Leaving a well established corporate career is not easy. We chat to Elaine, Founder of Minimal about the uncertainties of starting over again.
When former lawyer Elaine Siu decided to set on her own in 2016 to launch an ethical e-shopping platform dedicated to beauty lovers, sharing her love for cruelty-free products was at the forefront of her mind.
Elaine was born in Hong Kong; her traditional upbringing encouraged her to be stuck in the mindset of working hard and focusing on being financially successful. At the age of 21 she took up a lucrative law career in Hong Kong and after 11 years of climbing the corporate ladder, Elaine decided to take a break, ““Everything looked great to people looking from the outside. But I was feeling more and more hollow inside, like I’m not fulfilling my calling. I started to crave for living a bigger life with a purpose and making a difference.”
She concluded it was time to move in a different direction and what followed was a slow transition over 2 years. She worked at a social enterprise and realised she was capable of launching a social business; a business to bring value to the world.
However, leaving a well established corporate career was not easy at the start. With the uncertainties of building an online platform and the risks of an unstable income, Hive Life chats to Elaine, the beauty in charge of Minimal to discuss things that matter to her today.
Can you tell us more about your background?
I’m born in Hong Kong and grew up in a traditional family where success was determined by how hard I studied and worked; getting rich was the philosophy of life. I studied abroad in Canada and U.K. I can’t do maths so in my mind and by elimination, law was a fast track to a high paid stable job. Everything was going as planned, and then it hit me, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel working in a corporate firm.
I quit my job before a potential promotion to be head of legal at an investment fund house. My real life was happening outside of the work day. I was involved with animal activism, the theatre and I started to write and decided to take a career break.
For a while, I was doing nothing and this time was valuable because it gives you that headspace to think about what you’re supposed to do. I worked at a social startup group, Green Monday and that changed my perspective on life; I misunderstood what a business was before.
In what ways did Green Monday change your views about running a business?
I thought business was driven by sales; which is my weakness. After working at Green Monday, I realised marketing is not about stretching the truth and hard selling. Just like activism, you’re selling values and ethics rather than a product or service.
As a startup, you can’t throw money into marketing, so you have to do it organically. If you have a strong value behind the brand, people will do for free and help to spread the word for you.
What happened after your time at Green Monday?
I wanted to start my own thing. However, I didn’t do any competitor research which I should have but I don’t want to be trapped in a competitive mentality.
Are you not worried about competition?
The beauty industry needs to move towards a cruelty-free market, so the more suppliers there are, the more demand there is. I can’t see why I can’t work with everyone as allies; I can’t absorb the whole market myself!
What are your thoughts to starting a new business?
I’ve been in a job where I worked 90 hours per week but building a business is harder. As an entrepreneur, you have to be every single role.
What are the pros and cons of running a micro business?
At the start, you don’t have the pressure to meet crazy sales target and can focus on remaining authentic; that’s the beauty of a micro business. Our customers know who is behind the brand and what we are trying to do. However, I too have to think about the costs, if not, the ship will sink in no time.
Have you thought about working with partners at the start?
Originally, I wasn’t sure if I could do this on my own. I joined Startup Weekend in Hong Kong and tried to get partners on board. However, at the end I learned that it’s going to slow me down getting everyone to agree with everything before we even start, so I just went solo. In the beginning my partners were mostly freelancers working on different pieces such as web design and development. It’s been a work in progress and steep learning curve. I have come to realise that I have to be hands on with everything and develop a concrete foundation before I can think about delegating.
What are the struggles you’ve encountered so far?
Working with people; being a manager in an office is different from managing your team. When you are taking the money out of your pocket, everything becomes personal. When you’re hiring and firing someone without a HR department, it’s a pain because you have to deal with the consequences.
I have seen the entrepreneurial community in other countries like Australia, Bali and Thailand but Hong Kong is the toughest. The rent and high operating costs can kill your business which means most entrepreneur’s at the starting stage look for idea’s that generates money first.
How do you get that many brands on your platform?
Without any sales or marketing background, I just poured my heart out to companies. I wrote a proposal with my story. It’s surprising how I managed to get 15 brands on board considering I started in mid 2016. Those who undersyand what I’m trying to do will get it right away; there isn’t much to be discussed and negotiated.
Any discoveries of beauty brands?
1. Lhami; great selection of hyrdating products without using beauty oils.
2. Be Genki; they have the best toners to correct pigments and hydrate the skin.
3. Woohoo Body; they offer an all-natural deodorant paste with none of the health hazards.