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Sabrina Tan

Become – High Profiles
April 15, 2016

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Sabrina Tan is sequestered in the back room of her Scotts Square store. She is getting her hair and make-up done to look her very best for the camera. After spending 30 minutes at Sabrina’s side, I realise that she is someone who knows herself deeply. In life, many people wear different masks, and they rarely reveal their true self in the presence of others. There is no distortion here. Sabrina is unobscured—her eyes are intense, severe, with a focused intelligence—never losing sight of the end. “I begin my day with a question: What if I die today? I plan a lot—before you know it, your life is over. Since young, I have been extremely morbid. I used to study obituaries, as I wanted to know how those people lived their lives. I always felt odd, like I didn’t really fit in with our education system. I always got bored easily. . . maybe it’s because I always had the end in the mind.”

Seeing Sabrina talk about death is a tonic experience—especially the way she confronts mortality without dithering frippery. Unknowingly, our conversation slowly shifts to the vicissitudes of life. “When I was 12, I asked my mum: ‘What is this life for?’ Looking back, I have checked off every milestone—I went to school, got a job after that, got married later, and then became a mother.” She adds, “My life was so perfect to many, but I decided to venture out on my own to start Skin Inc.” The urge for more may seem incomprehensible to some, but I know that feeling—the abiding desire to achieve self-actualisation.

In the past 8 years, Skin Inc has become a global brand with extraordinarily strong sales numbers that run into the tens of millions. Their custom-blended serums have become a panacea for skin care, so much so that customers swear by their products. She says matter-of-factly, “Everything about Skin Inc is fast, simple, fun, and effective. Our products are for people who don’t like to waste time, yet still want to look damn good.”

This petite woman, who gives the impression of being pocket-size, emits the coiled energy of a thoroughbred, and wields feminine power that regardless of gender, she can have it all and do it all. She speaks with a kind of prescriptive nature, never sounding overly didactic. “I want to be a motivation and inspiration to young women entrepreneurs, and show them it is possible to achieve their goals.”

An Intimate Conversation with Sabrina Tan

Founder & CEO, Skin Inc
Text by Wy-Lene Yap
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

WY-LENE YAP: What is your current state of mind?


WY-LENE: How has your background in IT help in your entrepreneurial journey?

SABRINA: In many aspects. The IT industry is very forward-thinking—we tend to really look into the future, and innovate constantly to stay ahead. There are always ways to do things better, and the accumulated experiences have helped to prepare me for my entrepreneurial journey. In addition, I worked at big MNCs like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and even Oracle that have matrix organisational structures, and I had to get internal and external stakeholders to agree on certain programmes, which pushed me to think critically of how I can create win-win situations. We also strategised before we went to market, and I learnt how to anticipate different scenarios.

WY-LENE: Is marketing computers similar to marketing skin care products?

SABRINA: I see marketing in the beauty space as something very intimate and close to my heart. To me, skin care products have to be functional and emotive. So if I were to compare computers with skin care products, ultimately, if you bring a certain value to the consumer and showcase that value proposition, they can be marketed in the same fashion.


WY-LENE: Skin Inc is well-known for its custom-blended serums. How long did it take from idea to implementation?

SABRINA: Six months.

WY-LENE: That’s fast.

SABRINA: Yeah. I could have been faster, but my products are made in Japan. [laughs]

WY-LENE: On average, how many serums do you sell per day?

SABRINA: Probably in the thousands.

WY-LENE: Can men use the serums too?

SABRINA: Definitely! The active ingredients can be customised according to each person’s skin type. We have an online quiz called Skin Identity Check, which is able to diagnose specific skin problems in 3 different areas. Thereafter, we will prescribe three serums that address your skin’s needs. Basically, we can customise up to 84 different concoctions because your skin maybe drier in the winter or more oily in the summer. Through this simple process, we want to make things easy for the consumers.

WY-LENE: How many stores do you have in Singapore?

SABRINA: Two. Sephora also carries our products, so we have 15 retail points of distribution in Singapore.

WY-LENE: And globally?

SABRINA: Ten stores. We have more than 300 distribution points globally.

WY-LENE: What strategies did you use to grow your business?

SABRINA: I have always looked beyond brick-and-mortar stores and today, with our ecommerce site, we ship to more than 6o cities around the world. I also leveraged on technology to develop our own in-house capabilities.

WY-LENE: It’s been 8 years since you started Skin Inc. What are the important lessons you have learned?

SABRINA: I think I have made some right decisions to get where we are today, but I am still learning every day. I have a better understanding of how to manage my time and energy as I play many different roles in my life. I am very much an achievement-oriented person.

WY-LENE: How do you ensure your organisation and its activities are aligned with your core values?

SABRINA: You’re going to be freaked out by my answer, but all of the company’s artwork and social media posts need to be approved by me because I am very particular about creative direction, visuals and tone of voice. I’m just OCD. [laughs]

WY-LENE: What is your ultimate vision for Skin Inc?

SABRINA: To heal skin, and that’s what we do every day. I want to be the Apple of skin care too.


I want women to have more confidence in themselves.

WY-LENE: Apart from skin problems, what other problems would you like to solve?

