"What was your big break?" It's a question people often ask of celebrities, but at Allure, the beauty professionals and brand founders are the celebrities. In My Beauty Break, we'll dig into the behind-the-scenes details — the money, the aha! moments, and the mistakes — of the biggest brands in the industry. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicolas Travis, the founder of Allies of Skin, has skin so good, so glorious, that it appears to be shimmering, despite Zoom's trademark fuzzy picture quality and the fact that he's the busy founder and CEO of not one, but two, global beauty companies, Allies of Skin and the Sephora-exclusive brand PSA Skin: Purposeful Skincare by Allies. Travis, 33, like my own father's side of the family, is from Singapore, a tiny, steaming-hot island where Chanel stores seem about as easy to stumble upon as a Starbucks cafe would be in the U.S.
But nothing else about Travis' story has been small. Allies Group, as Allies of Skin and PSA are collectively known, is now sold in 28 countries, shipped out from four global offices (Berlin, Thailand, and the Philippines, in addition to his native Singapore). Travis plans to set up shop in Shanghai soon, with a fifth office and aims to open a sixth in the U.S. as soon as his next series of funding closes. The two-time entrepreneur and skin-care fanatic spills his secrets to starting scrappily, building slowly, and expanding across global borders.
Allure: How did your path to being a beauty-brand founder begin?
Nicolas Travis: My passion for skin care started when I was a teenager. I had really, really bad acne, but I didn't have a lot of money, and I didn't have a lot of skin-care knowledge, so I found the whole process of shopping for products really daunting. And that's how my passion started.
Having my own skin-care line was always something that I was really drawn to. After I finished my master's thesis, I spent about six months writing a business plan for a startup skin-care line. I did all my research, I created a financial model — and that model was based upon the infusion of a million dollars. But I actually ended up putting [the model] aside at the time because I was in my early twenties and I needed to go get a job.
Allure: You said you were completing your master's degree. How had you gotten to that point?
Travis: I grew up in Singapore, and for my bachelor's degree, I pursued biomedical and pharmaceutical science. I've always been very fascinated by how the skin works as an organ because that's what the skin is — it's our largest organ. And then I got my master's in international business. For me, it was always like a pipe dream of mine, combining the biomedical and international business aspects of my degrees.
"I always thought that I needed the right experience to do it, but I was at a point in my life where I was like, you know what? I really have nothing to lose, so why don't I just give it a shot?"
Allure: When did you finally combine them to form your own brand?
Travis: I felt I needed to pay my dues, so I applied to work at every single beauty company — Estée Lauder, LVMH, L'Oréal — in every single country I thought I could live in. None of them got back to me. But I still needed to get a job, so I did PR and social media for a while. I was doing well, but I wasn't fulfilled. I couldn't shake off the itch to revisit the business plan that I wrote.
I quickly realized I was never going to make a million dollars in my job at an ad agency. I always thought that I needed the right experience to do it, but I was at a point in my life where I was like, you know what? I really have nothing to lose, so why don't I just give it a shot? So that's what I did.
Allure: How did you "just give it a shot"?
Travis: I started working on Allies of Skin in 2013. I spent about two-and-a-half years doing research and development, but I only had enough money to launch one product. Luckily, my siblings were both willing to pitch in. My brother gave me a loan, and my sister gave me a loan so I could offer three products. We launched in spring of 2016 with those three products, and that was how it was started.
Allure: That's incredible. Have your brother and sister been pleased with their investment?
Travis: I paid them back, which I was really proud of, but I also offered them equity. They were like, "No, you save the equity for yourself." I think they're regretting it now. Yeah, they probably are regretting it.
Allure: They must be. Can you tell me about your first job?
Travis: I have been working since I was 15. My first job was at Häagen-Dazs, so I am really good at scooping ice cream and making a sundae. I also did a lot of drama in high school. I was really into that as well. But now I'm in the beauty business.
Allure: You have to be sort of an entertainer, I think, to be a founder in this business in a lot of ways.
Travis: Yeah. With acting or a great film or a great song, it really connects people. And I like to think that that's kind of what we do. We connect people.
Allure: You make them look better on top of it, which is more than I can say for entertainment.
Travis: I think it's even better to feel good about yourself because you can look good, but you can feel like trash, right?
Allure: Yes. That's a good distinction. Speaking of which, what would you say Allies of Skin’s brand philosophy is?
Travis: At Allies of skin, we're driven by an ethos we call "supercharged clinical." This means we take clinically proven active ingredients — such as vitamin C, retinol, antioxidants, peptides — and we put our own supercharged spin on them. For example, we have the world's first waterless 35 percent vitamin C serum. Anyone who is familiar with vitamin C knows it is a very testy, very difficult-to-formulate ingredient. Any time you put vitamin C with water, it starts to oxidize. So we made our formula waterless, and it's also the most potent formula on the marketplace.
