “sold out almost instantly”.

skin inc mask liner
Image Credit: Skin Inc

For instance, its ‘Mask Liner’ and ‘My Daily Dose of Armour’ aims to combat ‘maskne’ (or mask acne), its skincare makeup product Serum Glow Filter helps to achieve a filtered Zoom-ready complexion, and its Refresh & Nourish Hand Serum Duo is a dual pump sanitiser and serum in one.

“Unlike other brick-and-mortar beauty brands who were badly impacted during the lockdowns globally, Skin Inc was born digital from day one and we very quickly turned our focus on e-commerce and digital content relevancy, which led us to a 400 per cent growth year-on-year in 2020,” she added.

During the lull months, Skin Inc kept engaged with its community by hosting livestream sessions with various individuals, including influencers Mongchin Yeoh and celebrity Joanne Peh.

skin inc supplement bar
Image Credit: Skin Inc

Besides tapping on social commerce, Sabrina noted that retail experience is another opportunity that they can leverage on. In line with this, Skin Inc has renovated its ION Orchard store to make it more experiential, in which customers can customise their serum on the spot.

Making a mark on the world map

From a single 200 square-feet store in The Central mall back in 2018, Skin Inc has grown leaps and bounds over the years.

skin inc tri-light led device
Image Credit: Skin Inc

In 2014, when Skin Inc launched its Optimizer Voyage Tri-Light LED device – one of the first home beauty devices available in the market – it caught the attention of Sephora’s CEO.

Subsequently, it became the first local brand to be carried by the international beauty retailer, and it has since become one of the best-selling Asian skincare brands at Sephora worldwide. 

In addition, Skin Inc has also been featured on Singapore Airlines’ and China’s Dragon Air’s flight catalogues, and multiple major department store chains also carry the brand.

Sephora, as well as Nordstrom and Bergdoff Goodman, gave us legitimacy to partners we signed up with after. But ultimately, the ability to distribute anywhere in the world is what made us a global business. Today, we ship to 78 cities and more than 200 retail locations.

– Sabrina Tan, founder and CEO of Skin Inc

Skin Inc has also secured multiple collaborations with big brands, including fashion label Self-Portrait for its 2017 New York Fashion Week show, as well as entertainment giant Disney for a limited-edition Beauty & The Beast Serum.

skin inc skincare
Image Credit: Skin Inc

When asked about her thoughts on the local skincare industry, she refuted the misconception that they aren’t on the same level as bigger and global players. In fact, she feels that Skin Inc is “on par” with them, and hopes to see greater support from the relevant organisations to help them grow and expand globally.

Beyond global expansion, she hopes for Skin Inc to continue to offer “skin health as a service” as it innovates further to deliver more personalised skincare and services.

In line with this goal, she is sticking by her business mantra: “move fast, learn fast and iterate”.

Beyond honing her attitude towards learnings and failures, she is also focused on hiring people with the “right attitude” — people who persevere and is resilient — because to her, a highly-driven team is the key to success.

Featured Image Credit: Skin Inc

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