THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH SABRINA TAN

Local beauty brand Skin Inc's founder started doing facials at nine

Her husband Lim Teck Wee (left, with their children in Hawaii two years ago).
Her husband Lim Teck Wee (left, with their children in Hawaii two years ago).
Madam Ivy Eu (right, with Ms Tan), who died last year of a brain haemorrhage.
Madam Ivy Eu (right, with Ms Tan), who died last year of a brain haemorrhage.
Ms Sabrina Tan, seen here with her three elder brothers (from right) Leslie, Eugene and Ian
Ms Sabrina Tan, seen here with her three elder brothers (from right) Leslie, Eugene and Ian
Sabrina Tan. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Sabrina Tan. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Skin Inc founder Sabrina Tan's made-to-measure skincare goes global

The beauty business was always in the blood of Sabrina Tan, founder of Skin Inc which is now sold in 20 cities in Asia and Europe and is the first Singapore brand carried by international beauty supermart Sephora.

Her late mother, Madam Ivy Eu, used to own a chain of three salons in the Bukit Timah area called Sabrina Beauty Centre - named after her daughter. By the time she was six, Ms Tan was spending her after-school hours at the salons where she learnt how to pack stocks, do up window displays and blend masks.

"My mother had to run the business and take care of me, so she took me to the salons," recalls the petite 40-year-old, who is the youngest girl of four siblings. "When I was nine, she was already making me practise facials on her."

The salon business was sold 17 years ago and Ms Tan never thought that things would come full circle and she would end up in the beauty business. Her first jobs were in the IT industry. Between 1997 and 2007, she marketed computers at IBM and Hewlett-Packard, software at Symantec and data storage at EMC Corp.

Skin Inc is known for its range of customisable serums and was born out of her frustration with the limited range of off-the-shelf skincare products for people with intolerant skin. For as long as she can remember, the mother of two breaks out in red and itchy hives whenever she is stressed; her 10-year-old daughter Ashley and eight-year-old son Asher suffer from severe eczema.

Ms Tan was also tired of having to go through an elaborate skincare routine consisting of multiple products.

"I'm a busy mother-of-two and I have no time to follow through with so many products in a skincare ritual. Why isn't there something for busy women like myself?"

So she said goodbye to the IT industry and the six-figure annual salary she was drawing then and set out to search for paraben- and fragrance-free multipurpose products.

"I'm very passionate about what I do. I either give it my all or not do it," says Ms Tan, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Aside from her mother, who died last year of a brain haemorrhage, her father had a construction business, while two of her brothers also have their own enterprises.

Today, she marries her knowledge of the IT and beauty industries to run Skin Inc.

From a single 200 sq ft store in The Central at Eu Tong Sen street that was opened in 2007, the brand now has 11 concept stores in countries such as Brunei, Vietnam, Lithuania and Spain.

Through Sephora, owned by the Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton conglomerate, the brand is now available in the Ion Orchard store here, Malaysia and Thailand, and will be in Indonesia later this month, as well as Australia at the end of the year.

Last October, it expanded its business online to ship globally. Since 2012, Skin Inc has been sold inflight on Singapore Airlines; and from last year, on China's Dragon Air too.

The brand has also signed on with the Me by Melia chain of boutique hotels in Europe and there are Skin Inc stores and spas at its Ibiza, Mallorca and Madrid locations.

While Skin Inc sells a variety of made-in-Japan skincare products, facials and made-in-South-Korea gadgets, it is famous for its line of nine Nourising Serums. Each contains a single main active ingredient, such as hyaluronic acid to moisturise or collagen to firm.

The ingredients are encapsulated in seaweed, which supposedly keeps them fresh and more effective. In each bottle, those tiny coloured globules of active ingredients are suspended in water and moisturising glycerin; and they burst only when applied on the skin.

Hence, while the ingredients remain encapsulated and stable, up to three different serums with different functions can be mixed and matched at the counters to form a blend according to the customer's skincare needs. This formula is concocted on the spot with the help of a digital questionnaire filled out by customers on their lifestyle habits and skin condition. In comparison, serums from most of the other brands contain a variety of active ingredients and cannot be custom-blended outside of the lab.

Next month, Skin Inc will be improving on its questionnaire by launching a more in-depth skin-check digital tool, called Skin Identity.

"When a beauty adviser tells you something, you don't know whether to trust her," she says, while curling up on a couch in her two-storey terrace home in the Serangoon area. "Sometimes, you just want a simple and effective solution. Why can't you be your own beauty specialist? The tool will help make sure the blend is current and relevant to you at the point of time, and you can always recalibrate the concoction to suit your skin a few months later."

