Christina and her partner Francois-Xavier Humbert.
Today we’re talking to Christina Kao and learning more about her beauty startup. As managing partner of Camelia Beauty in Shanghai, China, the 36-year-old entrepreneur just successfully funded Le Mini Macaron, a new do-it-yourself (DIY) gel manicure kit on Kickstarter.
The compact kits come in different macaron-inspired colors (like Strawberry Pink and Lavender Purple) and include everything needed to DIY at home:
- A one-finger LED lamp, designed like a French macaron
- A bottle of shiny gel polish, applies in only one step
- Power charger with a USB adapter
- Cuticle stick and nail file to aid in application
- 10 soak-off remover pads
- Detailed instructions for application and removal
Kao exceeded her goal of $10,000 thanks to 307 backers and to date has raised a total of $20,398. Her company was founded in 2013, has a total of six employees and the annual projected revenue for 2015 is $500,000.
I tracked down Kao for a little Q&A to find out more about the woman behind the growing startup and what she did to rock her Kickstarter campaign.
Natasha Clark: What do you do?
Christina Kao: My focus is on business development and client management, product development, marketing & PR, and also project management. On top of that, I run the office and the daily operations, HR and accounting.
Clark: Tell me a little about your background in business?
Kao: I only recently became an entrepreneur (2.5 years ago)! Before that, I specialized in branding, advertising and events working at agencies. I also spent 2 years working for an Australian chef at his F&B start-up (overseeing marketing & PR for 9 restaurants + business development for his consulting business).
Clark: What makes your company unique?
Kao: We are a small startup based in Shanghai with a really international staff – I am Taiwanese-American, my partner is French, and we have Chinese, Italian and Spanish on our team! We combine my American style of management, coming from a creative background (having worked at agencies), with my partner’s European background and Chinese business approach (he has been an entrepreneur longer than me – 8 years working in China with Chinese production and factories). So we really bring together a lot of different cultures, working styles, environments, and approaches in our company. And are able to adapt to working with clients from all over the world.
Clark: Tell about some of your specialties?
Kao: I believe I’m a strong communicator and usually able to understand what the other party wants quite well. So I focus a lot on branding and design – creating products that are really eye-catching…then I combine that with solving a customer’s problem, what is she looking for, and how do we create something to engage and enrich our customer’s life. It’s about delighting our customer over and over again – with design, concept, functionality, ease of use, value for money, and fresh new ideas! We want to engage our customer so that she comes back to us, and we can offer her more and better products and services.
Clark: We are proud to provide a platform for female entrepreneurs. As a woman, did you encounter any unique experiences in establishing your business because of your gender?
Kao: As I’m in the beauty business, it’s a huge advantage to be a woman! I’m naturally a user of all of our products and I intuitively understand what our customers are wanting and feeling when it comes to this category. Otherwise, I would have to say that, as I’m based in Shanghai, the international community that I encounter are very open and supportive of female entrepreneurs. The Chinese community can be a little more challenging – especially when we work with established corporates, factories or government bureaus – it’s easier to be respected as a man. But that is also a cultural thing. When I’m in the U.S. for business, I find that the business community is open and welcoming to female entrepreneurs and I’m thrilled that today there are more platforms like Lioness which support and celebrate women entrepreneurs.
Clark: What made you decide to open your own business rather than work for someone else?
Kao: Opportunity. My business partner is also my boyfriend actually! When I met him, I had decided to leave my job but didn’t know yet what was next. It was a lucky next step for me because he had already been working for himself for about 2 years, so entering into entrepreneurship with him was a great transition. I have always felt that I needed a greater challenge for myself to create and make something for the world that is successful and sustainable, beyond just working for a big company.
Clark: With so many companies doing more things digitally, how do you stay relevant?
Kao: Well, I still feel young enough where digital feels like something I grew up with, instead of some foreign technology that I need to adopt. I follow certain brands and media outlets (i.e. fashion magazines, etc.) that I feel are in a similar playing field as our brand. It allows me to take the temperature and gives me inspiration for content, tone and style. And then for our online presence (web + social), it’s about having a consistent voice and engaging the consumer with what they want to see and hear. I am very hands-on with our social media to ensure this.
Clark: If you could give advice to readers who want to break into your industry, what would it be?
Kao: If you want to be an entrepreneur in the beauty industry, the most important thing I feel is understanding your sales and distribution channels. The industry is so competitive and most of the competitors are these huge conglomerates, it’s hard to break in with a new brand – so having a firm grasp on the distribution landscape and where your brand’s opportunities lie will be crucial. Because at the end of the day, we all need to sell!
