When the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, most of the world shut down and turned to online shopping.
But Chrisanti Indiana did the unexpected: he expanded his e-commerce business – offline.
The beauty and personal care e-commerce, Sociolla, had only two brick-and-mortar stores in Indonesia in 2019. By the end of 2021, this number has increased “10 times” more, he said.
“Many people have told us that opening an offline presence, when everyone else has closed their offline stores, is a very bold move. [during the pandemic]”, he added.
But it’s a “well-calculated” move for Social Bella, which works with Sociolla.
“We know now is the time for us to really prepare … to make sure that after the pandemic we can serve more customers,” he added.
Looking away turned out to be the right move for this 31-year-old. Her online and offline approach has transformed an e-commerce startup into a multi-billion dollar beauty conglomerate.
Since 2018, it has raised around $225 million, and has made a list of investors that includes East Ventures, Jungle Ventures, Temasek and Pavilion Capital.
Indiana, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Social Bella, tells CNBC Make It how he took the Jakarta-based startup to the next level.
Dealing with fraud
The idea for Sociolla came about 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. It was the exact opposite of Indonesia.
“There were a lot of options for me, but I came back and there were none,” Indiana said.
“No one platform had it all – I had to find a specific seller on social media, ask a friend who can help buy the product for you [when they are] overseas.”
What really saddened her was the proliferation of fake makeup products online that are being sold at a “fraction” of the original price.
“I still remember clearly in my mind that there are so many sellers online, especially on social media, who claim that their products are 99% authentic. What does that mean, 99% authentic?”
Locally produced forgeries are very common in Indonesia, due to the cheap labor and materials. According to a local report, Indonesian authorities seized $9 million worth of illegal cosmetic products in 2018 — twice as much as last year.
Seeing his friends buying these products baffled Indiana.
“It’s skin care, it’s makeup. It’s something you put on your skin. It’s weird to me,” she said.
Determined to build a place where customers can get safe and authentic products, Indiana teamed up with her brother and friends to build Social Bella, with a capital of $13,000.
“Since we started, we make sure that we only work with 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 gone beyond an online store — it’s also a distributor for beauty and personal care manufacturers worldwide.
“We are becoming a partner of many global brands in Indonesia. We help them not only distribute their products in Indonesia, but also help them understand the market,” said Indian.
In addition, the company also operates Soco, which Social Bella claims is Indonesia’s largest online review service for beauty products. Soco has collected more than 2.5 million reviews for around 36,000 products, helped the company.
A “beautiful journey” for customers is more than just putting things in their shopping cart and checking out, Indiana said.
“We feel that there are many touch points that are very important…finding the right product for you is not just about going to the store and picking it up. You’ll want to make sure you read the reviews, talk to your friend, or Google first,” he added.
“Soco makes sure they have access to product reviews before they buy a product.”
In addition, Social Bella also runs Beauty Journal — a lifestyle website, and Lilla, an online retailer for mom and baby.
All this is part of building the business “ecosystem”, as Indians call it.
“We want to … serve more women, not only in beauty and personal care, but in other industries as well.”
The startup seems to be on the right track – it has more than 30 million users across all its companies, according to Social Bella, selling 12,000 products from 400 brands worldwide.
Indonesia’s next unicorn?
In the last two years, Social Bella has expanded aggressively, growing from just three Sociolla stores in Indonesia in 2020, to 47 stores there and now 16 stores in Vietnam.
Although most of the expansion happened during the pandemic, Indiana said it was part of the plan for the e-commerce platform, shutdown or not.
“The bottom line is to create a seamless omnichannel experience … because we believe we serve the same customer whether they shop online or offline,” said the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia honoree.
“They can choose to do click-and-collect or … they can also have their purchases delivered to their home. It ensures that they can shop the way they want.”