On 15th April 2021, three Singapore-based INSEAD Alumni Clubs came together for a very special private conversation with Ms Sabrina Tan, founder and CEO of Skin Inc, whose ability to fuse disparate ideas together has given her comparisons to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.
Here is the story of Sabrina Tan and her amazing and innovative skincare company.
Sabrina was only 34 when she started. On the back of 11 hard years of work in tech corporate jobs, traveling across Asia, she realised one night that her vanity graveyard was the last straw. At the time a mother of 2 toddlers suffering from eczema, she was the epitome of the time-starved high-performing modern woman whose skincare just did not serve her needs.
Sabrina set herself a task – outsmart this outdated view of beauty as a leisurely pampering ritual and bring it up to speed for a results-oriented data-driven entrepreneur who needed reliable speed and quality. She knew her market well. Through research, she realised that up to 80% of the skin’s evolving conditions are heavily affected by lifestyle and environment factors such as lack of sleep, stress, pollution, travel environment, and so much more. She wants Skin Inc to be recognized as the most innovative skincare, wellness and tech company that harnesses the power of AI & Skin Inc Cloud to deliver customised skincare on demand, resulting in healthy glowing skin.
Sabrina went to Japan to find answers in its world-class labs and skin doctors. She told the experts that she wanted three serums multi-tasking in a single step and they stared at her blankly and told her ‘No! You can only have one active ingredient.’ However, a picture of a capsule triggered an inspiration from her tech experience of encrypting and encapsulating data into packets that could be delivered discretely. The experts responded – active ingredients encapsulated and suspended in a hydrating base serum.
Fusing data and science, a simple 3-minute skin identity quiz based on your unique concerns and lifestyle generates My Daily Dose and My Nightly Dose, a custom-blended serum and booster-activated sleeping mask that’s best suited for your skin needs, customizing beauty for every you. To increase effectiveness and use marine technology, Skin Inc created their proprietary algae-based encapsulation of active and potent ingredients into the customized serums. Later on, Skin Inc launched our NASA-inspired LED Trilight Voyager, a device that increases absorption of skincare by 300x, Sabrina was able to launch products that reduced the guesswork of skincare ingredients, while significantly boosting its performance. A perfect marriage of customization, marine tech (using the proprietary encapsulation) and high-tech technology (using LED tech).
Rebooting beauty, Sabrina has been a visionary game-changer and thought-leader in the skintech and wellness industry by harnessing the power of customization and tech to augment the efficacy of skincare. With a passionate calling to “reboot beauty”, Sabrina conceived Skin Inc as the world’s first Customized Serum Cocktail Bar offering fully-customizable beauty serum with the ability to fit up to 10 active ingredients for a personalized skincare up to 120 combinations. This was just the beginning. From a single 200 sq ft store in The Central at Eu Tong Sen street in 2008, Skin Inc has penetrated Singapore Airlines flight catalog since 2012, and global beauty mega-store Sephora since 2013 – giving it unequalled reach. China’s Dragon Air, major department store chains, and boutique hotels across Europe jumped onboard.
There have also been multiple collaborations: with fashion (Self-Portrait, for the dewy look for its 2017 New York Fashion Week show), entertainment (a limited-edition Beauty & The Beast serum with Disney, investment from South Korea’s Spackman Entertainment Group) and celebrities (award-winning actress Son Ye-Jin as Skin Inc.’s first brand evangelist).
To put things in perspective, Skin Inc celebrated its 10th anniversary with a three-day bash, hosting social media and brand influencers from around the world. It was streamed “live” and saw 7 million views, with a reach of over 80 million.
In the middle of the whirlwind of success, it is easy to forget the super power at the heart of Sabrina’s company. Her visionary mind knew from the start that hers would be a tech company – that responded as an “always listening” big data machine creating targeted solutions “live” as her customers’ data changed right in front of her.
With the million-profile rich database of consumer insights, coupled with their proprietary decision-support intelligence (online “Skin Identity Check”), Skin Inc is uniquely able to give customers instant feedback on their needs and the immediate means to access the solution. A few clicks online, and a full beauty rescue would be winging its way to your home.
There was no need for slow traditional forecasting. As a digital and data-driven brand who listens to consumers’ needs, our objective is to introduce innovations as a solution to consumers’ concerns. The customers’ voices are continuously captured by Skin Inc’s R&D labs, gap in the market are identified quickly, and their team of scientists ensured translation of the skin dreams of women and men from all over the world into practical, and effective skincare products and devices.
Skin Inc had beaten the competition, and the track record shows: 60 data-driven formulations, devices and timely innovations (like the maskliner to prevent maskne), in addition to solidifying the bestselling hero products, the My Daily Dose® Serum and the ground-breaking Optimizer Voyage Tri-Light++ LED device.
Skin Inc has grown into 78 cities and won over 140 Beauty Awards and counting.