SABRINA: I want women to have more confidence in themselves and Skin Inc helps to celebrate each person’s uniqueness and individuality. We encourage customers to share about themselves because each serum is tailor-made to their own skin. We are not a company that pushes out a new product because it is the latest trend. Instead, we embrace a customer’s ever-changing skin care needs. Recently, we launched our Optimizer Voyage Tri-light, and we didn’t want to launch the yellow light first, then the blue light and finally, the red light. Do customers have to buy 3 different lights? We want to have everything in one device that penetrates the skin cells to stimulate them. It is important to us that our customers are paying for the best investment.

WY-LENE: How are your sales numbers at the moment?

SABRINA: Tens of millions.

WY-LENE: Any plans to go public?

SABRINA: I can’t give you a definite answer at this point but if I intend to list, it has to make sense for the company.

WY-LENE: Are you looking to develop your own makeup products down the line?

SABRINA: It’s not in the plan. . . but I never say never. . .

WY-LENE: What is the secret to having flawless skin?

SABRINA: To have good skin, you need to hydrate. I am also a huge believer of overnight face masks. Treatment wise, I would recommend our Oxy Miracle. It is a 2-step treatment that starts with an Oxy Miracle Peel, followed by a calming infusion of oxygen, customised serum cocktail and Onsen water, which helps your skin become smoother and brighter.

WY-LENE: What is your leadership style?

SABRINA: When you have to deal with people, there is so much you can control. I want to inspire and motivate my staff in a way where they feel empowered to make a decision on their own. That aside, communicating my vision, aligning their goals accordingly, and keeping them in check regularly are important as a leader. Aside from work, I am also pretty close to my direct reporting staff, and I act as a mentor as well as a friend.

WY-LENE: What’s the single most important thing one can do to be an effective leader?

SABRINA: First, you need to know yourself deeply and be introspective. Second, you need to put together a team that complements you.

WY-LENE: What is your theory of human motivation, and how does your hiring process fit with that view?

SABRINA: I hire people based on their aptitude and passion. They need to be very resilient too—it’s a very tough market when you combine beauty, retail, and ecommerce. Hence, we move at a very rapid pace and push boundaries constantly—we don’t believe in timelines.

WY-LENE: When faced with two equally qualified candidates, how do you determine whom to hire?

SABRINA: I will hire both. You know why? Good talent is very hard to come by.


I think a lot of problems are not complex in nature, but it’s because of the people.

WY-LENE: How do you make decisions on complex issues?

SABRINA: I think a lot of problems are not complex in nature, but it’s because of the people. [laughs] So, once I address the people component, then it’s not that complex anymore. People ask me if it is very difficult to build a global brand, and how did I have the courage in the first place? I saw a gap in the market and the value I could provide for my customers. I wanted stores in major cities around the world because I believed that urbanities would love us since we’re building a skin movement. As it turns out, our customers are our best advocates and they swear by our products. We have won close to 80 awards now, and a lot of global influencers endorse our brand.

WY-LENE: How do you bounce back quickly from setbacks?

SABRINA: I go to sleep and once I wake up, I have more energy to think of solutions.

WY-LENE: What is your definition of beauty?

SABRINA: Beauty comes from within and it’s all about being confident.

WY-LENE: What does success mean to you?

SABRINA: Being able to build a movement, and replicate that in various geographies. I am very interested to know why people do what they do, how they reach a life-changing decision to grow something, and stick with it—because that shows a tremendous amount of courage. Right now, I am creating a Female Boss movement in Singapore, and I plan to hold a 2-day Female Boss symposium in July. I will be bringing in successful women leaders from around the world to share their stories as well as partner with some brands. There seems to be a lack of support in Asia for women, so I want to build a community where women can be inspired and equipped with the right knowledge and skills. There will also be mini workshops to understand what goes behind the scenes—for example, how does Velda Tan take a flat lay photo? Apart from that, Velda will also be speaking on how to build a sustainable ecommerce business.

WY-LENE: What is something you believe that nearly no one agrees with you on?

SABRINA: I think many people disagree with me on a lot of things. [laughs] Personally, disagreements boil down to differences in experiences and life stages.


WY-LENE: What is your greatest fear?

SABRINA: I am quite a fearless person. When I first started my business, people would ask me: What if you fail? If I do, then so be it.

I don’t think you actually fail because every time you do something, you gain.

WY-LENE: Failure is a social construct.

SABRINA: Yes, I don’t think you actually fail because every time you do something, you gain.

WY-LENE: Do you fear death?

SABRINA: No, you just cross the horizon into a different dimension.

WY-LENE: What is your greatest weakness?

SABRINA: My greatest weakness could be my greatest strength. There are always two sides to a coin. Perhaps, my own self? I constantly need to believe in a cause, and sometimes that might not make the most commercial sense.

WY-LENE: What is your most marked characteristic?

SABRINA: My determination.

WY-LENE: Which living person do you most admire?

SABRINA: He’s dead. I love Steve Jobs.

WY-LENE: What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

SABRINA: Having two kids. That aside, I value self-actualisation and I want to be the best in everything I do.

WY-LENE: You come from a family of entrepreneurs. Do you think your children will follow in your footsteps?

SABRINA: I don’t know. Just the other day, I asked my daughter if she would like to intern at my company in the future and she said, “No, I would like to volunteer at the animal shelter.” She’s a huge animal activist. [laughs

WY-LENE: Finally, what kind of mum are you?

SABRINA: I am quite laid-back. If my children need to fall in order to walk, then they have to—I want them to be independent. Sometimes, my kids will say: “Mummy, you are not here.” And I tell them I can't be there all the time due to work. I prepare my children for the possibility that I might disappear the next day because I want them not to take life, or me, for granted.