The Life Interview With Alexis Horowitz-Burdick

Luxola founder Alexis Horowitz-Burdick: Beauty at a click

Alexis Horowitz-Burdick plugged a gap by bringing cult beauty brands to Asia through her website

When beauty e-tailer founder Alexis Horowitz-Burdick was 26, she relocated to Singapore to build from scratch the Asian branch of a business consultancy firm, based near Washington, D.C., which she worked for at the time.

She had never visited Asia before, but she was hungry for a challenge.

Two years later, in 2010, after having knocked on countless doors to establish the branch successfully in the region, she once again took a gamble. This time, she traded her stable, well-paying nine-to-five job to pursue her real passion: entrepreneurship.

These decisions point to a gutsy woman who is not afraid to march to the beat of her own drum.

Even though I don't think of myself as a risk-taker, I don't think you can be averse to it as an entrepreneur. You should also be ready to think on your feet and be challenged by something new every day. I still thrive on that pace and adrenaline rush.''

MS ALEXIS HOROWITZ-BURDICK on key traits that make a successful entrepreneur

"I don't see myself as a big risk-taker," says the 33-year-old American when asked about how she has often taken the path less travelled. "Most times, I just trust my gut. It hasn't let me down."

Indeed, the e-commerce beauty site Luxola, which she started in 2011, has gone from running out of a Club Street apartment with four staff and stocking only 18 brands to a 125-strong company offering more than 300 brands in 11 countries including Australia, Hong Kong and India.

In July, French luxury goods conglomerate Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE (LVMH) acquired the Singapore-based business.

Although financial details about the deal - done through LVMH's cosmetic subsidiary Sephora - were not released, industry insiders speculate it to be in the tens of millions, making it one of the biggest Internet start-up exits to have occurred in the past three years in Singapore.

The buyover has made Ms Horowitz-Burdick a poster girl for entrepreneurial success in Singapore. But the savvy businesswoman says the journey was anything but a fairy tale.

"At the start, there were months where I couldn't pay myself or my employees. As a boss, it was really painful both emotionally and mentally. Thankfully, I've always been an entrepreneur at heart. That scrappy mindset kept me going even when things got really tough."

Her parents were an important influence on her love for entrepreneurship.

She was born in Boulder, Colorado. Her patent attorney father runs his own law practice and her mother owned a balloon business.

"As kids, we would answer the phone saying, 'Blooming Balloons, how can I help you?' instead of just greeting the person on the line," says the oldest of three children with a laugh. "That was my early foray into the start-up culture."

She also grew up bossing her younger brother and sister around. "I think that's why I really developed a mind of my own," she says.

And when her mind is made up, no one can convince her otherwise, like the time she dropped out of a small liberal arts college in Missouri, which she had been admitted to on a full scholarship, after three semesters.

The reason: She wanted to travel and ski. Her parents were dismayed.

But she got her act together two years later and finished her undergraduate degree in political science at California State University San Marcos before getting a master's in political science from the San Francisco State University.

She later joined Frontier Strategy Group, a then little-known, four- person start-up consultancy firm based near Washington, D.C..

It did not matter to her that she was the company's first hire. Finding the work it did interesting, she decided to jump on board. The decision proved a wise one when, a year later, she was given the opportunity to relocate to Singapore to set up the Asian arm of the business.

"I was getting a chance to travel, network and meet heads of big companies, so what did I have to complain about?" she says.

"Besides the shock I got from finding a lizard in my fridge once, I settled in very well. I found Asia incredibly warm and vibrant, with a fast pace that I really enjoyed."

So when she decided to leave Frontier after four years to start something on her own, she was sure she wanted to stay in Asia.

While taking some time out in Shanghai to think of possible business ventures, she came up with the idea for The Sweet Spot, a flash sale-style website with a focus on luxury goods and services.

The business, based in Singapore, took off initially, but the scene became crowded as numerous other flash sale websites popped up.

