Susie Wang, 24, sometimes feels disconcerted that she's not yet bringing in millions with her San Francisco natural skin-care company, Aqua Dessa. But Susie, we're here to tell ya, while your sales may still be under half a million, the notoriety you've received from the likes of Mademoiselle and the business press is nothing short of remarkable, when countless brands aren't getting any coverage at all.
Three years ago, Wang, then a math communications major/business minor at the University of California, Berkeley (school's on hiatus for now), borrowed $5,000 from her 19-year-old junior-pro-golfer brother, James, to begin researching ways to start a skin-care line. She could either go the easy route-hire a private-label manufacturer to mass-produce everything from moisturizers to shower gels-or start from scratch, which is what she did.
Near-residency in the medical library taught Wang that her original idea of using natural ingredients to make the "plain old stuff" like cleansers and toners wouldn't work, because when the ingredients she wanted to use-like vitamin C-are coupled with water, they oxidize and no longer exude their benefits. Eager to set Aqua Dessa apart from "companies using natural skin care just for aesthetic appeal," she explored further. "I studied every single herb, botanical and vitamin I wanted to use and formulated them to see how they'd counteract or react."
Wang also ensured product safety with clinical testing (the fee is "minimal"), and by 1999, she found herself in the final stages of formulation. Her boyfriend, Byung Kim, 24, who recently graduated with a bio-engineering degree, aided in the process. The quality of life at the time was endurable at best. "The $5,000 [loan] wasn't strictly for the company-it was for me to eat, too," says Wang. "[Byung] and I would buy a big sack of rice, boil it and just drink water."
Starvation was avoided when Wang got through the doors of department stores and beauty Web sites. After borrowing another $5,000 from her brother for packaging and labels (which Kim designed-now he's discovered his calling as an artist), she started cold-calling buyers. One Nordstrom buyer said yes immediately after applying Aqua Dessa's Green Tea Mask to her skin.
With her 100 percent natural- and organic-ingredients approach, Wang has landed Aqua Dessa on gigantic sites like beautyjungle.com as well as in specialty stores, including Sephora and Nordstrom. Earlier this year, a spa corporation offered her about $1.3 million for 100 percent interest in her company. But knowing that others in her position (like Hard Candy's Dineh Mohajer) have earned well into the multimillions from corporate buyouts, Wang feels Aqua Dessa's worth more-plus, it's her "baby."
Says Wang, "It's a shame a lot of products don't have much integrity. That's what I want Aqua Dessa to be known for."
Test It Out
What do buyers look for in a skin-care product? Cheri Botiz, cosmetic product market buyer for Southern California and Arizona Nordstrom stores, says she might test a product on her hand, but she primarily looks for uniqueness. "I would tell new companies to make sure they have a point of difference [in their] ingredients and packaging, and a marketing plan in place to help the product," she says. "A lot of vendors just create products and think 'I'll just present it, and because it's an excellent product, it'll sell.' "
Botiz stresses that your packaging and ingredient approach should depend on your target market. Mass-market audiences most likely won't know or care about obscure wonder-ingredients but will notice brighter packaging. A higher-end audience (which is what Wang is aiming for-she's already turned down a huge department store chain because it was mass-retail) probably prefers a classier look and special ingredients.
- Aqua Dessa, (800) 418-2658, www.aquadessa.com