Ning Li recently swapped sofas for skincare.
To navigate unchartered waters, the seasoned entrepreneur will be drawing on lessons learned during his seven-year tenure as CEO at one of the UK‘s most recognizable ecommerce brands, MADE, where he was also a co-founder. Now he’s on a journey: Typology.
“Typology was born with a mission to demystify the complex skincare industry. It’s clean, genderless, and 100% digital. All products are concentrated, natural, formulated, made in France, and fairly priced,” he tells Growth Quarters, adding that all single items are priced under £20 (22€).
The packaging, he says, is simple, minimal, and all made from recyclable materials. It’s also designed to be posted through the letterbox — a must for any ecommerce business.
For years, beauty and skincare consumers have been enticed by claims that products could help them perfect their skin, look younger, or combat very specific issues.
“I’m always amazed by the number of crazy claims out there […] In a way, the beauty industry has been built on promises because people need to believe in something, but beauty brands have gone too far — and now there’s a backlash within millenials and Gen Z consumers who are rightly very skeptical,” Li adds.
Serving this age demographic is incredibly exciting but it creates several layers of complexity for businesses that aren’t necessarily used to dealing with a hyper-informed audience or being held accountable.
“They want to see reviews and proof points,” Li says. “So we give substance and provable claims.”
In desperate need of diversity
It’s clear that sustainability and transparency play a vital role in Typology, but it soon becomes apparent that building a diverse business, although often challenging, is also at the forefront of Li’s mind.
“When we founded MADE in London, we were all Parisian expats, and with London being such a multicultural city, it was fairly straightforward to hire a diverse team. In Paris, it’s a little bit trickier to do that,” he notes.
The city’s population, he adds, is different. “You don’t have so many international people — perhaps because of the language barrier — so it’s harder to hire a diverse team unless you make that proactive choice, and we have,” he says.
Currently, Typology employs 28 people in its Paris office. According to Li, the team is made up of 14 nationalities, several ethnicities, educational backgrounds, religions, and sexualities.
“This key when building a business is not only to enrich our company culture but to identify our blind spots as a brand. I need people who have different viewpoints and come at problems in different ways, based on their experiences. We did not want to follow the status quo of other beauty businesses based in Paris which have very French and, or, Parisian teams,” he says.
Indeed, the beauty and skincare industry is notorious for its lack of inclusivity. It often caters to a predominantly white customer, something that becomes a detriment to other races.
To put this into perspective, L’Oréal, a global company with 12,000 US employees, counts 8% who identify as black at the executive level in America.
Li won’t fix the beauty industry’s diversity problem alone, but it’s important for entrepreneurs and founders to ensure they are doing whatever they can to offer equal opportunities across the board.
Drawing inspiration from gaming
On the business side, Li says he’s experimenting with the structure of the new business in order to remain agile and innovate quickly — especially after he saw first-hand how easy it is for product development and decision making to slow down as a business grows.
Instead of looking at other skincare or beauty brands, Li and his team have taken inspiration from Supercell, a Finnish mobile game development company. Specifically, Li and his employees have focused on the developer‘s ‘chapter structure’ — consisting of small, independent teams typically made up of a product manager and technician who act autonomously to develop new products.
“This is the opposite approach to large beauty brands that spend years and millions of dollars developing new products,” he says.
That the beauty industry is ripe for disruption is not news to many, and while several other direct-to-consumer brands have emerged in recent years, Li believes there are plenty of opportunities.
“Yes, this is an incredibly competitive and crowded area — we’re up against independents and newcomers plus the big budgets of the established brands,” he says.
“For us to really stand out, we have focussed on innovation and quality. We have developed a large portfolio of products that didn’t exist before within a very short space of time. For instance, our TEN range where all products have 10 ingredients or less takes a lot of expertise to create.”
Li certainly has a full plate, but he says he keeps focus by avoiding multitasking. Controversial, I know.
“I make a to-do list of priorities and start with the first task. I only move on to the following task when the top one is done,” he says.
Having faced numerous challenges throughout his career, Li acknowledges that “a crisis, in one form or another, is inevitable for anyone running a business.”
His advice? Be upfront and transparent with customers, shareholders, and employees.
“If there are negative adjustments e.g. downgrading a forecast, make those changes fast in order to avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’,” he concludes.
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