I think a big part of what we're known for is that people come to us for flexible solutions. Since the very beginning, because I had only three products, we were always telling people, "Hey, our products play well with everything else. You own your routine; just buy what you need." And it's always been like that. We'll never be the kind of brand that says you have to use 10 steps from us to have the most success.
Allure: What do you consider your big beauty break?
Travis: I think it was when we launched PSA in every single Sephora store throughout Asia. To have had two brands at Sephora Asia was a really big deal. When you see both your brands on the shelves — that was really cool.
Allure: That's like when both your kids go to Harvard. How did you end up launching a second brand?
NT: About two years ago, Sephora Asia launched Allies of Skin in every single store. When I was in countries like Malaysia and Thailand doing training for the teams, I quickly realized that the cost of one Allies of Skin product, which is about $120 for moisturizer, is equivalent to about a third or a quarter of the monthly take-home salary of a typical retail employee in those countries. That really broke my heart.
So I came up with the idea for a range of products that were not only clinically efficacious but also really fun and really accessible. If you take a look at the packaging, we've made it super clear what the steps are; they're numbered right on the front of the bottle. This means you can go to Sephora, buy what you need, and know exactly where it fits in with the rest of your routine.
"We'll never be the kind of brand that says you have to use 10 steps from us to have the most success."
The name, PSA, is a play on public service announcement, but for us, it means Purposeful Skincare by Allies, because I think there's a lot of noise. And if you take a look at the price point for PSA, everything is below $38, and a lot of them are in that $20-to-$35 sweet spot. It's kind of a fun take on what skin care should be.
When I took this idea to Sephora Asia, I said, "Because of the trip, this is something that I think will do really well." And they — before they saw anything — gave me a contract. They were like, "Just go do it. We love it. We need it." They're always looking for new brands. But more importantly, I think they're looking for brands that fit a certain price point. And that skew a little bit younger because that's the next generation we are trying to cultivate. So I think we check a lot of boxes for them.
Allure: Something difficult here that you're perhaps not giving yourself credit for is the challenge of launching a product for all of Asia. There might be a perception in the West that this is a monolithic region when really, you're catering to a range of different tastes and spending habits.
Travis: Every single country has different regulatory needs. For example, in the U.S., it's a free-for-all. You can pretty much do whatever you want. But in Asia, it's very, very different. Singapore is more relaxed. Hong Kong has few restrictions. Then you have countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia that are really tricky. Like for example, in Thailand, you cannot use the phrase, "pigmentation corrector." And in Indonesia, you have to justify every single raw material you use. They don't recognize a bunch of the novel antioxidants that we use.
China is dropping its requirement for animal testing May 1, so I'm actually moving to Shanghai and setting up my China team. It's a big play for us. But what I've learned is, in China, you can only have six percent acid content, max. Probiotics are not allowed in China. And in Japan, I found out that anything above 0.2 percent of salicylic acid is considered toxic. So now I have Japanese formulations, I have Chinese formulations, and I have China-specific packaging because you have to list out every single antioxidant, which I haven't had to do before.
Allure: Do you have any advice for newer or aspiring founders as they think about funding their brands?
Travis: You have to be very purposeful with who you raise money from. Money is money is money, but it's about who you want on your cap table, meaning who you want as investors. What we've been able to do is strategically build our network of angel investors: people with private equity experience, people who have run their own hedge fund, people who run their own product-packaging companies, people who have helped beauty brands IPO. All these people are on our cap table. I call them my kitchen cabinet. I go to them for advice, and it has been very useful.
Allure: Anything else you recommend?
Travis: I decided to raise only what I needed. If you read Forbes or whatever, you think, "Oh my god, this person raised 20 million and he or she is like 31." So the temptation is to think, "Oh, OK, I need 20 million as well." But money's not free. If you raise 20 million, it's like 20 times the pressure. If you chase that large figure instead of just raising a little bit more than what you need, you're going to be in so deep. When you raise that much money, you have to spend it. And there's no way you can spend $20 million. You will be better off raising $5 million, getting a longer runway, and building traction — and then raising another $10 million when you really need it.
"You have to be very purposeful with who you raise money from."
Allure: Once you get funding, you have to invest it in ways that really matter.
Travis: Correct. Raising money allows you, first and foremost, to invest in the team, but it also allows us to look at who we want to be, the kind of brand we want to be, and what we want to stand for. We started off all serums and all mists with plastic packaging. Once we got funding, it was time to think, "Hey, wait a minute. I don't want to keep using single-use plastics."
All of our serums are now in really durable, high-quality glass packaging that will allow us to not only save about 20,000 kilograms of single-use plastic in a year. It also allows us to look into refillable packs in the future as we scale. We're also in the process of implementing an ongoing initiative where we plant a tree with every order, and we're attempting to go carbon neutral with every order. As we grow, we want to become more mindful.
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