If you want to break into beauty as an employee, I feel it’s important to be an avid user and lover of not just products, but brands. And think about why you love those brands. What are they bringing to you? Innovation, convenience, packaging, concept, emotional connection? Because if you’re working for a beauty brand, you will need to create value and do something different than what other brands do…so be sure to pay attention to what stands out to you. You’ll then be able to translate that to your company!
Clark: What was one of your biggest challenges when launching your company?
Kao: The very beginning was actually not so hard. It was more about 1.5 years in and we were not achieving the sales targets we had set for ourselves and that we needed to grow the company. It required us to really shift our focus and energy to sales, sales, sales. That became the driving factor behind everything.
Clark: What revenue sources did you use early on to get going?
Kao: We were lucky to get listed in Sephora China last year (with another brand that we had developed called MyTrendyKit) and this helped supply the ongoing revenue that has allowed us to grow the business. But we are self-funded, so we are very careful with our choices and which opportunities we pursue.
Clark: What are some things you do to stay motivated?
Kao: This can definitely be challenging at times. But it’s really great to have other entrepreneur friends that you can catch up with and basically commiserate/share inspiration! Also, we are just REALLY excited about our brand and product, and every time we get in front of consumers we feed off their excited reactions. We started doing a lot of consumer events 6 months ago (which we didn’t do before) and this has been a constant source of inspiration and momentum-building for us.
Clark: Tell us about your work with women?
Kao: Most of our staff and interns are women. I have always enjoyed mentoring other women (at my previous companies), and it’s actually become more difficult to find the time to do so, now that we’re so busy with our start-up on a daily basis. But I really believe in the power of mentoring and training to inspire the next generation. Learning how to work better and smarter, developing skill sets that make you an attractive employee, and feeling passionate and fulfilled by your daily work are so important for everyone, not just women. Twice a year, I guest lecture at NYU in Shanghai (as NYU is my alma mater) and share our stories and experiences with the students there.
Clark: Many entrepreneurs struggle with turning their startups into sustainable businesses. What would you say are the top things women need to keep in mind?
Kao: I had a previous boss that would always say, ‘What makes your brand different and better than the competition’? From a brand/product/service offering perspective, you have to be really clear on how you’re ‘different and better’. Second, you need to balance between short term and long term – startups are always struggling with cashflow early on, so when you make decisions, you want to be sure that you’re handling your cashflow, but you’re also being strategic so that you don’t mess up your long term potential/opportunity. Lastly, it’s all about the people. You need a great, passionate, dedicated team around you that is going to work on your business like it’s their own. If you can hire and keep these people, they will help you be in business for the long term.
Clark: How do you juggle spending time with your family and pursuing your passions?
Kao: Well, at the moment, my partner and I are spending pretty much all of our time on our business. We don’t have any children so that really does allow us to work 100% of the time on this! It can be overwhelming, so it’s important to make time for friends, family and just do things that let you remember that life is about so many other important and joyful things too! We love to travel so we incorporate a lot of travel into our business, which allows us to work from some amazing places. Just this year, we have been to the Philippines, Vienna, Paris, Geneva, Istanbul, San Francisco and Bali. We work ALL the time literally, so it’s nice to be able to do so on the road sometimes!
Clark: What do you see as the next logical phase in your entrepreneur journey?
Kao: We want to expand and we are looking at which markets we want to enter next. So I see our business model changing a bit to allow for this. And I’ll have to exercise my business development and management skills to allow for this new direction! I’m excited about what’s to come. Everything lies ahead!
Clark: I would love to learn more about how your crowdfunding campaign went and a few tips you would offer another entrepreneur looking to host a successful campaign.
Kao: We love the community of Kickstarter, as they are so open and passionate about new products. And they are genuinely curious and supportive of your story. But Kickstarter truly is a marathon! You’re fighting daily to get PR exposure, consumer exposure, exposure on Kickstarter’s site itself, so you definitely need a team and a plan to get to your goal! In terms of tips, the key things would be:
- Starting your marketing efforts two months prior to launch.
- Hit up tech media for coverage as they will help drive early adopters to your project.
- Do whatever you can to get featured by Kickstarter’s staff – if you are visible on their page, backers will pour in, but if you’re not visible, then it’s very challenging. Doing a Kickstarter is a mini business case study, you are going from A to Z with product development, marketing, sales, production, delivery, and customer service… all in a super condensed amount of time. It’s a wonderful learning experience but it’s definitely a chaotic and stressful period whether or not you are successful!