When the Covid pandemic was going on in 2020, much of the world was in lockdown and more and more were turning to online shopping.
But Chrisanti Indiana did something unexpected: she expanded her e-commerce business – offline.
Her beauty and personal care e-commerce startup Sociolla had just two brick-and-mortar stores in Indonesia in 2019. By the end of 2021, that number will grow “10 times” more, she said.
“A lot of people have actually told us that opening an offline presence, when everyone is closing their offline stores, is a very bold move. [during the pandemic],” she said.
But it was a “well calculated” move for Social Bella, which operates Sociolla.
“We know that this is the time for us to really prepare … to make sure that we can serve more and more consumers after the pandemic,” she said.
Looking ahead it turned out to be the right move for the 31-year-old. Her online and offline approach transformed her e-commerce startup into a multi-million dollar beauty conglomerate.
As of 2018, it has raised around $225 million, attracting an impressive list of investors including East Ventures, Jungle Ventures, Temasek and Pavilion Capital.
Indiana, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Social Bella, tells CNBC Make It how she took her Jakarta-based startup to the next level.
The idea for Sociolla emerged in 2015, when Indiana returned home to Jakarta, after studying in Australia.
The makeup junkie realized that in Australia she had easy access to a wide range of beauty products from international brands. That was in stark contrast to Indonesia.
“There were a lot of options for me, but then I came back and there’s basically none,” Indiana said.
“There wasn’t a platform that had it all – I had to find specific sellers on social media, ask friends who can help buy the product for you [when they are] abroad.”
What made matters worse for her was the online proliferation of counterfeit makeup products that were sometimes selling for a “fraction” of the price of the original.
“I still remember vividly in my mind that there are many sellers like a line, especially on social media, who claim that their products are 99% authentic. What does that mean, 99% authentic?”
In fact, locally produced counterfeits in Indonesia are rife, thanks to cheap labor and material costs. According to a local report, Indonesian authorities seized illegal cosmetic products worth $9 million in 2018 – twice the amount of the previous year.
Seeing friends buying these products, Indiana was worried.
“It’s skin care, it’s makeup. It’s something you put on your skin. It’s just weird to me,” she said.
Thinking of building a space where consumers can find safe and authentic products, Indiana teamed up with her brother and friend to launch Social Bella, with an initial capital of $13,000.
“Since we started, we have made sure that we only work with authorized distributors or brand owners,” Indiana said.
Building an ‘ecosystem’
Sociolla may have started as an e-commerce platform, but the trio had bigger dreams.
Social Bella has since gone beyond offline stores – it is also a distributor for beauty and personal care manufacturers around the world.
“We become an associate partner for many global brands in Indonesia. We help them not only distribute their products in Indonesia, but we also help them understand the market,” said Indiana.
In addition, the business also operates Soco, which Social Bella says is Indonesia’s largest online review service for beauty products. Soco has collected more than 2.5 million reviews on around 36,000 products, the company added.
The “beauty journey” for customers goes beyond putting something in their shopping carts and checking out, Indiana said.
“We realized that there are a lot of touch points that are really important… you don’t just get the right products for yourself to go to the store and pick it up. You make sure you read the reviews, you talk to your friends, or Google first,” she said.
“Soco makes sure they can access tons of product reviews before they buy products.”
In addition, Social runs Bella Beauty Journal – a lifestyle website, and Lilla, the online retailer for mothers and babies.
That’s all part of building the business “ecosystem,” as Indiana calls it.
“We want … to serve women more and more, not only in beauty and personal care, but also in other industries.”
The startup appears to be on the right track — it now has more than 30 million users across all its business units, Social Bella said, selling an inventory of 12,000 products from 400 brands worldwide.
Indonesia’s next unicorn?
Over the past two years, Social Bella has expanded strongly, growing from three Sociolla stores in Indonesia in 2020, to 47 stores there and 16 stores in Vietnam today.
Although much of the expansion happened during the pandemic, Indiana said that was always part of the plan for the e-commerce platform, lockdown or not.
“It’s really about creating a seamless omnichannel experience … because we believe we’re serving the same customer whether she shops offline or online,” said the Forbes ’30 Under 30 Asia honoree .
“They can choose to do click-and-collect or … she can also have the purchases delivered to her home. It’s making sure she can shop the way she likes.”