Me & My Money

The brain behind beauty start-up

With her mobile app Vanitee, Ms Kuik Xiao Shi can help clients search easily for the right beauty services, while providing a platform for industry professionals to showcase their businesses.
With her mobile app Vanitee, Ms Kuik Xiao Shi can help clients search easily for the right beauty services, while providing a platform for industry professionals to showcase their businesses.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

This is the second of a four-part series on women from various fields, including technology and consumer businesses

Leaving something familiar behind to pursue the unknown is always hard, but former finance executive Kuik Xiao Shi knew it was something she had to do.

It certainly wasn't an easy decision: Ms Kuik, 31, spent months weighing her options before deciding to leave the world of finance.

"The firm I worked for was asking me to stay, and giving me the chance to be in Singapore as well, so it was hard to let go," she says.

"I liked my job, but there was this little part of me that wanted to do something fun, creative."

So she took a leap of faith, and set up subscription-based beauty service VanityTrove with two partners in 2012.

VanityTrove mails subscribers a box of beauty product samples every month, giving them the chance to try various brands.

Ms Kuik, now its chief operating officer, was well-versed in the nuts and bolts of finance before making the career change.

EMPOWERING SMALL BUSINESSES

It's really about trying to solve a problem for customers, and for the artists, who operate as small local businesses themselves, we want to empower them because they lack the tools now to manage and grow their businesses and connect better with clients.''

MS KUIK XIAO SHI, on Vanitee mobile app

She graduated from Singapore Management University in 2007 with a double degree in economics and finance.

She started her career at The Capital Group Companies, an investment firm based in Los Angeles. She went on to specialise in equity research, covering Asia's consumer and gaming industries, at brokerage house CLSA in Hong Kong.

Her success with VanityTrove has led to another venture - a mobile application called Vanitee.

The app was created during BattleHack 2014, a hackathon in Singapore organised by PayPal and electronics payment firm Braintree in September last year.

It allows users to book beauty services near them, and gives beauty professionals such as nail or make-up artists a platform from which to manage their business.

Ms Kuik says: "It's really about trying to solve a problem for customers, and for the artists, who operate as small local businesses themselves, we want to empower them because they lack the tools now to manage and grow their businesses and connect better with clients."

Vanitee has more than 300 beauty professionals on its platform.

Ms Kuik is inspired by their passion for their work.

She says: "I ask them if they see themselves doing this for the next five to 10 years, and they tell me there's no doubt they will. Ask most young people now if they are going to do a job for two or five years, and you'll hear: 'I don't know.'

"They feel proud of what they create, which is like a work of art, and they feel very connected to their customers and want to make them happy, which I found unique. There's a lot of soul, which people should be more aware of."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A My family members were all very entrepreneurial and had their own businesses, whether it was in education, finance or manufacturing.

My dad, who passed away seven months ago, was in manufacturing, and he also set up an e-learning platform. My brother launched a quantitative hedge fund.

In 2007, I started learning how non-listed firms operate and grow, when I helped my sister Shiao Yin launch her restaurant business, Food for Thought.

Her office was in the city, so I would drop by to hang out with her and her colleagues whenever I was free. I learnt from them how small and medium-sized enterprises are run, how strong shared values are imperative when making key decisions in the company, and how to take risks and handle uncertainty.

  • Best and worst bets

    Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A Not buying Google and Apple - because it's not about the losses, but the opportunities that you missed.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A Vanitee. It's fun and daunting at the same time. The returns of this investment are directly attributable to what I do.

    At Vanitee, we really want to empower these passionate small local businesses of beauty artists, by providing them with the tools and resources to help them connect better with customers.

    I am excited to be a part of solving this problem, and improving people's lives in this aspect. Finding that you love doing what you do, and earning money at the same time, is an incredible and rewarding experience and position to be in.

    Of course, everyone who joins and invests in a start-up hopes and dreams of the big exit but, to me, whether it pays off well financially at the end matters less than the journey itself.

    The greatest returns are the skills and knowledge that I gather, and those are assets that are priceless.

    Rachael Boon

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I got interested after I graduated from school and began my career at Capital Group. They're one of the largest firms - I was privileged to be in that kind of environment, surrounded by portfolio managers.

What I took away, which had a big impact on my life, was the way they thought about investing and about the world itself.

