In half a year, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Diane Younes moved halfway across the world, spotted a gap in the beauty industry and launched her own company. This is how she did it.
Diane Younes, founder of on-demand beauty service, Sponge, has lived a whirlwind life. Born in Paris to a Lebanese father and a German mother, she grew up in London before making her way to New York to finish high school. She went on to complete two law degrees, one in Montreal and the other in New York, and upon graduation was recruited to Morgan Stanley’s Legal and Compliance Department, where she verified the legality of trades. In 2016, when her husband was offered a position in Hong Kong, the couple jumped at the chance to relocate, and Diane took the opportunity to not only start a new life in a new city, but also to finally fulfil her dreams of being an entrepreneur.
Though Diane’s story with Sponge officially began in April 2016, when she arrived in Hong Kong, her love of makeup had sprouted much earlier. From a young age, she deeply admired the glamorous styles of her Middle Eastern relatives, “Their makeup is beyond. It’s a painting, in the best possible sense of the word,” Diane says reverently. Fascinated by these looks, she started teaching herself how to put on makeup when she was only nine years old. “And ever since then, I was obsessed,” she says.
This love of makeup led to her developing a routine whilst living in New York: getting her hair, makeup, eyelash extensions and nails done at salons on a weekly basis. So, the first week she landed in Hong Kong, before having even found an apartment, Diane was already hunting around the city for a spot to continue this ritual. Initially, she was baffled by the high prices that salons and spas charged for the service, but she soon put two and two together and realized that the price was a direct result of the high rents in Hong Kong. Spotting a gap in the market and inspired by her own needs, the idea for Sponge was born: an on-demand, on-location professional beauty service that goes to customers, whenever and wherever. This not only saves customers the hassles of travelling to a salon, it also makes the service more affordable as no rent cost is required.
Despite her excitement over the idea, Diane knew that she had to ensure that there really was a need for this kind of service, and that by creating her startup, she would be solving an actual problem, not an imaginary one. Having just moved to the city, Diane had no friends or connections, but she didn’t let that stop her. Instead, she chose a peculiar yet effective form of market research: asking complete strangers for their opinions. “I was that person going up to people in cafes, like talking to women with impeccable hair or makeup, saying, ‘Hey, where did you get your hair and makeup done? Where did you get your lashes done? Are you happy with this service? Would you prefer that we come to your home?’” Diane recalls, grinning. She says the people she met were very enthusiastic about the idea of an on-demand beauty service, and it was a fun way for her to get to know new people.
Satisfied with the response, Diane set out on her journey to create Sponge. Some things went extremely smoothly in the beginning, such as the registration. “Setting up a company here in Hong Kong is ridiculously easy. It was just one day, boom, I had my company. I even did it online,” Diane says, laughing. Other aspects of creating the company, however, proved to be more of a challenge. One in particular was finding good web developers in Hong Kong. As Diane wanted the booking process to be simple and smooth, complete with confirmation emails to clients and automatic scheduling for the stylists, she needed a skilled team of web developers. She soon discovered that was hard to come by in Hong Kong and had been a recurring difficulty for startups in the city. In the end, she was recommended a team of web developers by a friend who worked in the same field.
In Diane’s opinion, the buzzing network is definitely one of the best aspects and biggest advantages of being an entrepreneur in Hong Kong. “You actually get to grow this network so easily here, because for one, it’s small, but also, people are very willing to share,” she says. Many of the entrepreneurs she has met harbour the, “I was helped before, let me help someone, too” mentality, especially those in the female entrepreneurial scene, which she finds particularly welcoming and helpful. She says that she now has various Whatsapp groups with different entrepreneurs, many of whom have become her friends, and they are each others go-tos when they need advice. “There are a lot of things I could not have done without them,” she says.
Now, Sponge is a few months away from its second anniversary, having officially launched in November 2016, a little more than half a year after Diane moved to Hong Kong. On the Sponge website, customers can choose from a range of hairstyles (sleek and straight, beachy waves, etc.), makeup looks (cat-eye, contour, etc.), and lash extensions (J-curl, C-curl, etc.), pick a time slot, type down their address, and then wait for the beauty professionals to come to them. During the appointment, customers can further customize their looks based off the examples on the website to suit their needs better, as Diane explains, “We’re not here to put you in a mould, we’re here to cater to you and what you want, just to make you feel better, and make your life easier. We want to make you the best version of you, so that you feel beautiful, but still like yourself.”
As Sponge continues to grow in Hong Kong, Diane is already thinking ahead to adding more services and expanding the business to other countries. “I think of Sponge not as a small business, I think of it as a startup, and a startup is a model you can replicate in multiple cities.” Diane concludes, “This is, to me, just the beginning.”
Feature image by Michelle Proctor