It come as no surprise to learn that businesses are constantly reinventing themselves to stay relevant, where “brick-and-mortars” are becoming “click-and-mortars” and fresh strategies are needed to remain valuable — those who cling stubbornly to routines from the past are quick to go extinct.
A prominent businessman in Singapore, Dr Theyvandran, put it bluntly. “A business cannot stay stagnant. If it stays stagnant, it dies.” Over the course of my research, I have spoken to business owners big and small who assert a strong mantra of adaptation, whether they work as a tattoo artist in Baltimore or a bookseller in Brazil.
Nazlin Hilal runs a very small business in Singapore called Doll Me Up Cosmetics, and shows us how even little ones like herself have to endlessly and energetically rethink their business models to stay in the game.
Business owners sometimes struggle to identify turning points in their business. Every day might feel like a turning point with tiny significant evolutions propelling their journey to the next stage. My interviewing style has adapted to unearth these hidden patterns, as the question still lingers curiously in my mind: how do you get from “here” to “there”?
For Nazlin, there were a number of defining turning points. She started as a freelancer teaching make-up techniques to private customers – this was a side project that she simply enjoyed. Soon, however, she noticed that demand was growing and she was getting contracts from corporate clients (introduced to her from her private customers), so she formalized her workshops to serve the needs of a wider audience. Finally, Nazlin took the magnificent and empowering leap into designing and producing her own line of cosmetics.
Nazlin was a newbie to industrial manufacturing and had to experiment with the process. For example, her make-up packaging initially looked bare-boned and uninspiring to keep prices as low as possible, but she eventually enlisted a graphic designer to create a stylish look for her products with a more pleasing appearance for her brand.
Over the year, there were many small steps that pivoted her business from one day to the next. One of her strategies was to create a variety of channels to interact with her customers instead of relying on one channel.
I cannot just concentrate on just selling the products. We have to do something in order for the products to sell. That was when we realized that we have to do constant workshops. When students come for the workshop, they use the products on themselves. Because of that, they will buy, because of that, they will say, eh, I like this and I like that. And when they start using, it is a continuous thing. Next time, they come back to get other things. Especially when they use the powder. Powder is something we should normally use, right? Every month, they will always come back for their powder.
After 7 years, the latest and most exhilarating development happened when Nazlin invested in equipment to produce her own lipstick range. Doll Me Up is now the beaming mama of a dazzling new brand called Boneca (Portuguese word for doll).
Customers can experiment with personalized shades of lipstick to match their wildest dreams. Not only can they create their own colours and textures, they can also produce small quantities (with customized designs on the packaging) to give their friends as gifts. Every woman can now be in charge of their own glamorous style rather than depend on a faraway corporate structure to dictate it for them.
At the Doll Me Up studio, Nazlin shares her vast knowledge with her customers, and Boneca is a fun winner for everyone who uses it.
But, isn’t it expensive to grow a business? Small business owners often lament that it is hard it is to get a bank loan when starting out; they simply don’t get taken seriously without a credit history.
Nazlin did not even consider taking a bank loan.
For myself and my husband, we try not to take loans and all that. Because of that, we can grow, but slowly. If we took a loan or something, we could probably do a lot more things faster. But because we prefer to keep it safe, that’s why we have to have the savings before we can actually go further.
But, isn’t a business all about taking risks to reach your aspirations?
Of course, in business, you have to take risks, but we try not to push ourselves too far too soon. Sometimes it is very tempting when you see a lot of customers want this and that, so we think, maybe we should do this and that. But we also have to keep in check the cash flow and all these things. We said: Okay, never mind, we do it slowly. We will grow, we can grow, but instead it’s just slightly slower.
Down the road, Nazlin envisions that the spouses and children of her customers will be able to socialize at a Doll Me Up cafe while the mummies take workshops and shop at her studio. As a mother and a wife, Nazlin intuitively recognizes the family responsibilities that her customers handle and, in that spirit, she is determined not to steam-roll her own family life with her business.
I want to grow the business, but maybe at the moment it’s limited by– it’s because my kids are still very young and I want to have more time with them. If I were to embark on that, probably, I would need to be out of the house more often. Maybe that itself is stopping me from doing that at the moment. Me and my husband will say: “Okay, maybe five years later when kids are slightly bigger maybe I can try to do that.”
Nazlin’s vision for Doll Me Up includes the paramount happiness of her children. Businesses are not (and do not have to be) autonomous, disembodied entities that seek world domination at any personal price — at least that’s not the vision behind Doll Me Up. Nazlin’s business is intimately and thoughtfully attuned to the human rhythm of living well, and sustainably.
How does Nazlin balance the expectations of providing spectacular quality to her customers as well as her family at home? She shares with us the little tricks she uses in the next and final chapter of this feature!
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners with their trades around the world, sharing their views on business and life. You can catch all the posts on Facebook and Instagram @ShopkeeperStories. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Starting a business
Chapter 2: Creating a product and brand