She declines to reveal the brand's sales figures, but says that it grew by more than 30 per cent between 2012 and last year. The numbers jumped by 80 per cent this year due to the brand's rapid expansion.

The beauty retail market is a tough one and customers here have been spoilt for choice with so many brands flooding the stores. However, Ms Tan says she looks at the industry from a different perspective.

"It is not just Singapore that is saturated, the saturation is everywhere in developing markets because we're in a global world. Consumers can buy things anywhere; the key is to differentiate yourself and develop new ideas, as well as formulas that work better."

She credits her experience in the IT industry for not "seeing the walls and territories". She says: "People in IT are trained to look at a holistic ecosystem and put resources together and develop an intuitive thing for the consumer or even create something that never used to exist."

When she first proposed the idea of customisable serums to scientists in Japan when developing the brand seven years ago, "they didn't know what I was talking about".

"At the time, I noticed that fashion brands were producing customisable products. So I thought, why not do the same for beauty as the two usually go together," she says, referring to products such as Nike's NikeiD bespoke sneakers.

"My IT training played a part in my modular thinking. I also like to push boundaries, I don't accept things as they are."

She pumped in $1 million to start Skin Inc from her savings with her husband, Mr Lim Teck Wee, 43. Formerly the Asia Pacific sales vice-president at IT giant Oracle, he joined Skin Inc as a board director three months ago to oversee the brand's global expansion.

She recalls: "People said I was crazy to give up a stable job and start a business with two young children in tow. But I identified a gap in the market and there was a big gap to fill."

Skin Inc is the first brand to offer customisable serums in Singapore. Today, other brands that offer such tailor-made skincare include Ioma from France, United States-based SCO and Spain's Sepai.

Ms Tan named the brand Skin Inc - "the company is all about solving skin problems" - and travelled to Japan with her best friend for a week to do research.

While there, she visited pharmacies, beauty counters, stores and salons. A business management graduate - she holds a diploma from Ngee Ann Polytechnic and a degree from the University of London through the Singapore Institute of Management - she left no stone unturned to make up for her lack of a chemistry background.

The friend who accompanied her on that trip, Ms Tracy Chua, 40, is an aesthetics beauty trainer who has known her for more than two decades.

Says Ms Chua of her best friend: "She is successful today because of her passion. She was relatively new to the beauty industry when she started the brand but she spent all her time reading up on ingredients and how the skin works.

"She believes that there is a way to help women get the best results on their skin in a shorter time and it keeps her moving to take things to the next level."

In line with Ms Tan's desire to simplify the skincare ritual, she came up with a three-step ritual: Prep (exfoliate skin with the Pure Revival Peel); Nourish (with the three-in-one customised serums that offer multiple skin benefits in one step); and Seal (with the multipurpose overnight Pure Deepsea Hydrating Mask that clarifies, hydrates and brightens).

To ensure that her products are suitable for those with intolerant skin, she roadtests every new formula.

"I'm always the first to try; I'm the litmus test for products that irritate sensitive skin. If I turn red after applying the sample on my skin, I reject the formula."

Both her children use the Ceramide serum that hydrates, soothes and strengthens skin from a jumbo bottle pump every day to prevent eczema.

Up next, she is focusing on penetrating the beauty market in the United States. She has been travelling to New York every other month for more than a year. In May, she visited the Conde Nast Building to meet the beauty editors of influential fashion and beauty magazines WWD, Allure, InStyle, Lucky and Vogue.com to promote her brand.

So far, Skin Inc has made inroads among American trendsetters. At the Skin Identity launch held at Ion Sky here earlier this month, popular American fashion blogger Aimee Song, as well as editors from established sites Refinery29.com, Style.com and Who What Wear, and Elle.com were spotted.

Her children, Ashley and Asher, do not just use Skin Inc products, but are also involved in little aspects of the business, just as how Ms Tan's mother practically raised her in her beauty salons.

During their school holidays, she takes them along on her business trips and together, they visit the stores where the brand is carried. Ashley is also sometimes asked to look at marketing campaigns before they are launched.

"The main aim is to teach her how to think critically," she says.

Throughout the interview, the children were sprawled around the living room with their toys and listening in on the conversation. Occasionally, they would interrupt the interview by teasing their mother.

"When this story is published, we're going to read it together and I'm sure they'll pick up a few lessons from it," says Ms Tan, who survives on five hours' sleep every night. She tries to have dinner with her children everyday and continues to work past midnight after they have gone to bed.

"My children are always shown what I'm doing and I ask for their opinions. I try to involve them in my projects as much as I can, just like how my mother brought me up."

gladysc@sph.com.sg