"With barriers of entry so low and price being the only differentiator, it was hard to stand out. It made me realise that I needed to differentiate my business through good content and service rather than price."

She sold her company's e-mail database to social-buying company JigoCity within six months and focused on finding a gap in the

e-commerce market that she could fill. After many discussions with her girlfriends, the answer became apparent - beauty.

Not a beauty junkie herself at the time, she did not see the opportunity until her friends started complaining about the lack of legitimate beauty e-tailers catering to the Asian market.

She says: "I quickly realised that cult beauty brands often did not ship to Singapore. Worse, the sites that did stock products weren't reputable. It immediately set the ball rolling for Luxola."

She began researching about beauty brands and reached out to investors, including a close friend who wrote her a cheque immediately after hearing her pitch.

Four months later, after persuading beauty companies with "a solid Powerpoint presentation" to trust in her vision for an e-commerce site that would uphold price and give customers good service such as next-day delivery, Luxola launched in mid-2011 with 18 brands.

Early believers included cult favourite lip product line Sara Happ and skincare line Mario Badescu.

She says: "It took time to tweak the site and convince brands about us, but it worked because we were an avenue for smaller cult brands to start selling to customers in Asia.

"The clincher was that we got approval from the Health Sciences Authority before shipping our products, so the brands and customers knew everything was legitimate."

By late 2012, mainstream beauty brands, noticing the traction the site was getting, began coming to her instead and international luxury lines such as SK-II and Clinique were added to Luxola's offerings.

Leveraging on the success in Singapore, she launched the site in Malaysia in 2012 before expanding across South-east Asia into countries such as Thailand and Indonesia.

She says: "When we started, we were jumping into cabs ourselves to make sure we could make all our deliveries on time.

"But within two years, we had grown so much that we needed an actual warehouse space and order system for our inventory."

The business now has a 1,860 sq m warehouse in Singapore and two 930 sq m warehouses in Thailand and Indonesia.

"It was a quick expansion, but it was hard and involved a lot of sleepless nights," she recalls.

"When I started in 2011, interest in e-commerce was only just starting and there were few people who had solid experience in the industry to guide me.

"Because talent acquisition was so hard, I had no choice but to learn everything from inventory to financial projections as I went."

Luxola's successful rounds of fund-raising over the years - more than US$15 million (S$21 million) since it started - helped her hire logistics specialists such as chief operating officer Ronan Hurley, who streamlined back-end processes such as stocking, inventory and operations.

Luxola's chief technical officer Bregadeesh Samapathy, 25, who was one of the company's first hires as a website developer, says of her: "Her passion convinced me to come on board and it's something that continues to motivate the team even today.

"She's not afraid to try new things and give people new responsibilities, no matter their background or age. She always rewards good work and it is what has helped the business grow so successfully."

But given that Luxola is on the up and up, why sell the business so early on? Ms Horowitz-Burdick, who post-acquisition is the new managing director of e-commerce and digital at Sephora Asia under LVMH, references her canny instincts once again.

She says: "We had inquiries regarding potential partnerships and acquisitions as early as two years ago, but when this opportunity from LVMH came, it felt like the right move to me.

"Sephora and Luxola are aligned on the beauty front and it seemed like a natural progression for us to come on board as a business and help grow Sephora's e-commerce presence in the region."

She adds that it also helped to know her "No. 1 fan", her husband, Indian national and financial professional Aman Bedi, 30, was supportive of the transition. They have no children and live in an apartment in Robertson Quay.

She is largely secretive about future plans for Luxola, but says beauty junkies here can look forward to changes on the site early next year, likely a transition to a spanking new Sephora-style layout with more products, deals and new offerings.

Of her new phase in life as an employee, she says: "I'll always be an entrepreneur at heart, but for now, I'm excited about everything that is to come. This new opportunity vindicates the strength and potential of e-commerce in the region. At the end of the day, that's what I'm most proud of."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Beauty at a click'. Subscribe