Glamazle Founder Neelam Keswani On Taking The Plunge In E-Commerce
Glamazle.com founder Neelam Keswani believes entrepreneurship must be experienced in order to be fully understood.
Neelam Keswani, founder of Glamazle.com, a Dubai-based online beauty shop, says that her morning routine is usually quite relaxing, in that it starts with her having a cup of tea and then her writing an affirmation for the day. She would then go on to read about new beauty launches, check her emails, and decide on what products featured on Glamazle need promoting, or whether her accountant has any cash-flow related advice for her, or if her social media intern needs a helping hand.
Now, all of this sounds as typical as one would expect from a founder of an e-commerce business, but it is hard to imagine that her mornings were as calm during the lockdown periods caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, It was when she witnessed her business growing by staggering 75%. Or when her accountant recorded an overall upward trend in revenue on a daily basis. Or when her social media intern informed her that their organic website traffic soared by 150% (to be more precise, the result was recorded in the period between February 2020 and July 2020). Or when her sales team noticed a shift in customer purchases from make-up to skincare, with a growth of 40% in sales for the skincare category, or a strong demand for fragrances with a 20% growth month on month.
“I have been in the e-commerce industry since 2009, and I strongly believe that if your business is not online, you will be outlined,” Keswani says, as she reflects on the lessons she learned over the last year. “2020 did force us all to go online, but the main lesson that I have learnt [since founding Glamazle] is to be extremely focused, and keep your eye on the trophy. Competition will come and go, but you need to run in your lane, and look straight. I am big on profit- ability, and I feel that if a business isn’t making profit in the first year, then it’s time to move on. Another important lesson I think everyone learnt is the importance of being flexible enough to pivot. 2020 was a testing year, and only because we changed our way of working did we achieve our annual target in five months.”
How has Keswani learnt to successfully navigate difficult times? Perhaps some credit should go to the degree she holds in marketing management from the University of Cambridge Business School. Maybe it’s also because she has been raised in a city that is known for “turning sand into gold” - Keswani has been a witness of the ascent of Dubai from what it used to look like in its early days (she remembers barbecuing at the spot where the Burj Al Arab now stands), to the global business and financial centre that it has become today. “The one lesson I have learnt from the rulers of Dubai is that ‘you are never too small to be noticed,’” Keswani says. “The other main lesson is the Emirate’s bounce-back attitude. We have seen the 2008 recession from which the UAE bounced back, and won the Expo 2020. The current pandemic was another great lesson to learn, because while the world was in lockdown for months, we stayed in lockdown for days only, and the government immediately started to release stimulus packages to help revive the economy. I know so many businesses which are now clocking 2019 numbers, and we are one of them as well.”
Glamazle.com offers over 300 brands and 10,000 stock keeping units, including cult, niche, and much-loved brands such as The Ordinary, Drunk Elephant, Glow Recipe, Elf, Tata Harper and many more. Keswani says the platform secures over one million monthly unique users, with 70% of these being repeat customers and representing a lifetime value of over AED10,000 per customer to the business.
Having recently launched a men’s section on the site, next on Keswani’s agenda is to launch a fundraising round in order to press ahead with her business expansion plans. Besides the fact that her business is doing extremely well, prospective investors will be pleased that Keswani has a strong track record in the e-commerce industry in the UAE, having worked for The Entertainer, Cobone, and ALshop prior to founding Glamazle. “I transformed into what I am today mainly at The Entertainer, because I went from being a web designer and developer, to Group Operations Director six years later,” she says. Keswani credits the founder of The Entertainer Donna Benton for teaching her that “the recipe for a successful company is in having happy employees.” (“She would pay everyone before she paid herself, and I suppose that’s the reason why she has so many people who have worked for her for over a decade.”) Keswani adds: “As a boss, if you are not empathetic with your employees, and don’t make them feel that they are important stakeholders of your business, it’s going to be a tough ride.”
At Cobone and Alshop, she learnt that profitability is more important than valuation. “When a company is burning more revenue than it is generating, the day of doom is very close,” Keswani says. “I think we need to go back to our business school lessons to do business in a more conservative manner. We survived the COVID-19 pandemic due to my conservative approach to business and cash flow management.”
This business acumen, coupled with a frustration at the lack of options with cosmetic retailers in the UAE, is what resulted in her founding Glamazle in February 2015. From then to today, Keswani says it has only been an upward journey for the venture. Looking back, she sees being an employee as a seasoned person who has a direction or path to follow, while a founder of new business is like a newborn baby who is learning to crawl, walk, and run at the same time. “Unlike an employee, the founder has several roles to play in a day,” she adds. “There are no holidays, and the founder is always working hard, not only to earn but to survive his company and to ensure the employees have a job.” In Keswani’s opinion, e-commerce has always been a growing sector in the region, and the COVID-19 outbreak just fast-tracked many small businesses to make the switch to digital in order to prevent the limitations obstacles that remote working would have imposed on their plans. “As a company, we were already in the sector, so we just needed to switch our mode of working. I felt the team was so much more produc- tive while staying home. I still ask the team to take one day off from the office and work from home to refocus and come back with fresh ideas.”
The lessons from the crisis have been plentiful, she adds, including insights on the purchase cycle, or adding new catego- ries, like health and nutrition and men’s grooming, due to a change in demand. “The pandemic got people together and inspired their empathy towards others– for example, I saw customers who were more patient and understood delays, while courier companies were the heroes who made moving shipments so much easier,” she says. “Pivot was the word of the sea- son- we were able to switch our focus and make changes pretty quickly since we are a small organization, but I did see a lot of big companies who jumped in the game late and did lose clients.” In spite of the COVID-19-in- fused boom, Keswani considers the e-commerce sector in the GCC to still be in a nascent stage. “Customers still don’t have confidence in ordering online with their card, since there is no actual information by banks or sites about fraud policies,” she explains. “I noticed that all major players don’t have PayPal as a payment option. Also, a ‘buy now, pay later’ feature is just entering the region, which should really help with changing buying patterns, and more customers getting confident to pay online with their card.”
As for Glamazle, her eyes are set on growing it in terms of markets covered and technologies used, such as artificial intelligence to enable the customization of customer experiences. In achieving that, she will fol- low the same pieces of advice she shares with others. “My only advice to entrepreneurs is to take the plunge,” Keswani concludes. “You won’t know whether you are going to sink or swim by sitting on the shore. Also, don’t abandon your traditional business school knowledge, because I feel that the years such as 2020 taught us that conservative ways of doing business are always going to help us survive tough times. Plan your move, and have a back-up ready. Failure is not a destination, but a learning path to success, so fail quick, fail cheap, but fail smart.”
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Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.