Few successful entrepreneurs could claim to have more of a quintessential ‘rags to riches‘ story than Susie Ma. Her brand, Tropic Skincare, started life on a London market stall in 2004, where aged just fifteen, she was trying to find a way to pay the household bills.
Today, her ‘ethical first’ approach to brand building has seen her gain award nominations for entrepreneurship, work with Lord Alan Sugar – and build up a network of brand ambassadors up and down the country.
Real Business, (RB): When did you decide that you wanted to start a skincare business?
Susie Ma, (SM): It was about survival at first. I was fifteen and it was the summer holidays. I remember mum and I sitting on the sofa in our tiny flat surrounded by all these bills we couldn’t pay.
I kept thinking about the repercussions of not paying these bills, our hot water getting turned off or even getting kicked out of our home.
Mum was working seven day weeks in markets around London, so I thought to myself, how can I make some money to help?
When we lived in Australia, I learned how to make homemade body scrubs from my grandmother, who used natural ingredients like essential oils. You have to sell what you know – and that’s exactly what I started doing.
RB: What were the first steps you took towards building the business?
SM: I asked my mum for the last £200 we had and bought the cheapest jam jars I could find and filled about fifty of them up with the body scrub.
I even designed my own logo using the computers at my school and stuck them on using Pritt Stick!
Then I got on a train to Greenwich market to start selling. Even then I knew the best thing to do was to go out and actually let customers try out the product first. The first day, I made £950 – and that was only the beginning!
RB: How important was market research for you during the early days?
SM: The market stall was my market research! I tweaked my formulas based on the responses of the customers who tried the product.
It’s like how a good restaurant operates, you give things out to consumers, they try it, they give feedback, and you improve what you offer.
My market stall customers were always very honest, which was helpful. Even today, I still do the bundle deals for customers, just as I would have done on the market stall, it’s the best way to upsell to the customer.
RB: What’s been your strongest ace to play with Tropic Skincare?
SM: Definitely the authenticity of my backstory. A consumer feels much more connected to a brand if they know it has come from an authentic place.
Innocent Smoothies also started life on a market stall. I think we are all naturally drawn to businesses that have a human element to them, and especially so if they’re about more than just making money.
From day one, I’ve been very vocal about the ethics of my brand and how I use natural ingredients that are good for the body – and for the environment.
I’m also my own audience, I initially created the body scrub for myself and I think that makes my products all the more engaging for customers.
RB: Lord Sugar is part of the Tropic Skincare team (co-director) – what has he taught you?
SM: He’s taught me so much. Lord Sugar is a very shrewd businessman, he may be a billionaire, but he always looks at the bottom line on everything.
Lord Sugar and I both started the same way, self-made – with no funding.
The biggest thing he’s taught me is, “no matter how big your business gets, don’t accept face value prices, don’t let anyone take advantage of you just because your business is successful.”
RB: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to entrepreneurs who are growing their business but don’t want to lose their core values in the process?
SM: It’s important to retain that startup mindset even when you become really successful. Don’t ever let that go. Save everywhere and be tough about it.
Lord Sugar taught me that “every quid counts,” so If I can go with a new supplier to save even 50p on my packaging, that’s what I’ll do because that 50p that can be put into another area of the business.
Every month I go through the company expenses and renegotiate terms with suppliers where I need to – you’ve got to make them work for you, not the other way around.
RB: Why do you think your ambassador scheme has worked so well?
SM: I’m so proud of how far we’ve come with our Tropic Skincare ambassadors, we have over 14,000 of them around the UK – and they all started out as customers. It’s especially good for mums at home who want some extra income.
By being an ambassador for us, they can meet other mothers at the school gates, sell our great products, and make some extra money at the same time.
These women are our tribe, I love the fact that we’re empowering them to run their own businesses and be entrepreneurs. Not only are they our main route to market, but they also generate 98% of our business revenue…