While COVID-19 threw a major spanner in the works, it did not stop Sabrina at all. In fact, she saw it as a new inspiration to double down on her “why” – help women and men save time daily while addressing their most pressing skin needs. In 2020 alone, she pivoted online with a resounding 4-fold increase in sales, and launched 6 life-changing COVID-aid innovations:
1. Beauty Jelly Dose
2. Serum Glow Filter
3. My Daily Dose® of Armour
4. Serum UV Moisturizer
6. Refresh & Nourish Hand Serum Duo – this last was a stroke of genius, taking the most skin-dehydrating necessity of 2020 and turning it around into an opportunity to incorporate both a hand sanitizer and hand serum in one bottle.
All of these products are what tech folk would call “plug and play” with earlier products launched. For example, the moisturizing effects of Hand Serum Duo could be further enhanced by using the Optimizer Voyage Tri-Light++ (Blue LED Light Therapy for anti-bacterial and soothing).
Sabrina shared that such developments were supported by Skin Inc Innovation scientists Dr. Shekhar Mitra, an esteemed global innovation expert who was previously Senior Vice President Research & Development at Procter & Gamble and Dr. Donald L. Bisset, author of over 60 published technical manuscripts and the inventor of over 30 US patents with 32 years of skincare research experience at Procter & Gamble.
Another source of inspiration drawn from her tech experience was the Hackathon. Skin Inc had previously held a Beauty Hackathon with 10 YouTube influencers (in collaboration with Youtube). They answered the call for products that the market was still lacking: a masking moisturizer, plus a primer, plus serum, plus mist! And this has been created. “Customise, don’t compromise.”
Sabrina carries a heritage within her that has given her the gumption and resilience to do what she has done. 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, Sabrina was packing stocks, doing window displays and blending masks. By age 9, her mother had her practising facials. This was priceless ground experience in what it took to make a beauty business successful. In truth, through her family, Sabrina has had almost 30 years of business exposure by the time she started Skin Inc. Aside from her mother, her father ran a construction business, and 3 brothers had their own businesses.
Sabrina was the youngest of 4 siblings and the only girl, with impaired hearing in one side. Here was her second great gift from her upbringing. Her parents had raised their children gender and physical-ability-agnostic – expecting her to be as capable and confident and strong as her brothers. She was not treated differently and therefore never had to battle familial gender limitations. This bears out current research that gender bias sets in by age 8 – and the raising of young children played a part. Sabrina has passed on this ethos to her own two children, Ashley and Asher. “The main aim is to teach how to think critically,” she had said before.
Despite such will and determination, Sabrina has had her tough years, when she survived on 5 hours sleep nightly, had dinner with her children, and then continued to work past midnight after they have gone to bed. She recounted that there was once she broke down in front of her daughter with the worry that she would lose control of all the balls in the air.
Sabrina is an amazing example and living proof of the extraordinary contributions that innovative women can make. However, we acknowledge that there is still work to be done to address how to balance it all. She realises this too, and has been actively mentoring and adding value. For Sabrina, work-life balance was a state of mind. Balance is about staying connected, and being present emotionally and intellectually. “I want to be a motivation and inspiration to young women entrepreneurs, and show them it is possible to achieve their goals”, she had said in an interview with High Net Worth in 2016.
Sabrina was an initiator of the Galboss conference in 2016, which was wildly-successful, and she headlined the 2016 Great Women Of Our Time as keynote speaker. She had continued as advisor to multiple women entrepreneurship and leadership initiatives by the Singapore government (CFE, Committee on the Future Economy). Skin Inc had partnered World Vision International on their child sponsorship programme to support 100 underprivileged girls’ education for a year.
Sabrina’s advice to share with other women: “Perfection is counter-productive. This is even more valid in the new normal, go for impact! It’s important to pay attention to details but it’s energy-depleting when you’re sweating the details.” This also gels with current evidence that women hesitate to go the next step (promotions, opportunities) until they felt 100% ready, while men would take on the challenge with less.
Sabrina has observed that nearly all entrepreneurs are self-starters with passion and goals for their business. However, there may be different choices in how male and female entrepreneurs choose to run. Having said that, once the ground was equal, gender no longer counted – it was about competing and being the best one can be among peers.
Sabrina wrapped up by sharing that her Choose To Challenge was to herself, to support other women chase their goals and dreams.
She said: Don’t minimize yourself, don’t deflect a compliment, or don’t give up your power by thinking you don’t have any. I remembered a quote I came across: “Dream with ambition. Lead with conviction. And see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.”
Thank you, Sabrina, for your hour with us. We have indeed learnt a lot from you!
Written by Li Lian Liew EMBA’13Dec – President INSEAD Alumni Club Women in Business
Previous interviews with Sabrina:
TBG Interview: Sabrina Tan, founder, Skin Inc
Articles unhiding the secret sauce & impact of giving girls an equal start in life:
Cristal Glangchai Believes Girls Have the Power to Change the World. And She Can Prove It.