When you buy a company's stock, it's really about understanding the fundamentals of how the company makes money, the industry it is in and the global economic climate. With that, you can make good choices about your investments.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A When investing in mature public companies, I prefer to do so for the long term, finding a great company at a fair price rather than choosing one that is not so good but going at a great price.

It's important to understand how a company works, its business model, how it makes money and what the earnings drivers are. You also need to understand how the balance sheet and cash flow projections are managed.

There are so many companies and you can't be an expert in everything, so it's about the core of competence that you have - that is what helps you choose which companies to invest in.

For me, it would be something I've personally used before and I like a lot. You hit the sweet spot when it hasn't gone mainstream yet but you see its potential.

Netflix was one stock that I had - it was still CD-based then, but it had a vision of how it wanted to grow. I just loved using Netflix, at that early point in time when it had just started streaming.

When it comes to investing in Internet start-ups, however, I would say it is a completely different ball game. The business model and projections become much less important. What becomes the most critical is assessing the team.

The team is even more important than whether the business model is sound, because early-stage companies are extremely fluid.

What matters is how the team controls the business, how it reacts to difficulties, and whether it can adapt quickly and steer the company onto the right course.

At such an early stage, any discounted cash flow analysis and financial projections are good to have, so you can understand where the company is at, but they are not key to determining actual success.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A My own business, Vanitee. I have also invested in property, with a condo in Singapore that's earning rental income.

Gross rental yields in Singapore are poor compared with those in other countries. With interest rates forecast to rise, I'm not expecting a strong recurring income stream. It's more of a long-term investment, to realise any capital appreciation and protect against inflation.

I think investing in property is tough for people in their 20s and 30s, because cash is king, and you need to have strong holding power to last through the ups and downs of market cycles and react to ever-changing regulations.

I don't have much experience in investing in properties. What I learnt from my parents is that gains from property investments can be enormous, but you need a long time, as well as considerable effort and resources, to maintain and hold these assets.

Q What does money mean to you?

A Money is important up to a certain point but, beyond that, it can't guarantee health or happiness, or the number of people who love you.

Money is a tool - it frees you to do things that you want to do.

As you acquire more money, you also gain a lot more responsibility, especially when you have tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. That's when you need to think about where to channel the money itself for the greater good.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A When I had a regular job, I spent a lot on travelling. It was more of a lifestyle choice - I could fly off every weekend on a whim.

If I were based in Los Angeles, I would fly to Miami for a certain event, for instance. Or if I took a trip, I wouldn't think twice about spending more so I could stay an extra day and go hot-air ballooning (laughs).

I kind of miss those days, but when you're in a position where you love what you do, you don't want to be doing anything else but trying to pursue your dream.

Q What has been one of your biggest regrets when it comes to investing?

A Not buying Google and Apple after I noticed them in 2001. It's really about what you did not do.

For Google, I was exposed to it when my brother was studying in the United States. Everyone was still using Yahoo then, but he was using Google, and I went, what is Google? (Laughs.)

I started using it, and realised it was a much better search engine and such a good product. But when you're young, you don't think about investing and, by the time you do, it's too expensive.

For Apple, my sister used to do graphic design, and many of the designers at her company were using Mac computers - that was in 2001 and 2002, and Apple wasn't mainstream yet.

The first time I touched a Mac, I went: "Wow, this is great. The interface is so unusual, compared with what we're used to on a PC."

So I started using Mac and, in my first year at university, I bought an iBook - I was the only one in school to have one. In my last year of university, about half the students there had become iBook and iMac users - it took just four years.

I was in that core of competence of using and loving the product and knowing it better than the market, but I didn't invest in the stock.

If I had invested in those two stocks 10 years ago, $10,000 would have netted me more than $100,000 by now.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A Maybe I'll look into Alibaba. It's a good company. When I was based in Beijing in 2008 and 2009, I was using Alibaba a lot. Anything that you want to buy, you can easily find there, and the service is great.

Other than that, all of my time and resources are invested in Vanitee now.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I don't plan to retire. My dad did try, but he got bored after two or three years and went back to work.

It's important for people's souls and well-being to do something they love every day - not just for their families but for themselves.

Q Home is now...

A A condo in Tanjong Rhu, where I live with my mum.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'The brain behind beauty start-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe