Business Insight: Allies of Skin

Interview with Nicolas Travis

You may have heard of Allies of Skin, the Singapore-based skincare label that’s taken the beauty industry here by storm. The brand has a long list of merits: each product is formulated without silicones, mineral oils, petrochemicals, parabens, polyethylene glycol, sulfates, GMOs, triclosan, DEA/TEA, phthalates, drying alcohols, synthetic dyes, and fragrances. The line is also chirally correct, allergy-tested, dermatologist-tested, non-comedogenic, and non-acnegenic. But beyond technical qualifications and rave product reviews, Allies of Skin has a smart, considered approach to business – and it’s no wonder, too, since Founder Nicolas Travis has a background in business and science, and work experience in social media. He graciously shares some of his learning lessons with us:

Work+Store (W+S): What is your background in and how did you get started in skincare development?
Nicolas (N): My background is in a mix of both business and science. I did BioMedical and Pharmaceutical Science for my undergraduate and I have a Master of International Business. After graduation, I had a few job offers from the various companies at WPP but I eventually took on a role with Ogilvy & Mather. I created and steered social media campaigns for clients like Nestle, Guinness, and the Singapore Red Cross.

I had very bad acne as a teenager and so I’ve always had a fascination with skincare, and having my own skincare company was a dream I’ve carried since then. For my Master’s thesis, I created a business plan for a startup skincare line, so I spent months doing all my research. When I left Ogilvy, I had this overwhelming urge to revisit that business plan I wrote, which is when I realized that I could do it with one product. I figured I had nothing to lose and I’ve not looked back since.

W+S: As someone with experience in digital marketing, how have you shaped Allies of Skin’s digital strategy and brand voice?
N: I knew from the get-go that our strategy had to be a customer-centric one. Our customers mean everything to us so everything we put out has to check that box. We put our customers front and centre of all that we do – we let them speak for us and we also let our products speak for themselves. You’ll never find us in your face about our products.

The other thing we focus on is emotions: we aim to strike a chord with everything we put out. If we’re not making someone smile or go ‘I didn’t know that’ or make their day better, if we’re not making someone react, then we’re just adding to the noise and that’s the last thing we want to do.

W+S: Can you share some social media tips/lessons you’ve learnt with us?
N:
• First, be authentic: no one likes talking to a robot.
• Be personal: we are all looking to connect and everyone wants to feel like someone gets them.
• Spell & grammar check: you can’t expect to be taken seriously if you don’t know the difference between ‘advice’ and ‘advise’.

W+S: Allies of Skin launched to rave reviews owing to its effectiveness and product formulation. Was there also a media/ PR strategy you used to amplify the brand’s reach?
N: We were invested in getting our products into the right hands – the decision-swayers, if you will. There’s a general weariness consumers have when it comes to new beauty products of a certain price range, so seeing a product recommended by people they trust automatically lends the product credibility.

We have a policy of not paying for reviews so everything we have received has been gratuitous. That has made a lot of difference.

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W+S: Product seeding vs. traditional advertising: what are your views?
N: I’m a fan of what I can track, and I find it more difficult to assess the effectiveness of traditional advertising because you don’t know who’s flipping the magazine, what they’re looking for, and what they’re into. As a startup, traditional advertising has never been something we’ve focused on either due to budgeting issues.

Coming back to the idea of authenticity: product seeding works because you can’t beat the value of word of mouth recommendations. The change may be gradual, but you cannot fake the energy that comes from someone who genuinely loves a product.

W+S: We love how your brand gives back to children in Singapore. Why the decision to run a socially responsible business?
N: I founded Allies of Skin on the belief that it’s everyone’s birthright to be the best versions of themselves. I believe it doesn’t matter where you’re from; it’s where you’re going that counts. Education is the only way out of the conditions of birth, so it’s a cause we feel very strongly about.

I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunities I have and the ability to do what I love every day. Take a single mother working 2 jobs to support her 3 kids, for instance – she works hard and so do I. There’s no difference in the amount of effort we put into the world. Yet, I’ve had a different set of doors opened for me and it’s allowed me to go live my best life. With this privileged position, how can I not do whatever I can to pass it on?

W+S: What are the top three challenging moments of Allies for Skin and how you overcame them?
N:
1. It took me 2 years of R&D to create the formulas for the 3 products we have out now (1A All-Day Mask, 1A Overnight Mask, and Molecular Saviour Toner Mist). I had over 12 revisions of each of the formulas. I was told ‘No, we don’t think this would work’ many times but I never gave up on my vision. Now it means so much more when people write in and tell us how much they love our products.
2. I had to learn how to listen to my gut. The bad decisions I made (like hiring the wrong PR person in the US and hiring the wrong person to handle social media for us when we first started) were because I brushed off a feeling I had.
3. We’re growing very quickly and our growth is surpassing my ability to keep bootstrapping. This one’s a work in progress and we’re in the midst of raising capital. The goal for us has always been to find the right partner and that truly takes time. So it’s a delicate balancing act of learning to be patient, not saying yes to every opportunity that comes our way simply because we need the money (because not every opportunity is the right one for us), and being creative with the resources we have.