Sophia Lin: The Beauty Technopreneur
When we first met at a networking session and I knew that Sophia Lin wasn’t local. The American accent was a dead giveaway. Probably went to an Ivy League or worked in the States, I thought. Turns out, I was right – she did an MBA at MIT Sloane and had worked in Private Equity for a bit before moving to Singapore last fall. Reasons for relocating were simple: “My boyfriend was posted here for work and it was also closer to home. I am Taiwanese.” Before I probed further on how Singapore was treating her and the various types of local delights she has sampled, she immediately takes out her phone. Exchange of numbers? Or perhaps, she needs a tour guide? No, I was wrong –what she said next, really caught me off guard. “I’ve just developed this beauty app for women. Here, let me show you.” Needless to say, I was impressed.
Fast forward to today. I arrive 5 minutes early at the Landing Point, Fullerton Bay Hotel, only to receive a text message that she could not get a taxi. With spare time on my hands, the obvious choice is to reach for my phone. Isn’t that the de facto norm nowadays? As the name suggests, Pamperologist is all about pampering yourself – the social beauty app allows you to effortlessly search for beauty services (hair, nails, skin and body), book appointments and eventually share your experience with your friends. My attempt to book a massage appointment after work gets thwarted as Sophia arrives. She apologises profusely before giving me a warm hug. We exchange a round of pleasantries and order caffeinated drinks – an iced latte for Sophia, while I opt for a flat white.
WY-LENE YAP: How has Singapore been so far?
SOPHIA LIN: Oh, I love it! I think Singapore has a very good business environment. I also love how green, clean and organised it is and the tropical weather is awesome as I enjoy going outdoors.
WY-LENE: Favourite local food?
SOPHIA: I love chicken rice! Isn’t it everyone’s favourite dish too?
WY-LENE: Yeah. White or Roasted?
MIT was definitely a transformative process.
WY-LENE: Tell me more about yourself.
SOPHIA: I grew up in Taiwan, went to National Taiwan University (for my undergrad) and worked in banking for 4 years there. I was the only one who had a bachelor’s degree that got recruited into this MBA rotational programme. I was the only exception that year and people thought that I had special connections. This is my motto: I will always try, till I fail. For that application, they stated very clearly; they only interview candidates with a Master’s degree. But I still applied anyway. Maybe it was sheer luck or they were impressed by my courage – either way, I still worked very hard to make up for a lot of knowledge that I didn’t get a chance to learn in school. All my peers went to grad school so they had the financial knowledge already. I stayed there for 2 years and became the youngest manager at a firm. Thereafter, I decided to go to MIT for my MBA programme. MIT was definitely a transformative process.
WY-LENE: What was it like at MIT?
SOPHIA: I think for me, business school is mostly about the experience. Right now, there are so many online educational websites. In the East Coast, MIT and Harvard started EdX, a free platform for different courses. Similarly, in the West Coast, they have Coursera. While knowledge is pretty accessible for anyone, it is the experience and your peers that really make the difference. MIT totally offered me that –I got to work with really cool people who were pursuing entrepreneurship or had start-ups already.
WY-LENE: Would you say that your passion to become an entrepreneur started at MIT, where you were mixing with like-minded individuals?
SOPHIA: Yes. Before MIT, I was also part of the Epoch Foundation in Taiwan. Going to MIT, I was still thinking of going back to Finance after my MBA. But after studying and interacting with so many entrepreneurs and people who had that entrepreneurial mindset, you definitely look at things in a different way. I think entrepreneurship is not just… I wouldn’t give it a narrow definition that you have to start a business to call yourself an entrepreneur. It’s more of a mindset and the willingness to create something different.
WY-LENE: I absolutely agree with you.
SOPHIA: Even though you are in a big firm, you can be entrepreneurial by creating something different to increase the firm’s value. It can be changing the process for example.
WY-LENE: What are you passionate about?
SOPHIA: [laughs] Ahh…I am passionate about my startup! It’s a broad question.
WY-LENE: Sure, that’s a given – or rather, what keeps you raring to go in the morning?
SOPHIA: What keeps me going forward is knowing that I am better than who I was yesterday. I want to learn new things everyday to improve myself– either in a professional or personal setting.
WY-LENE: How did you come up with Pamperologist?
SOPHIA: Actually, it started from my own personal experience, having faced so many difficulties of looking for nail or hair salons and even massage spas. I feel that this echoes a lot of women’s struggle? Struggle might be a heavy word. Girls like us, we always try to do our best, but we also struggle with many different things –sometimes, we just want to take a break and have some nice pampering. And even when you’re trying to get pampered, you still have to go online and google for a place before making an appointment. When you get there eventually, it doesn’t turn out to be good as there were no prior reviews. Getting pampered should be a nice and enjoyable experience. It shouldn’t be that hard!
WY-LENE: What is Pamperologist?
SOPHIA: Pamperologist is a social beauty app that optimises women’s pampering experience – from searching to booking to sharing by leveraging on your social network.
WY-LENE: The name sounds catchy. What do you do to pamper yourself?
