Could you tell us a bit about yourself, what you sell at Sabbatical Beauty and how you got started?
I used to be a professor at a small state university in NJ. I was frustrated with academia and wanted to leave. On my sabbatical, I started experimenting with making my own Korean skincare products.
I had been a Korean beauty junkie for the past few years and when doing research, discovered that a lot of products may claim to have a certain active ingredient that would do miraculous things (e.g. honey), but if you look at the ingredients list, honey is actually one of the last ingredients on that list, meaning the amount of active ingredients it contained was negligible.
I was frustrated because the vast majority of skincare products available were like this, which is why I started making my own products on sabbatical, because that was the only way I could guarantee that the level of active ingredients used was high. So I invested in setting up a home lab, and started making my own creations and formulations.
My skin improved very rapidly, and upon seeing the difference, my friends demanded that I make my products for them too. So I started making them in a small co-op. Then they asked me to sell my products online, so that they could point their friends to why their skin had improved so much. That’s how Sabbatical Beauty started. We blew up when we were featured in Slate, and it grew from there. I quit my academic job in 2017 to do SB full time.
That’s amazing! What did it take to get your first products in stock? Has that changed since you started?
All our products are made in house, in small batches. At first it was just me making and handling everything, and as I grew, I hired people to take over making and customer service. We now operate (making, shipping, customer service) out of a small lab/studio in the Manayunk area, in Philadelphia.
How did you get your first sale?
Word of mouth. We blew up when we were featured in Slate, and other earned media coverage (like in Allure) has also helped.
Looks like you’ve had some pretty incredible mentions in major publications. How did you get your products noticed by those big names?
It was a combination of a lot of luck and persistence. The Slate article happened because we got noticed by a friend of a friend, also a former academic. Then I sent out some press releases about my new Spring collection in 2016 which got us noticed by Women’s Wear Daily, which is a big trade publication, and made contact with a really cool journalist, Rachel Jacoby Zoldan. Rachel covered us for Shape Magazine and later hooked us up with Allure.
What obstacles and challenges have you overcome along the way?
Knowing when and how much to scale is always a tricky question. Taking on more overhead - when we moved into our own premises, for example - was always scary because I never knew if we would make good on the return.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve had to learn many many fields from scratch; first cosmetic chemistry, then marketing and business development. It’s both hard and exhilarating at the same time. Also, learning how to manage people was challenging for me. I’ve never had direct reports before, or learned how to manage, so doing research into management was also new to me.
What influenced your decision to use Shopify?
I used to teach web design in Wordpress in my former job (and worked as a freelance web developer), so I know how clunky Wordpress can be, especially for ecommerce. I knew that to make sure I would have as seamless an experience as possible I wanted to use a platform that specialized in ecommerce rather than blogging so that I would be able to hit the ground running. Shopify fit the bill, so I started with Shopify and have never looked back.
What Shopify apps do you currently use? Which apps are most important to your business?
LOL I use a lot of apps. The most important ones off the top of my head:’
*Shogun - allows me to customize the look of my site and create landing pages
*Lucky Orange - to study user experience
*Ultimate Special Offers - fantastic tool for offers
*Judge.me - for social proof
*Smile.io - for my rewards system
*Message Mate - for customer service via text
*Privy - my popup app
What was the process like to get started? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you know now?
It was pretty easy because I’m already pretty familiar with web development. I still control all web design and digital aspects for my shop. What I wish I had known to spend more time doing when I started was to always be looking ahead for lead generation. A business without new leads is a business that is going to die.
That’s a profound statement and so true! What strategies have you used to attract more leads and grow Sabbatical Beauty?
The most effective lead generation strategy for me has been to build my marketing calendar around seasonal boxes. We produce four boxes a year (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall), each catering to your skin needs during different seasons.
Months before the box launch, we send out a call for box reviewers who receive a free box in exchange for doing video reviews and blog reviews weekly where they document changes in their skin from using the upcoming seasonal box as a routine. We then feature these reviewers on our social media and email lists.
Our Summer Box just launched and is going away this Sunday (July 1). You can read about the box and the reviewers’ journeys here. The call for reviewers for the Fall box will be going out mid-July.
What are some of the most effective ways that you interact with your customers?
In our Facebook group. Many of our customers tell us the Facebook group is one of the best things about the brand. It’s full of supportive, helpful people who share real and honest reviews as well as help each other with their skincare routines, and even through difficult, non-skin-care related issues.
Awesome! Looks like your Facebook group is thriving with 3k + members. How did you get started? Any advice for generating engagement?
When I was a professor I was in a field known as digital humanities. One of the things that I did best and was well known for was for starting and fostering strong online communities. I since translated that into the Sabbatical Beauty brand identity and Facebook group, which champions a feminist ideal of beauty where women and men lift each other up instead of competing with each other.
The best advice I have for generating engagement is to be yourself, and be real. Many of the SB community members have said how much they appreciate it that I am myself in the group, just a regular human being and not some faceless corporate leader. I also feature the people who work for me heavily and they play a strong role in the group.
My mantra is also to always make the community about others, rather than about me. This brings the brand identity to manifest in much more diverse ways, because Sabbatical Beauty isn’t just about me, it’s about our diverse and international community (the majority of our customers are based in the United States and Singapore).
Are there any metrics you can share in terms of order volume, monthly sales, increased revenue, growth %, etc.?
Between 2016 and 2017 we grew by 10%, and since I introduced my new seasonal box marketing strategy in 2018 we’re projected to double our revenue by the end of this year.
We’ve also increased our Average Order Value from $75 in 2017 to $125 in 2018.
Incredible! To what do you attribute those positive metrics?
A more effective marketing strategy, and increasing our free shipping threshold to $125 per order (domestic).
What are you working towards now?
We are going to start planning for our Fall box soon. We’re also working on lead nurturing sequences via our Manychat bot on our Facebook page.
Right now we have a pretty intelligent bot (named Ada Bot, after Ada Lovelace, a 19th century Englishwoman commonly thought of as the first computer programmer), which our customers love to interact with via Messenger. You can ask her to be your friend and even to cheer you up and she’ll be able to entertain you a little.
Are there any blogs or other resources that have been helpful for you?
I read the Shopify blog a lot. My favorite podcast is Felix Thea’s Shopify Masters--I’ve learned a lot via that podcast. Additionally, I read the Klaviyo blog religiously. Klaviyo is my email marketing system and their blog is golden.
Based on your own success, what advice would you share with others who might be just starting out with Shopify (or with eCommerce in general)?
You have to keep showing up and putting yourself out there, even if often it feels like you’re yelling into the void. The Internet is noisy, there are so many other things out there. You need to put the effort in and be consistent and always show up.
You also need to value your customers as human beings, and treat them the way you yourself would hope to be treated if you were your own customer.
That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing! Where can we learn more?
~ Adeline Koh, Founder of Sabbatical Beauty