When the Covid pandemic broke out in 2020, much of the world was in lockdown and turned to more online shopping.
But Christiani Indiana did the unexpected: She expanded her e-commerce business—offline.
Her beauty and personal care e-commerce startup, Sociola, had only two brick-and-mortar stores in Indonesia in 2019. By the end of 2021, that number had increased “10-fold,” she said.
“Many people told us that it was a very bold move to actually open an offline presence, when everyone else was closing their offline stores. [during the pandemic]” she added.
But it was a “well calculated” move for Social Bella, who manages Sociola.
“We know this is a time for us to really prepare … post-pandemic, to make sure we can serve more and more customers,” she added.
Looking far ahead turned out to be the right move for the 31-year-old. Her online and offline approach transformed her e-commerce startup into a multi-million dollar beauty conglomerate.
Since 2018, it has raised nearly $225 million, and has lined up an impressive list of investors that includes East Ventures, Jungle Ventures, Temasek, and Pavilion Capital.
Indiana, co-founder and chief marketing officer of SocialBella, tells CNBC Make It how she took her Jakarta-based startup to the next level.
Coping with fakes
The idea for Sociola came in 2015, when Indiana returned home to Jakarta, after studying in Australia.
The makeup junkie realized that in Australia, she has easy access to a wide range of beauty products from international brands. It was in stark contrast to Indonesia.
“There were a lot of options for me, but then I came back and there were basically none,” Indiana said.
“There wasn’t a platform that had it all – I had to find specific sellers on social media, ask friends who could help buy the product for you. [when they are] foreign.”
Making matters worse was the proliferation of fake makeup products online, sometimes sold at a “fraction” of the original price.
“I still remember vividly in my mind that there are so many like sellers online, especially on social media, who claim that their product is 99% authentic. What does that mean, 99% authentic?”
Indeed, locally manufactured forgeries are prevalent in Indonesia, due to cheaper labor costs and materials. According to a local report, Indonesian authorities seized $9 million worth of illegal cosmetic products in 2018 – double the amount from the previous year.
Indiana was shocked to see friends buying these products.
“It’s skincare, it’s makeup. It’s something you put on your skin. It’s weird to me,” she said.
Determined to create a place where consumers could find safe and authentic products, Indiana teamed up with his brother and a friend to start Social Bella, with an initial capital of $13,000.
“Since we started, we make sure that we only work with authorized distributors or brand owners,” said Indiana.
Building an ‘Ecosystem’
Sociola may have started as an e-commerce platform, but the trio had bigger dreams.
Social Bella has since expanded beyond offline shops — it’s also a distributor for beauty and personal care manufacturers worldwide.
“We become a collaborative partner for many global brands in Indonesia. We not only help them distribute their products in Indonesia, but we also help them understand the market,” said Indiana.
On top of that, the business also operates Soko, which Social Bella says is Indonesia’s largest online review service for beauty products. Soco has collected over 2.5 million reviews for nearly 36,000 products, The company added.
Indiana said the “beauty journey” for consumers goes beyond putting something in their shopping cart and checking out.
“We realized there are so many touch points that are really important … Finding the right products for you isn’t just going to the store and picking them up. You make sure you read reviews, talk to your friends, or Google first, ” she added.
“Soko makes sure they can access tons of product reviews before they buy the products.”
On top of that, the socialite also runs Bella Beauty Journal — a lifestyle website, and Lila, one Online retailer for mothers and babies.
It’s all part of building a business “ecosystem,” as Indiana calls it.
“We … want to serve more and more women, not only in beauty and personal care, but in other industries as well.”
The startup appears to be on the right track — it now has more than 30 million users across all its business units, Social Bella said, selling an inventory of 12,000 products from 400 brands worldwide.
Indonesia’s next unicorn?
Over the past two years, Social Bella has expanded aggressively, growing from just three Sociola stores in Indonesia in 2020 to 47 stores there and 16 stores in Vietnam today.
While much of the expansion took place during the pandemic, Indiana said it is always part of the plan for an e-commerce platform, lockdown or not.
“It’s really about creating a seamless omnichannel experience … because we believe we serve the same customer, whether they shop offline or online,” said the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia honoree.
“They can choose to click-and-collect or … she can even have the shopping delivered to her home. It ensures that she can shop however she wants.”