SOPHIA: A lot of things! I definitely like massages. I go to nail salons with my girlfriends. I don’t like to go there by myself. To me, it is a special bonding session, while you get your nails done. In the past, if I have relationship troubles; you know when you break up with your boyfriend and you just want to change yourself: like get a haircut or a perm –something that makes you look different so that you can start a new chapter. So yeah, I use all these beauty services for different stages of my life.
WY-LENE: Can you share with me your business model?
SOPHIA: Pamperologist is a very user-centric app. Oh, let me take a step back. When I came up with this idea, I was thinking about starting a website. But then, I realised that we always search for beauty salons on the go. Say, I have 2 meetings in-between and have an hour break. I can go somewhere nearby and get my nails done. For professional women, time is very important so it’s hard to go on the website to get all of this done. I think a mobile platform makes more sense. Also now, we have 2,200 salon listings on Pamperologist in Singapore. It’s a big database, which we have collected. We spent a lot of time and effort and if we put it on the website, our potential competitors can easily copy it. Hence, our business strategy is to go mobile first, till we have enough users for the web. The mobile app is picking up dramatically – I can send you a chart later and if you see the numbers, it is amazing; people are spending so much more time on their mobiles phones than on websites.
WY-LENE: What makes your app unique?
SOPHIA: We have a trending page where you can keyword search for various styles shared by users and stylists. When you search for “Bob hairstyle”, you can get to see all the “Bob hairstyles” done by local stylists and based on the picture, immediately know which salon is capable of giving you the look which you desire. This is a visual search, which we never saw before. While you don’t know which salon to go to and we might share different style preferences because your 5 star salon might be different from my 5 star- salon. Based on the picture you have shared, I will get a better understanding of your style and if I would like to try it out, I know that your salon is able to give me that look.
WY-LENE: How do you derive your revenue at this point?
SOPHIA: We have 3 pillars –local ads, deal listings and booking fees. In fact, some local advertisers have contacted us and they are interested in listing on our platform. It is very clear that we target women. Our user interface is so girlish too.
WY-LENE: Yeah, I like that your app is specifically for women. How many people have downloaded your app?
SOPHIA: The app was launched around end July and since then, we have more than 1000 downloads across 2 platforms (Android and iOS). This is without any marketing yet.
WY-LENE: How about the number of users who have used your app to make appointments?
SOPHIA: We haven’t included the completed booking feature yet. Right now, you can call to book. In our next version, we will develop a booking feature whereby you can see the salon’s schedule, make a booking online and even message the stylist. This version will be available around the end of this year or early next year.
WY-LENE: Let’s talk about beauty trends. What are some of the current ones that you have been noticing?
SOPHIA: I think beauty trends are subjective. Different girls have different preferences and styles. Korean styles are definitely a huge trend right now. We have a blog and whenever we post something about Korean styles, it is always the most trending article.
WY-LENE: Well, Singaporeans do go crazy over anything Korean.
SOPHIA: It is also interesting to see how salons are gradually positioning themselves as Korean hair/ nail salons. During my time, I remember how it used to be everything “Japanese”.
WY-LENE: What is beauty to you?
SOPHIA: I was just reading about another start-up called Julep (a nail parlour) based in Seattle. On their website, they used a quote which I really liked and I am going to rehash it: “Beauty is not a competition, it is a connection.”
WY-LENE: I love that quote. As a start-up in Singapore, what are some challenges that you face?
SOPHIA: Unfortunately, as a foreigner and not a Singapore citizen, we cannot get any government funding. From my perspective, if we get funded (through government subsidy), it will contribute to Singapore’s GDP. It’s such a pity though. Besides that, it is really hard to get a work permit or to set up a business here. If you look at the US as to why Silicon Valley is so successful, almost half of the start-ups have foreign co-founders. They definitely leverage on a lot foreign talent to build their empires. Singapore can definitely consider that. I do admire the government’s strategy of trying to nurse the start-up scene here (in terms of injecting resources). The problem is not just capital – capital is important, as you need a lot of money to be able to grow but the other resource is definitely talent.
WY-LENE: How about investors?
SOPHIA: On the private investors side, we have talked to some local investors and investors in the US. I think what we are trying to do here, is a very new business concept. Local investors are used to a proven business model, as it can be easily applied to the Southeast Asian market. They might be more interested in a local YELP or an e-commerce or even taxi app. Whereas in the US, they are open to more innovative ideas and Beautifed just got seeded for around 1 million. So I think it might take a longer time to convince investors here.
WY-LENE: Would you say that your app is almost one-of-a-kind?
SOPHIA: Yeah, I would say that I haven’t seen any other business model that is exactly the same as mine.
WY-LENE: Did you ever imagine being a technopreneur?
SOPHIA: Definitely not. I have never really been a tech person. When I was in Taiwan before MIT, I never liked technology. Technology was a way of life, and something that I was never into. At MIT, things changed and I had to embrace it. Even a girl like me who is not into technology, can really feel that huge development/shift –it does play a big role in our lives at the moment.
WY-LENE: What’s next for Pamperologist? Any future plans?
SOPHIA: New York, Tokyo and Seoul.
WY-LENE: How about China?
SOPHIA: I think China is a very interesting market. A lot of Chinese beauty start-ups get funded. I would definitely consider China if we have a strong local partner. It’s all about the connections and relationships there.